The Defunding Debate

Police abolition has entered the 2020 campaign.
Reporters have some homework to do.

Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images

Prior to May 25—the day Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, killed George Floyd, a Black man, while three other cops looked on—“Defund the Police” was not a message widely repeated in the press. But after that day, it was impossible to ignore. Protesters across the country were painting it onto cardboard signs and boarded-up windows. In march after march, the phrase could be heard in chants and shouts. Reporting from a protest in Oakland, I saw the words scribbled in Sharpie across a skateboard.

By June, “Defund the Police” had spawned an entire genre of coverage. “Defund the police? Here’s what that really means,” a headline in the Washington Post read. “There’s a growing call to defund the police. Here’s what it means,” offered CNN. The Guardian asked, “What does ‘Defund the Police’ mean?” posing the same question that would appear three days later in New York magazine as “What Could ‘Defund the Police’ Mean in Practice?” Similar pieces ran in the New York Times, NPR, the Miami Herald, Esquire, the Christian Science Monitor, MTV.com, Rolling Stone, and dozens of other outlets.

By their titles, these explainers may have appeared almost all the same, but in fact they varied dramatically. Journalists discussed “Defund the Police” as a slogan ripe for interpretation. “It’s become something of a semantic argument about what that means, exactly,” Willie Geist, an MSNBC anchor, told viewers. For some, it was simply a strong call for reform—more body cameras, no choke holds. For others, it was a rallying cry for revolution, including a complete abolition of police departments. A reader could be forgiven for finding the resources hard to parse. Soon, an awkward reality set in: many journalists were trying to explain a concept with which they had little familiarity. As the clumsy reporting continued, arguments over the “real” definition of “Defund the Police” became a battleground, leading to another round of pieces—in The Atlantic, the New Republic, The Hill, and other publications—that provided frustrated-tone correctives on how the media had gotten the protesters’ demand wrong.

There was another category of coverage, too, one that performed the maneuver of a matador with a muleta: pieces that simply stepped away from the charging beast of the debate. Instead of actually engaging with any of the demands to defund the police, a large portion of the political press instead focused on the phrase itself and how it would play in the 2020 presidential election. “Is ‘Defund the Police’ a massive political mistake?” CNN’s Chris Cillizza asked, wondering aloud if the broadsides against cops could hurt Democrats trying to pick up middle-of-the-road voters. Like much of the coverage on cable news and in national newspapers, Cillizza’s analysis didn’t bother to weigh the value—or even the basic details—of police abolition policy, but rather considered how it might affect the chances of Joe Biden, a centrist, as President Donald Trump busied himself painting a picture of a far-left radical. Would the mere existence of the term “Defund the Police” tar Biden as a revolutionary? “The political problem for Democrats is this: They are now being backed into a corner by activists who are demanding radical change,” Cillizza wrote. Others chimed in. “Defunding police will lead to Republican victory this year,” according to a piece in The Hill. Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a professor of African-American studies at Princeton, suggested on MSNBC that Biden “might want to distance himself from the slogan, but he shouldn’t distance himself from the substance of the policy.”

A couple of months ago, it would have seemed strange, even ridiculous, if a debate moderator had asked the lineup of 2020 Democratic hopefuls, “Do you support defunding police nationwide?” The question of taking money away from cops did not register on the radar of candidates or campaign reporters. Now, suddenly, it had exploded as a central campaign plot point. Journalists asked Biden, his cast of vice-presidential hopefuls, and most other prominent Democrats to offer their views on taking money away from police. The Biden campaign placed op-eds in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today declaring his allegiance to police departments; he also said as much in an interview on the CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House; Jim Clyburn, the House whip; and Sen. Bernie Sanders also came out strongly in opposition to defunding the police.

