George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police officers in late May has sparked mass protest across the country. These uprisings have thrust an old demand into the forefront of the political left’s consciousness: the defunding of police departments, and synchronous reinvestment of public funding into social services, particularly into communities long overlooked by state and local budgets. Within the District, the push for this policy has metastasized into the Defund MPD campaign, which has been spearheaded by a legion of Black-led organizations and bulwarked by a who’s who of left-wing organizations in the DMV (including MDC DSA). The rapid adoption of a clear policy demand has ensured that active protests maintain focus and purpose – the Achilles’ heel of most mass left-wing movements.
Police defunding is hardly a new proposal - the idea has always existed on the fringes of left-wing ideology. However, centrist reverence for the police has always made it a noxious policy for an American left desperate for a seat at the bargaining table. But given the newfound strength of progressive politicians and ideology – enriched by a new protest movement which has drawn renewed interest in the idea – the proposal to Defund the police has never had this much potential for actualization.
The left’s rapid deployment of this proposal has forced the liberal establishment to scramble for a less radical alternative. National Democrats acted quickly to pass a police reform bill; a step in the left’s direction but hardly satisfactory to our goals. Regardless, the lack of bipartisan consensus means that any significant change for policing systems will have to be pursued locally – a political channel that, if less sweeping, the political left is better positioned to act on.
So in DC, protestors have created a home base for the local campaign on a strip of land directly across from the White House on 16th Street. Protest activity was so concentrated that it prompted the national guard to scramble onto the streets of Washington – a bluff that protestors resiliently called. Mayor Muriel Bowser, never one to shy away from a spotlight, decided to emblazon this prime strip of downtown Washington with a gesture of support towards the movement - installing a large (and media friendly) message to the world – “BLACK LIVES MATTER.“
A fine image for the national press, but for many aware of Mayor Bowser’s political record, the gesture reeked of performative distraction. A review of the Mayor’s record on policing in the District primed many to scrutinize any attempt at leading on this issue; unanswered questions about prior police killings, a consistent increase of MPD’s budget over her time in office, and a clear aversion to entertaining even a debate on police defunding have marred her capacity to be an honest broker for policy reform. And so, the Mayor’s actions were interpreted by the local left as a shameless attempt at recuperation; insulting to activists and organizers who have staked time and effort in building a real effort to enact policy that would truly act on the principle of “Black Lives Matter.”
Local leaders acted more substantively, but also failed to address the core demands presented by protestors: the District Council passed a reform bill that, while meaningful, falls short of the Defund MPD platform (more on this bill can be read in DCist’s impressive review of the legislation). But if this package marks some improvement from the status quo, it falls short of protestor demands to radically reimagine the way policing is handled in the District.
Unsatisfied by these legislative nonresponses to core demands, protesters have continued their occupation of downtown Washington. Thankfully, the push for change has still found itself at the forefront of politics in the city. Given the tendency for left-wing demands to be sidetracked into obscurity, how has the local left been so successful in sustaining this effort?
Rather than allow their demands to swirl endlessly in the political maelstrom, organizers have taken to direct action to make sure their demands for radical change are unavoidable by local leaders. This is the work of an armada of organizers, activists, and everyday citizens who have consistently mobilized, in diverse and unique ways, to prevent both the public and political leaders from letting this issue fade out of the political consciousness.
One of the first, and most impressive, examples of direct action taken took place on June 7th. As Muriel Bowser was happy to take a leading role in the national media circus after painting the street outside of the White House (going so far as to entertain an appearance on TMZ…), agile agitators acted swiftly to stymie her egress from local accountability: a team of artists affiliated with Black Lives Matter DC amended the sanctioned yellow lettering on 16th street, adding “ = DEFUND THE POLICE” to the end of the Mayor’s message. This denied Bowser the aerial image that may have otherwise allowed her to position herself as an ally, rather than impediment, to significant police reform in the city. The speed at which these artists took to amending the message not only inhibited Bowser’s evasion of local policy discussion, but tied the policy of “Defund MPD” to the already established consensus that “Black Lives Matter” in the eyes of a larger public. This action is a master-class in how culture jamming (the act of subverting mainstream cultural institutions to fuel resistance efforts) can be utilized by political forces to not only rally and popularize fringe policy, but also stay off recuperation from forces allergic to change.
But that action is just one example from the range of ingenious methods deployed by on-the-ground organizers. Aside from sustaining consistent protests for a month straight on the street of Washington (courageously organized in the face of military occupation and a brutal MPD), local organizers have orchestrated novel operations that have forced local leaders to address Defund MPD as an idea. In one example, No Justice No Pride and Black Lives Matter DC organized a “block party” in front of Mayor Bowser’s house on 6/13; the action identified the need for police reform not only as an issue in its own right- but deftly tied it to issues facing the queer, trans, and latinx communities as well. In addition to creating a place of joy and celebration that needled the serenity of Washington’s well-to-do, organizers set up a testimony booth (created by local artist group Omi Collective to record testimony that was contributed to the District Council’s hearing on police defunding.
