In a recent interview, Barack Obama claimed that “snappy slogans” like defund the police can cost a movement public support. The inevitable backlash was immediate and harsh. Many pointed out that Barack Obama’s own 2008 presidential campaign relied heavily on an inspirational “snappy slogan”—Yes We Can—which undoubtedly helped him cinch victory.
Some of the harshest criticisms came from elected officials. Rep. Rashida Tlaib said it was “hard to see” people who celebrate Rosa Parks oppose the defund the police movement, which she believes is necessary to protect black life, much like the Civil Rights movement before it. Rep. Ayanna Pressley said that she is “out of patience” with criticisms of activist language, arguing that “whatever a grieving family says is their truth.” And Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez commented that the point of activism is to make people uncomfortable, so people’s discomfort with the activists’ choice of language shouldn’t matter. For Rep. Ilhan Omar, defunding the police is “not a slogan but a policy demand … [that] gets us progress and safety.”
Omar was the only person involved to understand that defund the police isn’t just a phrase. The problem isn’t the name. The problem is that defunding the police is regressive policy, and that anti-police rhetoric that depicts our flawed but necessary police systems as irreparably racist and homicidal is dangerous and wrong.
Many progressive activists call for “marginalized voices” to be centered in American national discourse. According to intersectionality, the perspectives of minority communities, LGBT people, women and the disabled are often repressed and the white, straight, male perspective is the only one that is widely heard in politics, academia and the media. Within this hyper-educated, progressive political ecosystem, knowledge is regarded as a social construct, deliberately designed to keep anyone who isn’t a white, heterosexual male from succeeding. These activists argue that racist and sexist narratives have dominated political discourse for generations and permeate every facet of society and that the only way to overcome them is to be actively anti-racist, not just not racist. Anything else is passively and implicitly racist.
For many progressives, the police force is a prime example of a structurally racist institution. Indeed, studies have repeatedly confirmed that black Americans, low-income people and the mentally ill are at disproportionate risk of being beaten, unduly arrested or even shot by police officers. But such progressives rarely cite the comprehensive studies that indicate that mental illness is a more reliable predictor of one’s risk of suffering police brutality than race. The progressive stance is that racial disparities necessarily indicate racism, so the police are institutionally racist, and the only way to achieve equality is to dismantle the oppressive institution entirely.
In this view, the perspectives of marginalized people—meaning, primarily, black Americans—are ignored in order to protect the white supremacist power structure of the police, which serves to terrorize black people and maintain white America’s place atop the racial hierarchy. This explains why the congresswomen cited above allude to grieving black families and prominent black activists when criticizing President Obama—they believe themselves to be speaking black America’s collective truth.
But studies indicate that supermajorities of black and Latino Americans oppose defunding the police. A recent Gallup poll found that 80% of black and Hispanic Americans want the same or greater police presence in their neighborhoods—probably because blacks and Latinos are more likely to live in high-crime neighborhoods. By contrast, calls to defund the police often resonate with white suburbanites because they know their high-trust, low-crime neighborhoods wouldn’t be adversely affected by lower policing. In other words, those who claim to center marginalized voices by advocating that we defund the police are doing anything but.
The issues go deeper than rhetorical confusion. One unintended consequence of the riots that occur after any controversial, tragic police killing of a black person is that the police are afraid to do their jobs, and violence in the surrounding area spikes as a result. In 2015, after Freddie Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police officers, police presence in the city plummeted, while murders skyrocketed, as local police records show. Such results are consistent across cities in which police killings occur. The majority of the victims of these subsequent crime waves are black. It shouldn’t be shocking, then, that black Americans generally oppose defunding the police.
Such crime waves are occurring all over the US right now—particularly in cities that have voted to defund the police. Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, defunded the police, and is now witnessing a whopping 530% rise in crimes like car jackings. Philadelphia, which reduced its police budget this year, now has the second highest homicide rate in America. In New York City, another city that recently slashed its police budget, murder has increased by more than 37%, burglary is up by 41% and shootings have increased by 93% within a single year.
Defunding the police isn’t the only factor in this rise in crime. The poverty, desperation and fear created by the pandemic have probably also had an effect. But cutting police budgets, making cops fearful of doing their jobs—and thereby creating resentful, overworked and underpaid police officers—cannot effect the meaningful, structural change our policing systems so desperately need. This approach will only exacerbate existing issues.
Defunding the police is not a way of centering marginalized voices, nor is the problem the language used by activists. Defund the police isn’t a poor representation of a good policy. It’s an accurate representation of a bad policy.