Alex Vitale, whose book The End of Policing was published in 2017, watched with some disappointment as the defunding-as-election-hurdle narrative unfolded. “Now all people are interested in is its relationship to national politics,” he told me. “And then the voices that they bring in are people who are a part of that world, and who are not a part of the movement, and who have often spent years working against it.” Defunding the police was never a mainstream Democratic idea, after all. Demands to defund and abolish the police have existed for decades, but in the kinds of places journalists and presidential contenders rarely go and even more rarely come from: overpoliced neighborhoods, underserved Black communities, and Black feminist spaces.

The underinformed takes raged on. Cameras pivoted away from the masses filling the streets and scanned back to the marble halls of the US Capitol: Here, now, the Democrats are kneeling in honor of George Floyd and—for some ineffable reason—wearing kente cloth; now watch as Kamala Harris, VP hopeful, debates “Defund the Police” with Meghan McCain on The View. Covering the 2020 presidential election has been no easy task, to be sure; the pandemic turned the standard horse race into a frantic trek across an unfamiliar wilderness. Still, the way political coverage has engaged with the country’s anti-racist uprising has often felt inadequate, even hackish, especially when it has assumed that calls to ban police departments must be novel, and can’t be literal. (“A three-word slogan is not a detailed policy agenda,” Matthew Yglesias wrote, for Vox.) “The news media is acting like abolition is a new idea,” Samah Sisay, a lawyer and activist, told me. “ ‘Defund the Police’ already existed as an abolitionist demand. But it’s not being framed that way.”

Suddenly, defunding the police had exploded as a central campaign plot point.

 

According to Alisa Bierria, a Black feminist philosopher and assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, there are two ways to think about the movement that has led to “Defund the Police.” One is to look at recent community organizing; the other is to reach back to Angela Davis and other Black feminist radicals of the 1970s. “There’s a way in which abolitionist work that’s coming from radical Black feminism and radical queer politics gets submerged,” Bierria said. “When people see something on a sign at a protest, or see something as a hashtag on Twitter, it’s hard for them to understand that it’s connected to this broader trajectory and legacy.”

In 1971, Davis wrote an essay from inside the Marin County Jail, north of the Golden Gate Bridge. At twenty-seven, she already had a remarkable biography. In 1963, a Ku Klux Klan church bombing had killed four young girls in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama; two of the victims had been her friends. Within several years, Davis joined the Black Panthers and got fired from a professorship for her communist views; now she was jailed on a dubious charge connecting her to an armed takeover of a courtroom. In her cell, Davis contemplated the role of the police—those who had imprisoned her, and those who had not indicted the Klansmen who killed the girls in Birmingham. “The announced function of the police, ‘to protect and serve the people,’ ” she wrote, “becomes the grotesque caricature of protecting and preserving the interests of our oppressors and serving us nothing but injustice.”

In 1997, Davis—along with Ruth Wilson Gilmore and other Black feminists and activists—formed Critical Resistance, a group dedicated to the abolition of police departments and jails, known collectively as the prison-industrial complex. Three years later, a network of feminists of color, joined by the name INCITE!, organized a conference called “The Color of Violence”; Davis was the keynote speaker. Now seventy-six, she has been enshrined by leftists as a luminary; lately, she’s been in demand to appear before wider audiences. “Of course, when many of us began to talk about abolishing these institutions, back in the seventies, we were treated as if we were absolutely out of our minds,” she told WBUR. Today, she added, “I see myself as witnessing this moment for all of those who lost their lives in the struggle over the decades.”

Her comments reflect just how much things have changed in her lifetime. In recent years, the modern abolition movement has grown steadily, as police brutality has been captured more and more on camera and many Americans, especially in majority-Black neighborhoods, have become disillusioned by failed attempts at reform. In 2012, in Florida, a seventeen-year-old Black teenager named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, who was the neighborhood-watch coordinator for a gated community; Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges. In response to the murder, a group of college-age Black, Latinx, and Arab people formed the Dream Defenders, an organization “serious about fighting for a world without prisons and police.” In 2013, the Dream Defenders staged a thirty-one-day takeover of the Florida state capitol to protest the outcome of Zimmerman’s case. The same year—inspired, in part, by the Dream Defenders—the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets, embarking on the relentless work of forcing Americans to confront police violence. (Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, affirmed her support for the abolition of police in a June interview with Newsweek.)

