The Media Urge to Explain away ‘Defund the Police’

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Protesters rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York City, May 31, 2020. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

The hot protest slogan and hashtag of the moment is “Defund the Police.” At times, it’s also framed as a call to abolish or disband the police. Ordinary speakers of the English language would naturally assume, listening to people chant “defund the police” in the streets, carry “defund the police” signs, and literally paint “defund the police” on the streets of D.C., that such people mean “defund the police.”

But not our media! There’s been an immediate rush to write pieces explaining that, of course, “defund the police” does not actually mean “defund the police.” From a Washington Post op-ed by Georgetown Law professor Christy Lopez, entitled “Defund the police? Here’s what that really means”:

Be not afraid. “Defunding the police” is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds . . . Defunding and abolition probably mean something different from what you are thinking. For most proponents, “defunding the police” does not mean zeroing out budgets for public safety, and police abolition does not mean that police will disappear overnight — or perhaps ever.

From an Associated Press explainer by Michael Balsamo, Zeke Miller, and Michael Sisak entitled “When protesters cry ‘defund the police,’ what does it mean?”:

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But what does ‘defund the police’ mean? It’s not necessarily about gutting police department budgets. . . . Supporters say it isn’t about eliminating police departments or stripping agencies of all of their money.

From Matt Yglesias at Vox, “Growing calls to “defund the police,” explained”:

The basic idea, though, is less that policing budgets should be literally zeroed out than that there should be a massive restructuring of public spending priorities. . . . Police abolitionists are proposing a scaling-back of the scope of police activities that is far outside the horizon of current political possibility, so they may not articulate the most fine-grained details.

From Emily VanDerWerff at Vox, “The narrative power of ‘abolish the police’: It isn’t just a policy proposal. It’s also an idea of what the country could be”:

Applying these storytelling rules to the political realm shifts the introduction of the main character and the goal — the first act, in other words. Different sides advance different ideas of what goal should be accomplished (in this case, police reform), and which protagonist should be at the forefront (in this case, a broad sociopolitical movement often defined by key individuals). The audience (in this case, the American public) ultimately chooses which story it most wants to hear… So it is with “abolish the police.” Here, the “protagonist” is a combination of over-policed black communities and the protesters who have rallied to those communities’ side in the last few weeks, and the goal is to dismantle the de facto police state those communities live in. Setting goals versus proposing solutions is a big divide in how people on the left talk about politics…

There’s been much more in this vein, but you get the idea. Notably, articles of this nature seek to draw the eye towards legislative and think-tank proposals and away from the voices of the people actually chanting in the streets.

In part, of course, all this explaining is a reflection of what a radical and politically explosive idea “defund the police” is in an election year, and how it divides the Democrats along ideological and generational lines. Leading Democratic politicians are running headlong away from the slogan while trying to embrace the people chanting it. Joe Biden, who for years proudly touted his role in the 1994 “put 100,000 more cops on the street” crime bill, visibly wants no part of the slogan. But unlike the party’s leadership, many of whom were born in the early 1940s, influential younger lawmakers such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are pushing the idea. These are the folks who may run the party when the age-77-and-up crowd moves on.

Defunding police is also wildly impractical. The Minneapolis City Council grabbed headlines by voting to defund and disband the city’s police department, but they don’t actually have the legal authority to do that; defunding would require a revision to the city charter, which the voters would have to approve. Until then, the cops report to the city’s mayor, not the city council. Camden, New Jersey actually went forward with disbanding its police department — in theory. In practice, what Camden did is just old-fashioned union-busting: disband the department to get rid of the union, then hire the same cops back at lower salaries and benefits.

What makes the media’s Voxsplaining of “Defund the Police” all so astonishingly brazen is when you compare it with how they routinely treat popular slogans, protests, and broad-brush assertions by politicians on the right. When Tea Party protesters and Republican politicians called for repealing Obamacare, for example, they were roundly mocked in these same quarters for not having a single, comprehensive, CBO-scored plan on which the entire party agreed, notwithstanding the presence of plenty of think-tank proposals and general agreement on a lot of individual pieces. A whole cottage industry exists to lampoon protestors on the right for not fully grasping the nuances of their own slogans. When Tom Cotton wrote an op-ed that the New York Times titled, “Send in the Troops,” it was widely treated as a call to sic troops on peaceful protestors even though Cotton explicitly said otherwise in the op-ed. Conservative politicians and pundits are assumed to be responsible for the literal content of “abolish the IRS,” or “close the border,” or “build the wall.” Liberal media commentators spent years mocking Salena Zito’s description of Trump supporters who “take him seriously, but not literally” — which is precisely what these same voices are now trying to do with “defund the police.”

As always with these sorts of double standards: They think we can’t see what they are doing.


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