“Defund the Police” – A good idea but a terrible slogan

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, there has been a powerful backlash against racism and police brutality. I hope it finally leads to permanent, meaningful change. But one of the main slogans of the movement – “Defund the Police” – is terrible and counterproductive.

Defund the Police

First, let’s be clear. The murder of George Floyd was tragic, senseless and reprehensible. It has pulled back the curtain—yet again—on racism in the United States and the abuse and marginalization of black people in that country. Two factors have turned Floyd’s death into a catalyst for change.

First, the manner in which he died was particularly horrific. The police had subdued Floyd and had him face down on the ground with his hands tied behind his back. Nevertheless, a police officer knelt on his neck for almost 9 minutes. The officer—who was subsequently fired, arrested and charged with murder—callously ignored Floyd’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe. Second, a passerby captured the entire incident on video.

The protests against racism and police brutality, in the United States and around the world, have been remarkable. On June 9th, my wife and I and several friends marched in the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Geneva, Switzerland. There were between 10,000 and 12,000 people.

Defund the Police

One of the slogans that has gained traction over the past few weeks is: “Defund the Police”. It is a bad choice of words that could ultimately backfire on those who want to bring meaningful change.

Why? Because the message is unclear and it is confusing many people.

Let’s start with the wording. To defund something means to take away financial support; it means to stop giving money to something. A recent, high-profile example in the US is the defunding of Planned Parenthood.

Many people believe that the demonstrators want to stop paying the police completely. But that’s not what most proponents are advocating, even if there are some extremists who are.

The intent behind “Defund the Police” is to bring about fundamental societal change. First, it means both reforming the police and the way they work. Second, it means redirecting some of the money from police budgets to other important, but often underfunded, areas such as public health, affordable housing, eduction and youth services.

In an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune, Eric Zorn explains “Defund the Police” this way:

“Defund the police” in this sense means reallocating public resources so that men and women with guns on their hips aren’t tasked with dealing with mental health and drug crises, homelessness and other social issues.

“Defund the police” means taking a broader, smarter, less violent approach to how we advance the goal of public safety even as we insist on better training and greater, swifter accountability for misconduct.

“Defund the police” means breaking the code of silence and piercing the veil of lies that protect bad officers. It means not allowing police unions to provide cover for their members with special, generous disciplinary procedures in their contracts.

I support these objectives 100%. A revamped police system, better living conditions and more support for other societal institutions would be a good thing for everyone. Listen to what Former Dallas Police Chief David Brown said in 2016 about the responsibilities placed on the police.

The message is lost

Unfortunately, the different objectives behind the message are not easy to condense into a simple slogan. And this has led to confusion, hesitation and explanations. If you have to explain your slogan, you have a problem.

Many people have not grasped the subtleties of “Defund the Police”. They believe that defunding means stopping all funding of the police.

Not giving any money to the police is a ludicrous proposition. I am certainly not in favour of it. Crime would not go away and life would be chaotic. Police around the world play an important role in preserving the peace and upholding the law. Are they perfect? No. Is there a need for reform? Yes. But this cannot be an Us vs Them issue. It involves everyone.

Many believe that “Defund the Police” is a terrible slogan. See, for example, here, here and here. At the same, others disagree. One person who loves it is Donald Trump.

Trump and many of his supporters have seized on this confusion to stoke the flames of misinformation, in tweets and elsewhere, about what “Defund the Police” actually means. They believe that they can use the confusion to their advantage against the Democrats.

The lesson

There is an important lesson in all of this for anyone who has to persuade people about an idea, whether in a speech, presentation or other format. Something that is obvious to you – in this case, the meaning of “Defund the Police” – will not necessarily be obvious to your audience. When we forget this crucial point, we suffer from the curse of knowledge.

If the audience does not understand your message, it is not the audience’s fault. It is yours. As the speaker, it is your responsibility to be clear about your message and to support it with clear reasoning.

Ultimately, this movement is about convincing enough people, especially those who have legislative power, that fundamental, systemic change is necessary. It begins by taking a hard look at how we fund both the police and other societal initiatives. But everyone needs to be clear about what is being discussed.

So what could have been – or still could be – a good alternative to “Defund the Police”? I don’t pretend to have an easy answer, but one suggestion would be to move away from a “De-” word and instead use a “Re-” word which is more positive. For example:

  • Reform the Police
  • Reorganize the Police
  • Revamp the Police

Better yet, why focus only on the police?

  • Reinvest in Society
  • Rethink Society
  • Police and Society Working Together

Ultimately, let’s hope that the current confusion and disagreement over “Defund the Police” does not impede progress toward a more just, a more equitable and a more peaceful society.

Photo courtesy of Taymaz Valley

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6 Replies to ““Defund the Police” – A good idea but a terrible slogan”

  1. Thank you John for this blog entry and importance of clarity in the message and slogan.

    When I first heard “Defund the police” admittedly it was from Trump’s tweet, I was shocked. How could that even be practical? It was only later when I did some research and read an interview with Ilhan Omar, did I realize what is actually behind the slogan. But that is a lot of hoops for an average joe to go through to understand what the movement means with this slogan.

    1. Thanks, Zain. I agree. I am concerned that a worthy objective is going to get lost in a bad message. Let’s see what happens. Fingers crossed.

  2. It’s absolutely true that the slogan “Defund the police” is difficult to comprehend and it makes the discuss to addressing the police brutality on black people very tense and challenging. I only hope the distractors will not take advantage of that to derail the process of addressing this very crucial matter.

    Thanks very much for making this clear.

  3. Good post and very much on point. When I heard it, even though I follow news fairly closely, I was thrown off. I had to look it up, because, even as someone who knows we badly need police reform in this country, it sounds like a far too strong and broad backlash to police brutality. Just hearing it,and living in a southern rural state, I think most people (who don’t follow the news or read very much) will just think the same. Even though most actually would agree that policing reform is needed. I hope there’s still time to turn to a better slogan.

    Reform the police is simple and to the point. I’m just afraid that this bad slogan could turn off too many people to where you have to work to get past the slogan. It will become another thing where your average joe will think that both sides are too extreme. It will make it very easy for republicans to turn this yet another issue that’s broadly supported but poisoned by their ability to muddy the waters and transform the slogan into what they want the people and their base to see. I’m honestly afraid it might be too late to undo some of the damage this has caused since it’s already well into the public consciousness and it’s probably to late to change it into anything that will penetrate the moderate to right leaning populace that might have been receptive to this otherwise.

    In this day, with all the media and stimulus overload, I feel like it’s more important than ever to have a good slogan and hook people right away, because with everything available, it’s too easy for them to ignore it or watch something else. People have too many things to see or watch where, when they do see or hear news, they form opinions right away based off first impressions. You want to get a good impression immediately because there are a million ways to play off those first impressions now, and it’s harder than ever to persuade people since nothing escapes the lens of partisanship that pervades American society.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Tyson. I appreciate you taking the time. I hate to agree with you about it being too late to change the slogan, but once these things take root, it is hard to dislodge them. That’s why, as you note, it is important to get the slogan right the first time. I wish you and your country luck. These next months are going to be bumpy and likely more divisive.

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