One of the most ardent fighters in the modern abolition movement has been Mariame Kaba, the activist known on Twitter as @prisonculture. In 2009, she founded Project NIA, an advocacy organization combating the criminalization and incarceration of children and young adults. In the years that followed, Kaba hosted conferences, gave speeches, and traveled widely. She also frequently wrote articles; her children’s book Missing Daddy is about a girl whose father is in prison. In 2016, Kaba was among a group of lawyers, people in prison, community leaders, and others who established Survived and Punished (S+P), another abolitionist organization, which works to stop sexual violence and the criminalization of survivors.

Efforts such as these, focused on eliminating police departments and replacing them with more compassionate forms of justice, have been developing for years just below the mainstream—quiet and immense and waiting to erupt past the surface, like the dramatic formation of a new island. An observant journalist could see evidence of this. In 2017, Tracey L. Meares, a Yale Law School professor and member of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, wrote in the Boston Review that “policing as we know it must be abolished before it can be transformed,” citing Kaba. In 2019, Critical Resistance was part of a coalition of activists that succeeded in ending a swat emergency training expo called Urban Shield. The ongoing campaign to eliminate Immigration and Customs Enforcement has some origins in the abolition movement—the language of “people in cages” comes from abolitionist rhetoric; many immigrant activists and attorneys identify as abolitionists, too. Recently, in Los Angeles, Black Lives Matter helped persuade the city council to advance a proposal that would move as much as $150 million of the police department’s operating budget (totaling nearly $2 billion) to health and housing programs.

In Minneapolis, the heart of the latest protests, the demand to defund the police appeared well before this spring. Back in 2007, five high-ranking Black officers sued their department for institutional racism; the case included death threats sent to every Black person on the force, signed “KKK.” The American Civil Liberties Union reported in 2015 that Black people in Minneapolis were about nine times more likely than whites to be arrested for low-grade offenses such as disorderly conduct and lurking. That year, in the north of the city, two white police officers, Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze, shot and killed a Black twenty-four-year-old named Jamar Clark. In 2016, an officer shot Philando Castile to death. Around that time, the Center for Policing Equity, a think tank, began working with the Minneapolis Police Department to curb burdensome and inequitable police practices. “The Minneapolis police have struggled for a long time with pockets of resistance to those kinds of changes,” Phillip Atiba Goff, one of the Center’s leaders, recently told the New York Times Magazine. “One terrible lesson of George Floyd’s death is that we don’t have mechanisms to stop terrible officers from doing terrible things on a given shift.”

Turning a city’s pain into a basis for research, a coalition of local residents reviewed decades of police violence against Black people in Minneapolis. The nominal occasion was the department’s 150th anniversary, but the necessity came from the blood in the streets. In 2017, after completing dozens of case studies, the group produced a report. There was a clear conclusion: “Abolition, not reform, is the way forward.”

“There’s a way in which abolitionist work that’s coming from radical Black feminism and radical queer politics gets submerged.”

 

As June wore on, many of the political journalists who had initially covered “Defund the Police” as a breaking news story caught up on their reading. Outlets began to produce pieces that were less reactive, more nuanced. The New York Times ran an op-ed by Kaba settling the confusion over “semantics”; its title was “Yes, we mean literally abolish the police.” Still, scrutinizing the policy proposals, not everyone was persuaded. The idea of dismantling police departments—according to some writers at Vox, The Marshall Project, and other publications—was to be judged as a set of outlines, not as the result of deep frustration that’s built up in the places reporters too frequently ignore. They still didn’t get it.

“When you see ‘Defund the Police’ on signs, you have to understand that, for so many of us, it’s a placeholder for something much deeper—it has a much bigger spiritual and epistemic commitment behind it,” Bierria said. The modern abolition movement, she added, has been guided by Black feminism, which rejects accepted notions of crime and punishment. “As Black women, we exist at the intersections of so many kinds of violence: state violence, sexual violence, racist violence. And that puts us in a unique position to find a politics that responds to that multidimensionality of violence.”

