The Movement To Defund Police Captures What Is Missing From Resistance Liberalism
Support for defunding police departments remains extremely low, but the movement has mobilized left activists in a way the Democrats’ anti-Trump resistance never has.
Last Saturday, former Vice President Joe Biden acquired the 1,991 delegates needed to become the Democrat’s presumptive nominee for president. This was not a major development in the primary race given that Biden had been running unopposed since April, but he released a statement reaffirming his role as the “restoration” candidate that would bring back competence to government. “The country is crying out for leadership,” Biden wrote. “Leadership that can unite us. Leadership that can bring us together... We need a president who cares about helping us heal — now.”
The Biden campaign’s focus on Trump’s corrosion of the executive mirrors how Democrats have mostly operated as an opposition party over the past three years. Not only have they moved to punish Trump’s abuse of power (culminating with impeachment proceedings in the Democrat-controlled House), they have sounded the alarms on the downstreaming of Trump abuse of power to other areas of government, namely the Justice Department.
In essence, Democrats have become aligned with the law and order arm of the state in their efforts to root out Trump’s corruption and, ultimately, to save those institutions from sliding into authoritarian rule. But in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, dozens of anti-police brutality protests have cropped up that reveal profound distrust and disillusionment with law enforcement across the country.
The outrage over Floyd’s death and others that have been killed by police officers has congealed into the “defund the police” movement, which prison and police abolitionists say is really about redirecting resources away from the policing arm of local governments and moving them toward education and social welfare services. Other pro-abolition activists say defunding the police is part of a broader movement to eliminate the need for police departments in their communities. Alongside efforts to divest from police departments would be efforts to decriminalize nonviolent offenses and replace armed police officers with trained mental health experts and crisis counselors.
In either case, the stated policy goals of “defund the police” appear at odds with what has long been the rationale behind the Democrat’s resistance to Trump — the need to save, and restore trust in, the political and juridical institutions of the state. But even as positive attitudes toward law enforcement have declined sharply amid the protests, and as proposals to defund them have entered the political mainstream, police abolition activists run the risk of alienating themselves with tactics that refuse to engage the legislative power centers of either party that support police and criminal justice reform.
Talking Past Potential Allies
For pro-abolition activists, “defund the police” is more than just a slogan summing up their policy goals. It’s a statement that sets the terms of the debate around the left’s priorities. In some ways, this is tactical: by limiting the range of acceptable policy responses to the anti-police brutality protests, activists are able to frame the issue as a stark moral choice between the inhumanity of the status quo and the promise of revolutionary social change. The hope is that elected officials who feel pressure to respond, or are normally responsive, to the demands of activists are likely to back whatever aligns them with the perceived “good” side (diversity, peaceful protest, justice) rather than the “bad” side (racism, police violence, injustice).
Activism around the Trump administration’s use of cage-like detention facilities for undocumented children made use of this tactic by coalescing around calls to “Abolish ICE”, the U.S.’s immigration enforcement agency formed in 2003. And former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders deployed this tactic in his effort to make his version of a single-payer healthcare system, Medicare For All, a litmus test for the candidates seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.
But Joe Biden’s early and decisive victory in the the Democratic primary suggests there are real limits to crowding out political space for ameliorist and reform-oriented approaches to social problems. As the Sanders campaign discovered, having power over the discourse does not always translate into acquiring the kind of political support activists need in order to have power over the institutions that make the laws. Public opinion can change over time to align squarely with the left, as was the case with same-sex marriage and government-run universal healthcare, but voters also tend to be wary of the change they say they want. Thus even if a majority voters come around to supporting controversial movements like “defund the police”, they may pick leaders who promise to moderate the changes or to not prioritize them as much as other issues.
But I think the biggest problem with lead-from-the-leftmost-position tactics is the potential for activists to induce their own alienation by refusing to engage or work with people who aren’t abolitionists but currently have the power to make real strides toward abolitionists’ policy goals. Last Saturday in Minneapolis, protesters drove Mayor Jacob Frey out of a rally with boos after he refused to commit to defunding the Minneapolis police department. Then on Sunday, Frey posted a Facebook message explaining his support for “deep structural reforms to change policing” over calls to abolish the police department.
Frey’s position is not just reasonable for a head government official in a major U.S. city; it aligns with where most voters (and probably most Minneapolis residents) are on the subject. In a news release on a survey it conducted with YouGov, Yahoo News reported
But the public largely opposes one policy proposal that has become a rallying cry among protestors in the wake of George Floyd’s death — defunding police departments…
Asked whether they would back cuts in funding for police departments, 65 percent of Americans said no. Just 16 percent said yes — a number that held steady across party lines, with Democrats at 16 percent, Republicans at 15 percent and independents at 17 percent.
Even black Americans, who were nearly three times as likely to support defunding police departments in the survey (33 percent versus 12 percent of whites), largely opposed the measure. Thus the image of Mayor Frey being driven out of a rally could have the opposite effect activists wanted — it could endear the public to him rather than to the activists’ cause.
The George Floyd protests have no doubt proved that antiracism is a force for mass political mobilization in the Trump era, but they have also shown that antiracist buy-in from elites can be valuable on the messaging front. Unlike ever before, celebrities, sports organizations, and retail brands feel pressure to publicly declare support for Black Lives Matter — and to put the resources behind their words. This should compel activists to come up with ways to harness, rather than dismiss or deride, elite solidarity behind parts of their cause that elites are willing to work with.
The Poverty of Resistance Liberalism
But police abolition activists aren’t the only ones facing uncomfortable truths about this political moment.
For at its core, “defund the police” is a rejection of the liberal worldview that government, so long as it is democratically and wisely elected, can be a force for social and redistributive justice. Despite all the problems with the American policing system, liberals cling to a belief in government’s capacity to change, to remake society in the image of the people it serves.
This is not to say that police abolitionists are anarchists or that none of their policy proposals are compatible with liberal governance. But for the most part, police abolitionists are not motivated by the kind of politics that defined the Democratic resistance to Trump over the past three years. And I think this speaks to the party’s failure to allay the fear, anger, and distrust of society’s institutions that runs deeper than Donald Trump’s corrosion of them all. For many activists, the criminal justice system simply isn’t designed to get better, no matter how hard liberals try. It’s a growing view Democrats don’t seem equipped to defend themselves against.