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.
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.
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.
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.