If you’re explaining, you’re losing

I’ve seen this graphic, explaining what “Defund the Police” actually entails, going around on social media:

There are some very good ideas here. Ideas, unfortunately, that many will not see because they’re turned off by a deliberately provocative, misleading slogan.

Political science lecturer Julie Norman, in The Hill, explains why the phrase “Defund the Police” could end up hurting the advancement of desperately needed reforms:

…words matter, and slogans like “defund (or abolish) the police,” taken without nuanced explainers, could backfire on the very reforms activists want to achieve. 

For most activists, defunding the police does not necessarily mean doing away with police departments (although the Minneapolis City Council has already voted to disband the city’s police force). In most cases, defunding the police might look more like cutting expanding budgets, such as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti deciding to slash up to $150 million from the LAPD’s $1.86 billion budget.

A more systemic approach sought by advocates is to re-direct dollars currently going to policing to social services like mental health, domestic abuse, and homelessness, and invest in professionals who could be first responders in those situations instead of police, as is the case in most U.S. precincts. Other proposals include making federal funding to local police departments contingent on making reforms, or shifting current police funds towards community mediation and violence prevention programs.

For those already sympathetic enough to read the fine print, there are a number of interesting policy proposals worthy of consideration. But those important conversations might not happen if the slogans themselves push away those who most need to engage with them, including policymakers and police themselves. 


There are some who maintain that, given that past procedural reforms have not ended police violence, reforms are not enough, and a more radical “abolish the police” objective is necessary. But most people who use the “defund the police” phrase support more nuanced approaches of re-distributing funding for public safety by increasing investment in other crucial social services. However, the potential conversation around the plausibility of such policies risks being obscured by reducing it to a controversial slogan. Such framings can be useful for mobilizing adherents but can backfire when trying to translate protests into policy.

The current movement has created an unprecedented moment for long-needed reforms. Recent polls show that a strong majority of Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, favor police reforms. Less than 1 in 5 support defunding the police. 

By conflating reforming the police with defunding the police, activists risk missing an opportunity to win public support and investment in much-needed reforms.

The Washington Post‘s James Hohmann suggests “Demilitarize the Police” instead.

2 thoughts on “If you’re explaining, you’re losing

  1. M says:

    Recently, I thought that the violence of the protests around the death of George Floyd would drown out the real message and destroy an opportunity for true change. But that hasn’t happened. We don’t know the final outcome and this will take some time, but there has already been more progress and debate than previously seemed possible.
    This may go similarly. Social media gives an outlet to both the thoughtless and those who want meaningful change. Camden’s example is in the media. Major figures such as Pelosi and Sanders and undoubtedly others whose involvement will draw attention are having a say (I’m a little behind on reading news, having spent the week stripping down my own household :). Minneapolis has voted to disband its police force. There seems to be enough momentum to carry this forward until people can see for themselves what “disbanding the police” actually means.
    It’s not just about demilitarization. Police are catch-alls and that’s a significant part of the problem. The next steps in Minneapolis will help to define things. Meanwhile we should be learning from their mistakes…and have faith, even though it’s not easy at times. In all the madness, there are still Americans willing to fight for needed changes.

  2. M says:

    “NYPD will disband its plainclothes anti-crime officers” https://theweek.com/speedreads/920193/nypd-disband-plainclothes-anticrime-officers
    As the process starts to move to actual changes in policing, things will become clearer. Of course that does not in any way mean that the right thing will be done immediately, or at all. Nonetheless, with the shift from talking about reform to implementing it, hopefully, the dialogue will develop from a mad mob with a few sensible people to a stage where common sense takes over and those people who have nothing meaningful to contribute lose interest (so that the people who are actually invested in real change can do what’s needed).

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