Do We Need To Rephrase 'Defund The Police?'

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
Do We Really Need To Rephrase 'Defund The Police?'
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez/Twitter

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “defund the police?” Since the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the movement has become an integral part of the conversation around Black Lives Matter and systemic racism. But for some people, the phrase is jarring. By using the word “defund,” there is confusion over what that actually means. As a result, people may be vehemently opposed to the idea. It begs the question: if we change the word defund, would that make it easier for folks to process?

When it comes to the defund the police movement, people are getting too hung up on language. Defund the police means just that. It’s not “get rid of all police and create a lawless society.” You can say “repurposing money” and it still means the same thing. Police departments shouldn’t have the kind of budgets that many of them have. That’s the real issue here, not what we’re calling the movement. To spend this much time arguing the semantics of a movement only shows that people will find any excuse to not get on board with something that would actually be really beneficial for many people.

“We cannot message test our way to freedom, and if we are more concerned with the message than the mission and the substance, we have failed to show up for what this moment calls us to do,” Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza said, via The Hill.

And she’s right. We’re no longer at the point where we can be passive about approach. The longer we allow people to focus on the language of the movement, the further we are getting away from the point. “Defund the police” is more than just a slogan; it’s a call to action. In this case, the language is extremely intentional. Using words like “reprioritize,” “transform,” or something similar is far too passive to actually make any real impact. These words undermine the seriousness of the movement. And not only that, but they make it seem like something that can be easily fixed. Changing the word “defund” is a grab at making the movement palatable, and we’re way beyond that.

“And by the way, the fact that ppl are scrambling to repackage this whole conversation to make it palatable for largely affluent, white suburban ‘swing’ voters again points to how much more electoral & structural power these communities have relative to others,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in a thread on the subject.

Clearly, the people who cannot understand the term “defund the police” are the same people who aren’t impacted by police brutality. It’s easy to call something extreme or ‘too far’ when it doesn’t change the way you live your day to day life. There are arguments that the word ‘defund’ isn’t clear, and that’s why people can’t get behind the movement. Honestly, that’s just a weak excuse to dismiss this critically important conversation. ‘Defund the police’ is just as clear as ‘transform the police’. The movement is about removing some of the power of police departments by taking money away from them. Defund means “prevent from continuing to receive funds.” What about that is unclear?

Defunding the police would mean taking money away from the police and giving it to underfunded essential services. If cities and counties give more money to other social services, there isn’t as much of a need for police because they aren’t being called as often. Funding better mental health services would mean that instead of facing arrest, people having a mental health crisis can get professional help and interventions. Communities can rebuild youth centers and give kids a safe place to go to avoid trouble. People suffering from drug addiction can go to professional detox centers and rehab.

Giving money to the programs that will do the most good is the best possible thing for everyone in the community, not just the people who need to utilize the services.

According to an article from The New York Times, New York City’s police budget is 6 billion dollars. That’s more than the budgets for health, youth development services, workforce development, and homeless services combined. The Cut notes that the proposed 2021 budget for the Los Angeles Police Department was 1.8 billion dollars, which is more than half the city’s total spending. No matter what you call it, the movement aims to move that money into those equally crucial, previously underfunded services.

Ira L. Black/Corbis/Getty

Language is important. No one is saying that it’s not. But in this case, the language is abundantly clear. Defund the police is a movement to deconstruct the current model of police departments. It’s transforming the budgets of police departments across the country. It’s reprioritizing the purpose and responsibilities of the police. Using any other term doesn’t properly convey the bottom line message of the movement. And the people who claim that “defund” is too confusing, or too extreme, are doing so purposely because they are likely not impacted by systemic oppression. They can’t be bothered to understand what doesn’t directly affect their safety and wellbeing.

We have to move past trying to make movements palatable to the white majority. Clarity is important, of course, but there’s nothing unclear here, just an unwillingness to truly educate oneself. The necessary actions will still be the same, even if the language softens. The time for changing words to make white people comfortable is over. There’s plenty of information out there: do the work and stop asking it to be spoon fed to you. It’s time to defund the police.

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