President Obama decided to give his opinion about the current discourse of police brutality, specifically about the phrase “defund the police.” According to The Hill, Obama said: “You lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done…The key is deciding, do you want to actually get something done, or do you want to feel good among the people you already agree with?” If we’re talking about winning congressional elections in “swing states,” then I guess President Obama has a point, but if we’re talking about the crux of the movement, he’s absolutely wrong.
There has been a lot of talk about the correlation between activist work and electoral politics, which is interesting, and in some cases damaging. Of course, rhetoric is an important factor in candidates winning or losing elections because, for a lot of campaigns, rhetoric is the heart of that type of work. What I want to make clear is what the movement is about and what it is not about, because there seems to be some confusion since the 2020 election.
Democratic House Minority Whip, James Clyburn, has made several appearances post-election detailing how “defund the police” has led to the loss of congressional seats. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez addressed this in a podcast, stating “these movements are not going away. And now they’re blaming us for their loss. And so I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy. And that their base is not the enemy. That the movement for Black Lives is not the enemy.” I think it’s important to clarify what Black Lives Matter and “defund the police” or “abolish the police” is and is not. These are social movements demanding justice. Abolition started way before this summer’s tragedies of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black deaths. Abolition, of yes police, has been a movement before the summer of 2020. Abolitionists have been speaking about these specific issues for years. Abolitionists, for years, have been addressing policing as violence, the prison industrial complex, racial violence, racial capitalism, and the legacy of slavery. These are not new concepts. I think the problem is that people are not reading and acknowledging the work of abolitionists.
Another problem is our desire to conflate social movements and activists with electoral politics and politicians. Political activists and community organizers are not engaging in these movements to elect someone. Black Lives Matter activists are not even running for office. The movement itself is not about electoral politics, even though a lot of Democratic politicians have reduced it to that. To Obama’s point of “losing people and elections,” I think a lot of politicians like AOC and Cori Bush (who do demand for this movement) have communicated pretty well the movement’s meaning—while using the phrase—and they won their seats. Abolition was never about winning congressional seats, but the Party made it about that and made it a PR issue which is what I’m most upset about. The activists who started the movement weren’t running for office but somehow people started conflating the two. Conflating the two is dangerous because these activists are not invested in these movements to win House and Senate seats. They are invested in these movements to stop police from murdering Black and brown people.
People who study rhetoric might argue that “defund the police” puts up a wall for our political discourse. They might recommend a more polite way that doesn’t make people uncomfortable. I argue people should be uncomfortable with the high rate of police violence. I would also argue that they might want to review Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, specifically the section about the danger of the white moderate. People might argue the ideas of the movement aren’t being communicated when one says “defund/abolish the police.” I feel like people who say this don’t do the reading that’s presented to them because this is just inaccurate. Not only have politicians who co-opt this movement been explaining what policies they propose regarding “defunding the police,” but we have years and years of work from political scientists, sociologists, and organizers who detail what it means to “defund the police.” At this point, it is not a matter if it’s being communicated, because it has been communicated. The matter is have you listened? Have you done the reading? Have you asked questions for clarification?
There are way too many people doing work in this field—academics, activists, and politicians—to simply say no one is communicating what they mean. For Obama to reduce these movements to “winning congressional seats,” is depressing because ending police violence for members of these social movements is so much more important than winning an election. I also think this speaks to another issue: our dependency on thinking that electoral politics is the only way to make a change. Voting is a great act of civic engagement and voting does make political change, but it is not the only way of making change. People who see electoral politics as the only avenue for change probably do see Black Lives Matter or “Defund/Abolish the Police” as simply a slogan…a combination of energetic words, but it’s not. A slogan and a movement are two completely different things, and we should not reduce a movement to how marketable it is. We’re trying to save Black communities, not sell vacuum cleaners.
I know for a lot of people this may be brand new to them, but the movement itself is not, and the good thing about that is that there are tons of resources for people to educate themselves on these subjects. And because there is a plentiful amount of resources, most of which is accessible to all people, we should begin to address that it is not a slogan that people are turned off by, but instead a culture of ignoring systemic issues. The main question people ask when someone argues for abolishing the police is “well what about crime?” People assume that abolish the police means just get rid of the police and do something else. At this point, people just aren’t willing to educate themselves because years and years of work prove that assumption to be false. Getting rid of the police is neither the first nor the last step for abolition, but a single step within a series of steps seeking to end police violence.
Ending with Obama’s comments, I want to quote Cori Bush, “It’s not a slogan. It’s a mandate for keeping our people alive.” If we wanted to say “reform the police,” then we would have said that. We said defund for a reason. To “defund the police” is not a slogan for something else. It is an act. I also would like to provide a guide with resources for understanding police and/or prison abolition. I am providing this resource so readers will know what it means to “defund and abolish.” Now that I have provided you the resources and materials, it is up to you to educate yourself on why we must end police violence and not simply reform it.