Talk Louder About Defunding the Police
Don't let bad faith cowards control the discourse about a good policy.
I will never stop being mad at the Democratic Party over their response to the “Defund the Police” movement. I’m sorry. I’ve written about this before. But we are still paying ever increasing social debts for the party’s cynical, cowardly, and thoughtless approach to an issue that required a measure of bravery and thoughtfulness. And there is new data that reinforces just how disgusted we should be.
Briefly, because I know the well-worn pathways that the discussion of this issue usually follows, let me explain why this issue in particular makes me want to set a large portion of the Democratic Party apparatus, including much of its pundit intelligentsia, adrift on a raft in an endless sea. It is not just the grotesque optics of all those Congressional Democrats joining BLM marches and taking a knee in the Capitol rotunda and then proceeding to make running against any actual defunding of the police a prominent plank of their election efforts the very same year. (And, still, now, ongoing.) It is the way that a genuine moment of opportunity for meaningful social change was thrown away by the party whose job it is to facilitate that change for some of the stupidest reasons I have ever witnessed.
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The BLM marches in 2020 following George Floyd’s murder were, numerically, the largest protest movement in American history. Corporate America was scared. The right wing of America was scared. And the police were scared. All that fear equals opportunity for change. That moment of fear is a rare and precious moment when the forces of reform can actually achieve a large shift in the way things are done. Most Republicans doubled down on racism and fearmongering about cities burning down that summer. The onus for taking the massive winds of change that activists had produced and channeling them into legislative progress was clearly on the shoulders of the Democrats, most of whom professed solidarity with the marchers in the streets. The Democratic Party, which was soon to have a Democratic Congress and a Democratic President, had both the opportunity and the responsibility to see to it that BLM got something tangible for its efforts.
“Defund the police” is a wonderful statement of a rational policy goal. It is succinct. It is clear. It says in three words a measurable goal that it hopes to achieve. It is not some flowery bullshit statement that any old paper-thin action can be fitted into. It is a real, solid demand for quantifiable change. It is also an activist slogan. It is activists clearly saying what they want. It is not a Democratic Party slogan. It was not concocted by a political messaging firm. It was not on Biden 2020 posters. It is a statement from people who believe in something who intend to push the politicians to do that thing. It doesn’t matter if the politicians wave it around; it matters that they listen to it.
Did we, in fact, get any real defunding of the police? No. What did we get instead? We got a neverending discussion of the motherfucking slogan itself. The words “defund the police,” which possess perfect clarity on their own, somehow served as a psychological trigger that caused not just Democratic politicians but also much of the allegedly liberal media to fall over themselves pointing out how it sounded bad. Not how it was bad in substance; how imaginary voters would not like it. Indeed, the entire discussion around this straightforward policy goal was dominated by people who professed sympathy with the activists voicing it and then proceeded to focus exclusively on how it could be twisted by bad faith actors to misinform the public. The most common rhetorical move on the Democratic-leaning side of this discussion was to immediately acquiesce to the idea that Republicans would be able to scare people by lying to them about this particular slogan, and then to shrug and say that nothing could be done about that, and then proceed to oppose the actual policy goals that the slogan embodies! “The answer is not to defund the police, the answer is to fund the police,” Joe Biden has been declaring from his bully pulpit for years. And when the people who marched to defund the police—which is to say, to reallocate public funding from police to social services that target the underlying causes of “crime”—object to this forceful opposition from their supposed friends, they are told that political reality demands that Democrats do this.
Ah yes—the political reality that the Democrats created. Thanks, friends.
Let me just refocus one more time and say: defunding the police is good policy. We all know that what it actually means is “don’t spend money on cops to solve social problems that they can’t solve—spend that money in ways that can actually address these complex problems.” Don’t throw a bunch of people trained as killer soldiers out into poor and desperate communities and expect them to fix things. Instead of pouring money into soldier cops with guns, a policy impulse rooted purely in fear and ignorance, pour that same money into education and mental health and economic development and affordable housing and all of the other things that can mitigate poverty and legitimately strengthen communities and improve the lives of needy people. Anyone who does not agree with this basic proposition is, I’m afraid, either a bigot or a callous selfish person or someone with a profound ignorance about the causes and effects of things in society. Moving public money away from methods that don’t work (and actively cause harm) and into methods that work better is common sense. This is the substance of defunding the police. Most everyone on the left side of the political spectrum who is operating in good faith will agree with this overall premise. The Democrats just weren’t willing to expend a single iota of political capital for it. They just gave up. They just didn’t bother. It was easier to throw the entire BLM movement under the bus than to have an honest conversation about these things with a public that might be hostile.
There is a new NBER working paper from three economists who examined the response of financial markets to the George Floyd uprisings, as well as earlier BLM uprisings. Their depressing findings: Companies that did business with police departments experienced immediate gains in the wake of those uprisings, meaning that the markets (correctly) anticipated that the government’s response to these protests would be to pour money into police departments, as usual. “We find that from the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 to December 2020, a passive investor’s portfolio of shares of strongly connected policing firms would have increased by 76.4 pp more (p < 0.05) than a portfolio of their nonpolicing peers. These findings are consistent with the idea that markets anticipate that local governments will increase investment in police in response to racial uprisings,” the authors write. “We find that the valuation of the twenty firms strongly connected to policing increased by almost half a billion dollars in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd… our paper confirms that the events of summer 2020 resulted in significant financial gains for shareholders of companies in the police industry and that police suppliers enjoyed increased profits.”