A review of local actions reveals a whole host of local actions organized by a wide range of groups across the city. In addition to sustaining mass demonstrations since protests began, Freedom Fighters DC has held vigils at protest sites to ensure the purpose of these demonstrations is not lost in the fog of war. Black Lives Matter DC has taken to ensuring BLM Plaza is a safe home base for those standing off against the state - turning themselves into a vector for donations and supplies (in addition to being all-around heralds for maintaining attention) that sustains demonstrations across the city. And local journalists (both official and upstart) have continued to maintain feeds and records of direct actions to ensure that these demonstrations are not evaporated from larger public consciousness.
The examples provided above are hardly exhaustive, but all of this sustains a unified front and consistent message in ensuring that policy action – radical restructuring of the city’s budget – remains a a core demand that the city must meet, else face the wrath of consistent and sustained unrest. All of this creates an opening for real policy change. But protest activity alone, if useful in keeping a path for reform open for political operators, will not be able to carry policy to the finish line. Yet, activists have found themselves capable of operating in the world of policy dialogue as well. In late June, protestors affiliated with the Sunrise Movement showed up at Councilmember Charles Allen and Elissa Silverman’s homes to demand their position on police defunding be put on record. Elissa Silverman’s cold response to protestors was surprising, given her otherwise progressive legislative record. Charles Allen, however, was willing to engage with activists and promise to introduce a plan to initiate MPD defunding. Where elected officials seemingly disappeared and were reluctant to lead, let alone engage, a furious public, these actions demonstrate how to get political leaders on record.
And this effort created a short-term gain. Charles Allen did propose $ 15 million in cuts to the department’s proposed budget on the 24th. However, a review of his proposal reveals that this would still mark an increase of MPD’s budget of close to $ 3 million. Stop Police Terror Project DC quickly responded with a clear and direct dismissal of not only Charles Allen’s proposal, but went on to castigate the gamut of city leaders for their abdication of engagement on the issue as a whole. Sunrise would go on to show up at Charles Allen’s home again on June 26th, keeping pressure on local leaders who attempt to placate, rather than satisfy, civic demands. The sort of rapid response and analysis provided by SPTP DC, and swift mobilization on the part of organizing outfits such as Sunrise, show elected officials that they will not be let off the hook for weak responses. This sort of analysis and follow-up is critical for making sure legislators know that activists will not be easily fooled by legislative wizardry.
To Charles Allen’s credit, he did end up releasing an extended Twitter thread on June 29th that explained the reasoning and justification behind his proposal. This is a credit both to Allen, who has made good on taking protestors seriously and working to engage them honestly, and to activists themselves who made sure that councilmembers such as Allen would not be able to easily pull themselves off the hook. More work needs to be done to analyze this proposal, and this decrease in the budget will need to be pushed further in future legislation, but the event demonstrates that the Defund movement is not only capable of staging mass protests that maintain public interest, but also capable of making sure legislative channels can and will be monitored to deliver sought objectives.
But where do we go from here? Critically, it is not enough to execute direct action targeted at elected officials. Allies of the Defund MPD campaign need to ensure there are electoral consequences for political leaders who fail to take these demands seriously. Luckily, this channel is already being built – MDC DSA-endorsed Council at-large candidate Ed Lazere has noted his support for defunding the police. Along with Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George, DC is set to add two legislators to the council who are on record for supporting police defunding.
This suggests that there is a real opening to deliver on the objectives of the Defund MPD campaign. But this will require patience. I have been reminded many times over the past few weeks that reform is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s an uncomfortable consolation, as current policing methods have drastic and horrific effects on some of the most vulnerable in our city – not least black and brown communities who bear the highest cost to current policy. But lasting change will require an expansive and dexterous movement that is still being built out; and at the moment, the movement is just not capable of delivering on its larger aims (drastic funding cuts to MPD, or police abolition entirely) in the short-term.
But there’s real hope for future change – prior actions taken by the wide range of organizers and organizations show that this movement is in it for the long haul. Additionally, organizations acting to train new leaders in standing up for racial justice and all hosts of issues (such as Sunrise, Black Youth Power 100, and Freedom Fighters DC) will ensure that the Defund campaign (and left-wing campaigns in general) have fresh, agile, and experienced leaders coming down the pipeline, ready to lead us to the change we’re all looking for. So much work needs to be done, but the solidarity and bravery exhibited within the recent Defund Campaign gives me hope that this is a fight we can win.