Obama & Bernie are Right: “Defund the Police” is a Terrible Slogan

“Yes We Can,” “Change We Can Believe in,” “Make America Great Again.” Fantastic slogans. And then there’s this: “Defund the Police.” Wait, what?

A little less than a week ago, President Obama spoke to Peter Hamby’s “Good Luck America” for Snap Originals from Snapchat which you can catch on YouTube.

In the interview, Hamby asked Obama, “Again, if you’re a young activist today, and you believe really passionately in a slogan like ‘Defund the Police’ what is your advice to that activist also knowing that politicians won’t go near that phrase?”

Obama’s reply:

“It’s interesting. We take for granted if you want people to buy your sneakers that you’re gonna market it to your audience. If a musician drops a record, they’re gonna… try to reach a certain audience speaking to folks where they are. It’s no different in terms of ideas. If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan like ‘Defund the Police,’ but you know you’ve lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually gonna get the changes that you want done. But if you instead say, ‘Let’s reform the police department so that everybody’s being treated fairly… you know, divert people from getting into crime, and if there’s a homeless guy, maybe we send a mental health worker there instead of an armed unit that ends up resulting in a tragedy.’ Suddenly a bunch of folks who otherwise might not listen to you, are listening to you. The key is, do you want to get something done or do you want to feel good with people you already agree with?”

This was, in some circles, deemed controversial. President Obama’s response to the slogan upset people. It made some people, especially those on the left, pretty angry.

Let’s be clear. Obama is absolutely right, and they are absolutely wrong. Defund the police means different things to different people, but in some circles that meaning has included abolishing the police altogether. And that right there is a non-starter for most people. You cannot get people on board for something they view as extreme, and those not in on progressive lingo only see defund as abolish.

Even Bernie Sanders came out against defunding the police saying in November to Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union” that, “What we talk about is making police officers accountable, making sure that police departments do what they can do best, figuring out how you deal with mental illness, how you deal with homelessness, whether those are, in fact, police responsibilities, making sure the police officers are not killing innocent African-Americans. That is not defund the police.”

Does talking about defunding the police hurt the cause? Well, if the cause depends on gathering people from the center and the left, Congressman and House Majority Whip James Clyburn says yes. “That phrase, ‘Defund the Police,’ cost (Democratic Senate candidate) Jaime Harrison tremendously.”

There are a lot of good ideas behind this very bad, very dumb slogan. Reforming the police, rebuilding the police, budgeting differently, these are fair ideas. The truth is that we do need to look at bloated budgets. We do need to demilitarize the police. We have started to arm police in gear that’s straight out of Iraq and Afghanistan. There are police departments that own tanks and armored vehicles on the streets of America. Some police officers take seminars in being “warriors” as if they are policing Fallujah, not protecting and serving small towns and cities in heartland America. It’s genuinely terrifying.

According to an article from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences, “Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex,” “Over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police.” That is a shocking number, and America’s police violence is much worse than most other 1st world countries. This HAS to change.

But talking about “defunding” the police won’t help anything. If we must “sloganeer” as Clyburn warns against, we’re going to have to do a lot better than this. Otherwise, there’s not going to be a party in power willing to do anything at all.

Slogans are not the same as policy, no matter how much we may confuse the two. It’s like that dress on the internet back in 2015. You know, the one that might be gold and white, or might be royal blue and black. “Defund the Police” is not entirely dissimilar. It means whatever the person seeing it or hearing it thinks it does.

I spoke to one person who put it like this, “Back when I first heard it, I thought it was coming from a right-wing loon, ranting about something that was allegedly said by Antifa. I couldn’t believe such a misleading slogan was really being used.”

It’s a terrible slogan, and maybe Clyburn’s right, slogans are terrible things. Slogans leave no room for clarity and nuance. Going forward, we can do better than “Defund the Police.”

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