I am not going to waste time railing against these companies and investors right now. They are exhibiting the basic logic of capitalism, which comes down to “I heard slavery might become legal again so let’s invest a billion dollars in slave trading firms.” It is a fully amoral logic. The market, though, is an excellent mechanism for prediction. The best we have. And the value of these findings, to me, are that they demonstrate the degree to which we are locked in an incredibly dispiriting cycle of police repression followed by rebellion followed by increased funding to the police. Wash, rinse, repeat. (Elizabeth Hinton’s excellent book “America on Fire” is a detailed history of this cycle, which stretches many, many decades back into American history.) This pattern, which is counterproductive, unjust, and just plain stupid on its face, is the result of the exact brand of political cowardice that the Democrats displayed after the George Floyd murders. The very same fear of standing up and advocating for a new direction in the face of typical public fear of disorder also happened after the uprisings in Ferguson and in Baltimore and in LA and before and before and before. People are oppressed and trapped in poverty. Rather than changing that fact, we send police to control them. Periodically their rage explodes. People on the other side of the equation—the part of the population that benefits from the fact that the underclass is kept under control—reacts to these explosions of rage with fear. Opportunistic right wing politicians stoke that fear. At that predictable moment, we need the left wing politicians to act with courage. To say, “We can’t keep doing the same dumb thing over and over again and expecting different results. We can’t keep pouring more police on a problem that is caused by the fact that we have spent decades pouring more police on it, rather than fixing the underlying issues.” Instead, again and again throughout American history, we have gotten blue ribbon panels that huddle and produce a report and then Democratic politicians, afraid to push back against public fears, fold and lean into the familiar, poisonous embrace of Law and Order politics.
This is a case in which all of the street protests we can muster, including the biggest ones in our nation’s history, have been no match for the rote path of the public discourse, which leads always back to a set of conventional wisdom that everyone is too afraid to admit has failed. There is an opportunity for you to be a part of the solution to this. It’s a simple but important move: Talk about the issues. Talk about the substance of what is happening. Talk about the actual policy changes that we could try and what tangible changes in the world would result. Do not—do not!—fall into the trap of trying to sound like some sort of worn out political consultant by focusing all of your discussion on your personal analysis of the rhetorical value of a slogan. As soon as you start saying “I agree with the goals, but ‘Defund the police’ is a really bad slogan…” you are steering the conversation away from where it needs to be. If you find yourself falling into this trap, ask yourself: How much time have I spent today talking about the underlying structural causes of poverty and deprivation and economic inequality that form the ingredients for crime? How much time have I spent today honoring all of those people murdered by police by talking about the real reasons why those injustices happened? How much time have I spent today gently telling my neighbor, who is scared of imaginary rioters, about the centuries of US history that produced the woeful inequalities of today, and how we might remedy some of that inequality with enlightened policies like hiring some social workers instead of buying the Sheriff’s department a new helicopter? Have I put in my hours today making the discourse better? Or am I lazily floating into Shitty Meet The Press pundit territory, even though I am not paid for it?
Critiquing a slogan without doing anything to bring about the justice that the slogan seeks is a coward move. If you think “Defund the police” is a good goal but a bad slogan, then go and get your city to reallocate funds from policing into social services and then come back to the discourse and spread the good word about how that worked. Until then, let’s focus on the important things and not the unimportant things. Another election is coming, and the Republicans and the Democrats and the financial markets and the police contracting companies all agree on one thing: We are going to keep funding the cops more and more even though a century of history tells us it makes no sense. If you think that is dumb, you’re right. Please talk about why it is dumb with your elected officials. Thank you.
I’ve also written about this general topic here and here. I promise to stop writing about it once they defund the police. You can also preorder my book, which is about a completely different topic, if you want to read about something else.
Some of you know that I also write about boxing. Several years ago, I wrote an essay for a boxing book project that never ended up happening. Eventually I decided I should go ahead and publish the essay. I pitched it to a number of prestigious magazines. All of them blew me off. Finally I published the essay, “On Punches,” at Defector. Now that essay has been selected for inclusion in The Year’s Best Sportswriting 2023. That is a nice thing, but the part of it that gave me the most satisfaction is that one of the editors who rejected my essay also has a piece in the book. Heh.
Which reminds me: Prestige is bullshit. Please support independent media. Defector, which publishes most of my boxing writing, is independent media. So is this publication that you are reading. Thank you to everyone who has subscribed to How Things Work. Those of you who are paid subscribers are the ones who make this project possible. If you want to STICK IT TO THE FAKE PRESTIGE BUMS, please think about becoming a paid subscriber here as well. I may not have a fancy expense account, but I will happily tell you how to throw a proper left hook. Together we can make our own prestige, for everyone.