Defund the Police? Turning a Slogan into Policy



To advance #BlackLivesMatter, we should advocate measures that are both effective and politically tenable. As on most issues, there is a wide array of ideas as to what those might be.

On the radical end of the spectrum is the self-identified ”abolitionist” movement, reflected in the Black Lives Matter organization (BLM) and the Movement for Black Lives coalition (M4BL). On the reform end is the #8cantwait project of Campaign Zero.

The marquee slogan of abolitionism is “Defund the police.” The raspberries leveled at Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis, after he announced his disagreement at a rally, suggests that ”Defund” has taken over the streets.

The #8cantwait alternative to “Defund” is led by DeRay McKesson. It is often identified with Black Lives Matter, and McKesson has claimed to be a leader of BLM agitation. In fact, BLM and M4BL are wholly separate organizations that do not overlap with Campaign Zero.

McKesson came out of the anti-union Teach for America operation and is networked into the Democratic Party and the NGO/foundation world. #8cantwait claims its proposals are “research-based.” Whatever you think of its platform, it has received pointed criticism from BLM activists. McKesson and #8cantwait are also the objects of bitter criticism on Twitter. To be fair, BLM, M4BL, and Campaign Zero have all received corporate donations.

While policy wonks chew over Campaign Zero’s proposals, the protests have put the ‘Defund’ slogan front and center. Liberals claim that it really means something else – some kind of reorganization of police departments. You could think of it that way, but the authors of the slogan insist that it really means abolition of police departments.

“Defund” need not mean a utopian world without any police, but it does leave open the question of alternatives. Absent substantive proposals, those who hear the slogan could be forgiven for defaulting to a literal translation–namely, no police force at all. At least for the time being, this position is a political non-starter according to polling on the topic.

The political vacuum left by such a “non-reformist reform,” also described as “starving the beast,” will be filled by very reformist reforms. For example, there are demands to cut the budgets of police departments and reallocate the money to mental health services, youth programs, and community alternatives to incarceration. There is no doubt that those funds could be used for better purposes, and the implied rebuke to police departments might encourage better police behavior. But from a reform standpoint, budget cuts are limited and, after the marches peter out, easily reversed.

In the wake of the recession and virus-related expenses, state and local governments are already under extreme pressure to cut across the board. The prospects for more ample, local public sectors are dim, absent decisive action by the Congress. Money freed up by cuts to police budgets will be at risk of  vanishing into the ether. The most powerful force weighing on local police funding is the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider emergency aid to state and local governments.

Abolitionists have offered this well-circulated graphic. The basic frame for criticism is that reforms must reduce the power of the police. The objective is change that challenges the legitimacy of policing itself, which verges on a demand for the State to cancel itself.

Incremental reforms of the #8cantwait sort often rely on what could be called self-regulation of police behavior – an honor system, such as the demand for body cams. This requires that officers actually turn their body cams on or leave them on in times when they would rather turn them off. Another is the plea to show badges not covered by tape to prevent their identification.

In principle, governments can discipline police who fail to follow the rules. In practice, this is difficult. Police are a political power unto themselves. They can make life difficult for citizens and business owners. When they unionize, their power is enhanced.

The more likely remedies lie somewhere in the space between #8cantwait and abolitionism. The most relevant in the #8cantwait menu is the demand for institutions capable of policing the police, what used to be called civilian review boards (CRB). Ideally, these boards would command the internal affairs divisions of the police departments and have the power to investigate, discipline, fire, arrest, and prosecute police officers guilty of misconduct. In principle, they would be a police force whose beat is the regular police force.

In an era of ubiquitous camera phones, where police are under constant threat of being recorded committing crimes, the workings of a CRB could have a positive impact on behavior. The abolitionists reject CRBs on the grounds that they have never been strong enough to achieve any results. But on those grounds, we could reject the entire abolitionist platform.

There is always the matter of policy, which goes to whom we elect to public office. Over the past few weeks, a wide assortment of liberal mayors, both black and white, have been exposed as either incapable of or unwilling to direct their police to focus on public safety, rather than counterinsurgency. In other words, if less police time were wasted on moving around large crowds of law-abiding demonstrators, officers could be deployed to prevent violence and property damage.

The failure of a medley of liberal mayors who have found pressure from police to be more galvanizing than that from the people who elected them opens up a new political space. To fill that space, a new movement needs organization and a program that goes beyond three-word slogans. The danger is that an #8cantwait posture of noodling with reforms and herding people into support for lackluster Democratic politicians will coopt protest energy and stave off more compelling solutions. In this respect, the more broad-brush, transformational approach of the BLM/M4BL side is more in keeping with electoral campaigning.

The political opening places new opportunities and new burdens before socialists. We will have to get more specific about positive reforms and more discriminating about self-avowed reformers. After all, some of the failing mayors themselves came up as critics of police misconduct. Now more than ever, there is potential for progressive electoral campaigns, founded on candidates who make firm commitments to change.

Candidates need not declare themselves socialists; such affirmations are as easily abandoned as anything else. But steps can be taken to cement them into progressive positions. The key disciplining mechanism is the establishment of independent organizations that can make credible threats to withdraw political support, when necessary. An added source of flexibility is that third party candidacies are more feasible at the local level. There is not as much of a penalty if a left campaign causes a centrist to lose to a right-wing candidate. We can survive conservative mayors. Surviving another four years of Donald Trump and his Senate is altogether a different thing.

In general, the objective should be to create something durable out of the current, unprecedented upsurge. Very few such opportunities ever present themselves. It would be a tragedy to let this one pass by.