Defund the PoliceRoundup
tags: racism, African American history, Police, public safety, police abolition
Austin McCoy is assistant professor of history at Auburn University. He tweets @AustinMcCoy3.
A slogan can be a powerful statement, whether chanted during a protest or used as a campaign’s guiding principle. Over the last 20 years, social movements have created several notable slogans. Anti-globalization activists at the 2001 World Social Forum in Brazil gathered under the slogan “Another World is Possible.” Occupy protesters in 2011 in New York City and beyond declared, “We Are the 99%.” Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors launched the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag in 2013 as a painful response to Trayvon Martin’s death. Now, we hear “Defund the Police” in response to the recent vigilante and police killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade.
Compelling political slogans serve many purposes. Chanting slogans binds people together in solidarity while demonstrating in the streets. They can raise questions about and challenge current power arrangements. And, as we have seen with “Defund the Police,” political sayings emanating from the grassroots can spark debate about a movement’s demands, goals, and paths for transformation or reform.
“Defund the Police” has sparked such a debate about the role of law enforcement in the US. The spirit of the refrain arises from decades of activism, scholarship, and community organizing devoted to abolishing police and prisons, as the work of organizations like Critical Resistance and scholars and activists Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba reminds us. But what does the slogan mean?
Many abolitionists, and even policymakers, have taken “Defund the Police” literally. Advocates of this idea claim that more police contact with citizens, especially Black Americans, leads to more arrests, more imprisoned, and more harmed and killed. Consequently, defunding the police is a strategy for reaching a world without police (and prisons). Less radical protesters may support redistributing financial resources from police toward community services without seeking to eliminate policing altogether. Meanwhile, many politicians, including presumptive Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, have come out against defunding the police. Both have argued that problems in policing can be addressed without starving law enforcement of resources whereas abolitionists claim reforms only improve the criminal justice system’s capabilities of harming more people.
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