The problem with journalists’ coverage of police abolition cannot be disentangled from the lack of diversity within newsrooms. Minority groups make up nearly 40 percent of the population of the United States but only about 17 percent of newsroom staff at print and online publications, and only 13 percent of newspaper leadership. This means that the communities most reporters and editors come from do not look like the places where Black Lives Matter activists live. The press also has historically taken the side of police departments in coverage of crime—including cases in which an officer has been at fault. As Jelani Cobb wrote for this magazine, describing a white reporter in a predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhood, “What to the journalist seemed inscrutable was, to many residents, reasonable.” Many non-Black journalists’ first personal experience with American police violence came during the protests that erupted after Floyd’s death, when hundreds of reporters were arrested, shot with rubber bullets, or gassed with chemical agents.

It’s important to recognize that the demand to defund the police is about more than just policy; it’s the advent of a new kind of politics, one that breaks the narratives and tropes we have relied on in order to make sense of the country. The movement doesn’t work in the same way that journalism, as we know it, expects a movement to work. As reporters, we typically look for leaders to interview and for spokespeople who can explain a rally’s demands. But modern abolitionists tend to reject traditional organizing models; instead, they pursue collective, horizontal leadership structures. “We want to let the community lead itself, and we also know that the state surveils and targets leaders,” Sisay, who is part of Survived and Punished, told me. Like every other volunteer in the group, Sisay’s only title is “member.” “No one is trying to be a Martin or Malcolm,” she said.

The context of the 2020 campaigns has compounded the challenge to journalists. Other social movements, such as the Tea Party, have thrown their weight behind putting candidates in office, but most abolitionists describe elections as simply one potential—and decidedly limited—tool in pursuit of their goals. More than one abolitionist I spoke to described voting as merely “harm reduction.” Elections, they argued, infrequently offer solutions to institutional problems where the government itself is to blame. The race for the White House would seem particularly removed from the organizing modern abolitionists do. “No matter who is president, there is still violence in our communities, and still violence in the prison-industrial complex,” Sisay said. And beyond strategy, there’s also a deep sense of disillusionment with a system of voting that continually fails Black people, even as they turn out at record levels. If the protesters in the streets don’t seem to be pursuing a strategy that prioritizes getting Biden elected president (and if defunding appears to be a “massive political mistake” for Democrats), it is because making Biden president is ultimately not abolitionists’ most pressing goal.

The rules of the institutions that non-Black journalists know—the schools, the government buildings, the campaign headquarters—don’t apply to the messy cacophony of a passionate protest movement. Anti-police advocates believe that it would be a mistake for political reporters not to understand the energy of this moment as revolutionary in nature. “People are so fed up after the failures of reform, they’ve embraced what abolitionists have been saying all along: that the systems of policing and imprisonment are, at their core, violent, racist institutions,” Mohamed Shehk, the national media and communications director for Critical Resistance, told me.

Then again, the nature of big ideas is that, eventually, they’ll be taken up by the masses. Even if it doesn’t happen this election cycle, it seems inevitable that politicians will soon pull “Defund the Police” into their campaign platforms. Shehk and others worry that, as their message becomes absorbed into the mainstream, it will be dislodged from its abolitionist roots and transfigured into a call for reform. The gravity of electoral politics is strong, and can be deadly. As time goes on, journalists will have to evaluate different policy proposals to defund the police—starting in Minneapolis, where it seems poised to become a reality. In June, a veto-proof majority of the city council announced their intent to disband the police department and to reinvest the resources into community infrastructure and nonviolent alternatives to policing. Jacob Frey, the mayor, said he was against the plan. He will be up for reelection next year.

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Jack Herrera is an independent reporter covering immigration, refugees, Latinx issues, and human rights. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, The Nation, and elsewhere. Based in San Francisco, he is an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations.