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Defund the Police is the Right Demand, Policy Makers Should Take Note

December 22, 2020

By Thomas Harvey, Justice Project Director

Former President Barack Obama recently made headlines when he called defund the police a “snappy slogan” and urged Black organizers to decide if they “actually want to get something done” or if they just “want to feel good among people you already agree with” during an interview with Peter Hamby on Snapchat’s “Good Luck America.”

Generally speaking, supporters of defund the police fall into two camps: those who want to reallocate bloated police budgets to social services or community programs and those who want to do that as a first step on the way to eliminating, or abolishing, the police altogether.  If you fall into the first camp, you may want to pay attention to what Barack Obama has to say.  If you fall into second, however, you need not waste your time.

Unlike “Hope and Change”, defund the police is a policy demand, not a “snappy slogan.” Abolitionist organizers saw decades of state sponsored racial policing violence and reforms that have not only consistently failed to stop that violence, but also further entrenched police power and reinforced the myth of their centrality to safety. Abolitionists know that the carceral state recalibrates to reproduce the same results, even following high-profile incidents of racist state violence.  For them, abolishing police, prisons, jails, and the entire network of public and private entities that comprise the prison industrial complex is the only rational response.

While invest-divest strategies have long been a tactic of abolitionist organizers, the murder of George Floyd elevated defund the police to the defining demand during a summer of rebellion that saw hundreds of thousands of people pour into the streets to fight back against racist, violent policing.  As they called for racial justice and a future where Black and Brown people are free and safe, the police responded with teargas, beatings, drones, and brutalization in more than 100 cities.  For them, defunding the police is a critical step toward abolition.

However, defund the police has a broader interpretation that can be interpreted as a compromise position.  For those who are either new to the fight or have evaluated the political realities as foreclosing the possibility of abolition, defund the police represents a more limited path to address the harms of policing. Having witnessed the police killing of Rayshard Brooks after he fell asleep in a Georgia restaurant drive-through, even those who are not yet abolitionists recognize that police are an ill-suited response to many situations. A still broader coalition of people recognize an urgent need to shift resources from police to other services.  Only the most ardent supporters of the police can look at city budgets and see 53% of money going to cops while .03% goes to services for the elderly and houseless and believe that is a just and effective way of spending a region’s money.

For this group of people, Obama’s analysis may seem more relevant.  He argues that defund the police risks losing “a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely you’re gonna get the change you want done.” Conversely, he embraces the logic behind invest-divest, suggesting that organizers “instead say let’s divest from the police department so everyone is being treated fairly.  You have to divert young people instead of getting into crime.  If there’s a homeless guy, maybe we send a mental health worker instead of an armed unit that might end up in tragedy.”

However, Obama’s arguments fail in at least two important ways:  1) many people already agree with the version of defunding the police he suggests; and 2) the American public has been consistently wrong on major racial and social justice issues.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 47% of people believe in reducing funding to police, including 70% of Black Americans, 49% of Hispanic Americans, and 41% of white Americans.  This group is not turned off by the idea of defunding the police; they embrace it.

Polling on racial justice issues shows how public opinion shifts even more clearly.  In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr.  had a 75% disapproval rate. He was surveilled by the CIA and assassinated after pushing for a multiracial poor people’s movement against capitalism. Today, he’s at 90% approval.  Although it is taught in schools as one of the most important moments in Civil Rights history, the March on Washington was overwhelmingly disfavored by Americans in 1963.  60% of Americans polled believed the March on Washington was the wrong thing to do.  85% of Americans disliked protests for racial justice in general and believed demonstrations hurt the Civil Rights movement.

With that backdrop, why does current American opinion, or the opinion of one retired politician, significantly matter as we consider defunding the police?

When we think of the abolitionist racial justice work that Movement for Black Lives, Action St. Louis, Close the Workhouse, Michigan Liberation, Dream Defenders, the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition and so many more have undertaken, the question isn’t how does it poll today. The question is how do we support the modern day racial justice movement in all its forms.

Thomas Harvey

Thomas B. Harvey is the Justice Project Director at Advancement Project National Office, a next-generation, multi-racial civil rights organization. Rooted in the great human rights struggles for equality and justice, we exist to fulfill America’s promise of a caring, inclusive, and just democracy.