#DefundThePolice Has Gone Mainstream, But Its Meaning Has Not
Messaging within the decentralized network of Black Lives Matter is inconsistent.
June 11, 2020 at 6:06 pm
#DefundThePolice is now mainstream and we need to talk about it. Why say “defund” when we could say redistribute, reimagine, restructure or re-envision?
Messaging matters and can make or break a movement by either galvanizing people together or splintering fragile coalitions; words matter because words keep movements on message as they grow and shift.
No U.S. social movement has ever won on its full terms. Heck, slavery is still not prohibited in the punishment of a crime. It’s not that we need “easier,” “safer” or “more palatable” language; we need effective language. “Defund” is ineffective because defunding means something different depending on who you ask.
Recently, Black Lives Matter (BLM) co-founder Patrisse Cullors said about defunding “that we are reducing the ability for law enforcement to have resources that harm our communities...It’s about reinvesting those dollars into Black communities, communities that have been deeply divested from.” That doesn’t sound like defunding, that sounds like redistribution.
Meanwhile, journalist Annie Lowrey, at The Atlantic in her article titled, “Defund the Police,” summarizes the concept to two questions: “What are the police for? Why are we paying for this?” This #defund argument suggests police and prison abolition.
For Black Lives Matter DC the #DefundThePolice message is simple — “abolish the police and f**k Bowser,” or so says the group's retweets on Twitter.
For the authors of “Freedom to Thrive,” a 30-year report on the rising costs of policing and mass incarceration, participatory budgeting is what it would mean to “defund,” wherein community members decide how to spend a portion of a public budget. (Participatory budgeting already exists in some cities like Dayton, Ohio.)
So, which is it?
Supporters of the #defund message tell me that “people know what defunding means.” I would retort that the “in group” of activists and engaged citizens may know, but most still don’t. They say that defunding was perfectly clear when it was meant for other institutions, like public education. For them, #defund is not some buzz word, but rather a word with a long history of abolition work led by Black women. Indeed. But, before this week, #defund was not a movement with a broad diverse coalition. Instead of educating newcomers to the cause, we started with a hashtag that narrows a broad inclusive agenda to “BLM=defund the police” — when the network’s own mission statement is far more inclusive than police brutality.
#Defund doesn’t have one definition, and that’s fine. That is good, actually, because it allows different cities to restructure on their own terms. But a loosely defined hashtag renders the point of the hashtag moot as the country is now talking about the messaging and not the message. Loose definition leaves avenues of attack for the Trump-fueled opposition that supporters of Black Lives Matter have to be ready for and responsive to, to counter and keep control of their own narrative.
Justice shouldn’t be beholden to what America thinks, but if we can't get background checks passed for guns when 97% of us agree, how far will #defund go if we can’t even agree on a definition? For some, defunding promotes and stokes anger. For others, it’s a bold statement. A friend told me that when initially hearing it they were a bit afraid. While people should educate themselves on the history of defunding and its meaning, we know that most won’t. So now what?
Messaging within the decentralized network of Black Lives Matter is inconsistent. This is because the movement has no spokesperson. Dr. King wasn’t the leader of the civil rights movement. He was the spokesperson. A spokesperson was necessary because it was important to send one unifying message. Movements lose when messages get blurred.
Black Power of the 1960s and Black Lives Matter of today reflect the same energies of frustration in Black America. Writing the piece, “Black Power and Coalition Politics," in 1966 for Commentary, about the fate of the civil rights movement with the advancement of Black Power activists, Bayard Rustin — the Black gay organizer of the March on Washington in 1963 — praised the activism of Black Power advocates: “There is no question, then, that great passions are involved in the debate over the idea of ‘Black power’; nor, as we shall see, is there any question that these passions have their roots in the psychological and political frustrations of the Negro community.”
Similarly, today, there is nothing radical about the Black Lives Matter network or the Movement for Black Lives. Their criminal justice agenda is a brilliant treatise on accountability that is needed; for, while the structural and systemic challenges that Blacks face to achieve universal upward mobility is mountainous, they are not insurmountable.
Ultimately, though, Rustin concludes that “Black Power” “diverts the movement from a meaningful debate over strategy and tactics, it isolates the Negro community and it encourages the growth of anti-Negro forces.” This is also the unfortunate truth of Black Lives Matter today, and it has happened already since the murder of George Floyd. Some of those “anti-Negro” forces of today are wearing police or military uniforms, others are in blackface, others loot, destroy and distract.
Protests are necessary and messy. Protests create change, and also do not always bring about the intended results. These factions aren’t new. But some agreement is important because consistent messaging matters. Messaging influences public opinion, which then leads to changes in society.
Let’s face it, Trump has already sowed pretty effective seeds of discord. Republicans, conservatives and opponents to Black Lives Matter are swift and bold with their messaging in part because their coalition is narrower. Supporters of #defund don't have that luxury. Sustained coalitions are necessary to enact substantive macro change, change that won’t come by November. It may be February before real change begins to happen — and that change will be Trump clean-up duty for quite some time.
Democracy may be messy, but it is the sustained resistance of protesting Americans fueled by the murder of George Floyd that makes transformative politics possible. Post-uprising macro solutions need not be messy when we organize together.
The fact is, “defund” is unclear — and most of America isn’t going to read an op-ed to learn the definition, including this one.