The power of words: How sloganeering about 'Defund the Police' hurts badly needed policing reform

Photo: Elvert Barnes, Flickr. License.

Activists, particularly leftists who self-identify as socialist, revolutionary heroes, have a special fondness for sloganeering, and of all the sloganeering of this century that are dumb and counterproductive, 'Defund the police' may just take the cake.

As a term of art, 'defund', within the activist circle, has come to mean a lot of things, but it means only one thing in the minds of the larger body politic: disband. Although the slogan was sparked during the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, over time, the cause for racial justice and reforming police oversight and use of force remained immensely popular, while by July, defunding the police as a slogan and phrase had become a marginal, minority proposition, even among Black Americans and Democrats. 

Many activists are quick to defend the phrase by noting that 'defund' doesn't necessarily mean 'eliminate'. They say that they are using the term 'defund' as simply an extreme form of 'reform'. I can understand the draw. The 'defund' framing allows them to express their frustration with a law enforcement apparatus in this country that is replete with systemic racism, along with a 'fighting' solution. It allows them to use the 'shock' value of the word 'defund' to garner attention. the word 'reform' just doesn't grab enough attention, and using the word 'defund' is one way to get people to pay attention.

It certainly is, and it gets all the wrong attention. The first rule of mass communications is that connotation matters, and you cannot simply alter the images that words invoke in the minds of people.

The phrase immediately invokes images of complete abolition and dismantling of police, leaving people with the impression that they will have no one to call if their homes or businesses are invaded by a deranged gunman. It conjures up the vividness of vulnerable victims - whether in situations of domestic assault, road rage accidents, or a drive-by shooting without any recourse.  It leaves people with the impression that their streets could be ravaged without defense, their national border would be vulnerable without adequate checks, and their personal safety would be destroyed.

You see, one of the problems with using the shock value of a term to garner attention to your cause - not to say that such a thing can never be a useful tool - is that high-pitch attention also seeps into public consciousness quickly, and there is essentially no time to mold the perception of the slogan before it gets etched into the minds of the public. The attention you end up attracting is often not the kind that inquires "Okay, explain to me what that means" but rather the kind that reels "That's crazy! Why would you do this?". That's what happened with 'defund the police.'

In fact, in one important way, the sloganeering has likely driven up support for police, the opposite of the stated objective of the activists.

There is no movement-wide agreement on what the precise meaning of 'defund the police' is, which lends itself to much the same trouble Donald Trump has had with trying to claim that he would replace the Affordable Care Act with something "much better" once the ACA is gone. The decade-long inability of Republicans to present any coherent, unified, viable alternative to Obamacare has significantly contributed to solidifying the public's support of Obamacare. In the same way, the failure of the 'defund' crowd to rally around a positive vision of community safety - rather than just one negative to policing - has contributed to solidifying support of the police. It is dangerous to simply propose the creation of a vacuum without presenting a clear object that would fill the vacuum - whether in health care or in policing.

Within the activist bubble, the term 'defund the police' has been used to refer to the absolute abolition of law enforcement and prisons to more nuanced demands to redirect funding from coercive law enforcement to mental health, substance abuse treatment, and other needed social services. Ultimately, the inside-the-bubble conversation surrounds how much funding to reduce and redirect from coercive policing activities.

One of the problems with that internal bubble is that the loudest, most prominent voices have made sure to scar into public consciousness that they are not interested in reform but in dismantling. When in June, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio proposed a $1 billion cut in the NYPD budget, New York's most prominent socialist, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, slammed the proposal, saying, "defund means defund." Fringe organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement, which had gained prominence during Bernie Sanders's second run for the White House and especially early in the year when it appeared Sanders was likely to get the nomination in a divided Democratic field, did not care for nuance, either.

Ultimately, as Joe Biden summarily spanked Sanders's candidacy, the intraparty influence of these groups turned out to be small. Nevertheless, they gained enough prominence that it now became possible for others to associate them with mainline Democrats. The activists could have, instead, spent their time rallying around and pushing for popular Democratic proposals to reform policing that has already passed the House, which would ban chokeholds, outlaw no-knock warrants in drug cases, and remove qualified immunity for police officers so that bad actors can be held accountable in civil court. They chose sloganeering over organizing for actual progress, and that's on them.

And that - preferring to sloganeer rather than to organize for a practical solution - demonstrates, on the part of the fringe, socialist left, the lack of serious commitment to an issue they loudly proclaim they care about. Even if one were to believe that I am wrong about every one of my arguments above as to why 'Defund the Police' is vapid, bad, defeatist solganeering, why not drop a talking point in order to achieve actual, substantive policy progress? Given the choice, why pick a slogan over actual policy?

There's only one explanation for that: they don't actually care about the policies or the hard work to make actual progress on police reform; they only seek the euphoria that comes from fist pounding.

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