The Message Is the Movement: Thoughts on Police Defunding

Bill Mosley has been a member of DSA and a predecessor organization for 32 years. He has participated in anti-police violence activities but is not a member of the Metro DC DSA Defund MPD campaign or other police-reform groups.

The election-day defeat of a voter initiative in Minneapolis to overhaul law enforcement in the city might give the “Defund/Abolish Police” movement cause to rethink its message, strategy, and ultimate objectives. The initiative faced headwinds after its language was struck down by a court just as early voting was about to start. Though the initiative was reinstated by the state Supreme Court, it went on to attract heavy opposition funded by wealthy donors. Still, the substance of the initiative failed to convince enough voters that it would be a net positive for public safety, including many communities of color that suffer from aggressive policing.

As the saying goes, failure is an orphan, and hardly anyone within the movement wants to accept blame for the initiative’s defeat — as well for police critic (and DSA member) India Walton's loss in the Buffalo mayoral race (and after she won the Democratic primary, usually a guarantee of success in that very blue city). In other November races around the country, some critics of the policing status quo lost and others won, and policing wasn’t the only issue at stake — as it certainly was not in Walton’s, who was ganged up on by a coalition of defenders of Buffalo’s status quo over her broader progressive agenda. But it is telling that even an advocate of policing reform such as Larry Krasner, who was re-elected as Philadelphia district attorney, explicitly rejected the idea of defunding police. The Minneapolis Initiative, which 56% of the city’s voters opposed, ran up against concerns that the proposed new Department of Public Safety wouldn’t be as effective at combating crime as traditional police.

What’s slowed down the march for the broader Defund movement? Part of the problem might be the movement’s messaging, as there’s been disagreement and confusion over what to call the movement. From the beginning there was a debate over what “Defund” meant. Was it to completely defund the police — which would be tantamount to abolition — or simply reduce police funding to right-size law enforcement, shrink its portfolio and turn some of its duties over to mental health professionals or other agencies whose stock in trade wasn’t lethal force? Exactly what would the end result be?

Confusion in selling this message enabled police departments, police unions and their allies to define a movement that struggled to define itself, and to cast many Democrats — even Joe Biden — as abolitionists when they were anything but.

I suspect that the greatest concern over the Defund/Abolish movement came from the general public, concerned about the impact that shrinking or eliminating police forces would have on safety. Many of these concerns were raised within communities of color, the very communities whose members were victims of aggressive over-policing of the kind employed by Floyd’s killer. With crime a persistent problem, many wanted more police, not less. People of all colors, in all neighborhoods, had to wonder: If police departments are abolished, who do you call when mugged or assaulted? When your house is being invaded? Not all targets of policing are George Floyds; there are truly dangerous people with guns out there.

Notwithstanding the Defund/Abolish movement’s recent setbacks, the notion of shrinking the role of police or even eliminating armed police altogether represents a revolution in thinking about public safety. Not long ago, certainly during the nationwide crack epidemic of the early 1990s but even well afterward, there was a general consensus — even among liberals and communities of color — that police departments needed to be bigger and more aggressive. Politicians from the city level up to the federal government outflanked each other by showering police departments with more money to expand their ranks and outfit themselves with more expensive equipment, including military-grade ordnance. The now-infamous 1994 federal crime bill that Joe Biden has apologized for supporting grew out of this rush to supersize and militarize the police.

This notion that certain urban and suburban neighborhoods — mostly populated by Blacks and Latinx – were to be treated as war zones had its critics, mostly on the Left (and the MDC DSA chapter, while not prioritizing law enforcement issues over the long term, did critique over-aggressive and racist policing in drug enforcement in a 1990 platform document). But across the political spectrum politicians rushed to fulfill police departments’ wish lists — until the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer fueled the Black Lives Matter movement and began to turn the consensus around.

But even before Brown’s murder, there was a growing realization that police were not always Officer Friendlies — folks with a badge and a smile ready to lend a helping hand. Historians documented the origins of present-day police in antebellum slave patrols, from which they made a seamless transition into enforcing Jim Crow race laws. From there, through ignoring (or participating in) lynchings, through assaulting peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama, through the videotaped beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, through George Floyd, it took willful ignorance to deny that there was a strong thread of racism running through police departments in much of the United States. The persistence of racist policing survived even the hiring of large numbers of officers of color in big-city departments beginning in the 1960s.

But for many who were sympathetic to the critics of racist policing, Defund/Abolish may have gone too far. With crime rates rising around much of the country, many questioned if now is the right time to reduce the size and funding of police departments. Surely mental health professionals were better equipped to respond in many cases, but who was to decide which ones? If, for instance, a man is clearly mentally ill but also is carrying a gun or knife, do you send an unarmed psychiatrist to face him?

Before last year’s outburst of protests, there was a rough consensus reached on some police reforms (not always joined by police and their unions) — body cameras, training in de-escalation, restrictions on when police can use force and increases in nonconfrontational face-to-face interaction with communities. But a problem with more fundamental restructurings of public safety lies with the police themselves. As police critics have pointed out, law enforcement has insinuated itself into roles where armed force is unnecessary and arguably harmful — in public schools as “resource officers,” controlling traffic, interacting with the homeless and other situations. Over many decades police forces have become so baked into public life that disentangling them will be a challenge. “Call the police” has become the default for any situation remotely connected to safety.

If you eliminate the police, what takes their place? Consider the experience of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) in Seattle in 2020 (also known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone or CHAZ). Distrust of the police following the murder of Floyd and others at the hands of police led citizens of the Capitol Hill neighborhood to demand uniformed officers stay away. The police initially complied, shuttering a precinct station. How well the area’s brief police-free existence worked varied depending upon the source, but the deliberate anarchism of the effort led some residents to wish someone responsible to the public was in charge. During the month-long protest there were four shootings, one of which was fatal. Some of the CHOP security volunteers carried guns, which led some residents to question whether this was preferable to armed police who at least had some training in using them. Eventually the police moved back in and reasserted control.

I would argue that police abolition, defunding, reform, rethinking, whatever spin one puts on it, is inseparable from broader social change. Much of what has come to be called “crime” stems from a broken society, of millions of people — mostly Black and Brown — being written off as second-class citizens.

Changes more thoroughgoing than mere police reform will be needed to elevate all Americans into full participants in society. Full employment, universal healthcare, high-quality public pre-K-12 schools, free higher education and free childcare are among the building blocks of a society that could envision shrinking police forces without social pain. These are programs that could use a share of the excessive funding currently spent on law enforcement and could help to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, policing by making it unnecessary. Strengthened social programs that reduced the impact of policing also could shrink prison populations and bolster the movement for alternatives to incarceration.

In addition, racial reconciliation is a critical part of a post-police society. Creative approaches to reparations can begin to repair four centuries of racial oppression — this must go beyond fixed cash handouts but really build out lasting measures such as rebuilding Black and Brown neighborhoods and schools, job training and creation of jobs, tearing down polluting highways through communities of color, and deep investment into other programs directed toward healing past harm and giving all Americans a fair shot at prosperity.

But to get to a post-policing society, the advocates of defunding or abolishing the police will need to refine a more consistent, compelling message; not only about what they want, but how they plan to get there. There is a need for a vision of the future of public safety that most Americans — but especially those Americans most affected both by crime and racist policing — can get behind. Otherwise, the Right can continue to define the movement, and the valuable momentum built over the last two years could be wasted.

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