Does #DefundThePolice rhetoric get in the way of actual police reform?

OPINION: The rallying call that was birthed out of the George Floyd protests has become a political liability.

A protester carries a sign that reads “Defund The Police” during the Black Women Matter “Say Her Name” march on July 3, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. Protests continue around the country after the death of African Americans while in police custody. (Photo by Eze Amos/Getty Images)

Black people’s justified anger about police brutality forces us to take strong stances against the killings of unarmed Black people by police officers. Ironically, sometimes these stances are in opposition to our goal of achieving change.

Do we continue to argue the nuances of #defundthepolice, when we know this hashtag is being used to turn White suburbanites against police reform?

Read More: Stacey Abrams says ‘Defund the Police’ campaign is a ‘false choice’

Our rhetoric should not become an obstacle to progress. It is unfair that Black people have to deal with the trauma of U.S. racism and that we must express our grief in ways that do not alienate too many White voters. Still, this is the reality of our situation.

Following the killing of George Floyd, the rhetoric of defunding the police fueled the nationwide protests. These protests then created the space to advance police reforms across the country. But now this same rhetoric is becoming a political liability. For many activists, #defundthepolice is the first step in their long-term project of ending the carceral state.

Demonstrators marching to defund the Minneapolis Police Department dance on University Avenue on June 6, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The march, organized by the Black Visions Collective, commemorated the life of George Floyd who was killed by members of the MPD on May 25. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Most of the country, however, does not share this goal. For the last 20 years, police have been characterized as the heroes of Sept. 11. Twenty years of valorization of police cannot be overcome with the hashtag defund the police and impassioned tweets. Even many Black elected officials do not support deep cuts to police department funding. 

Conservatives do not mind using our embrace of #defundthepolice to scare White voters into opposing, even modest, police reforms. During the 2020 Republican National Convention, speakers used #defundthepolice to paint police reform advocates as anti-American and anti-police.

Read More: RNC is our last reminder that Republicans don’t plan on a fair play election

Black people are not given the luxury to be simplistic and unnuanced. This approach is often characterized as policing our language and centering Whiteness. Our policies and strategies must be grounded in today’s demographic reality. 

Black Americans are only 13 percent of the U.S. population. White Americans are 76 percent of the U.S. population. How do we maximize our policy wins while mitigating against White resistance? Is centering the idea of White resistance, in Black political strategy, counter to the project of liberation?

Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles supporters protest outside the Unified School District headquarters calling on the board of education to defund school police on June 23, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. The demonstrators want the funds currently spent on campus police to be reallocated to other student-serving priorities. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Our liberation is not one or two election cycles away. Making immediate progress should not be held hostage to our weddedness to political rhetoric. Political pragmatism forces us to sometimes abandon the language of protests in the interest of implementing policies that offer some immediate progress.

Ras Baraka, mayor of Newark, New Jersey, is a Black elected official who has bemoaned #defundthepolice. Mayor Baraka called the idea a “bourgeois liberal” solution to police reform. Even while distancing himself from some of the rhetoric of protestors, Mayor Baraka has been able to institute substantial police reforms.

In July, Mayor Baraka wrote in The Economist that he has been able to reduce complaints against police by 80 percent in Newark. He stated that by advocating for reforms like residency requirements for police officers, training citizens on conflict resolution, community round tables between police and communities, and diverting 5 percent of Newark’s public safety budget toward alternative community-based strategies — he has been able to improve policing in his city.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka attends a unity rally on the steps of City Hall in downtown Newark in support of immigrants on January 18, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Even though Mayor Baraka has not embraced the language of defunding police he has still encountered pushback. The local police union has filed litigation against the Civilian Complaint Review Board that Mayor Baraka instituted in 2016.

Using more nuanced language and pursuing more incremental policies does not inoculate us from attacks. Pragmatic approaches to policymaking do, however, make it more difficult for us to be immediately dismissed as radicals. We must find ways to improve the lives of Black people in the United States while not being drawn into unnecessary rhetorical battles.

Anti-Black racism feels intractable. We should pursue policies that soberly accept the reality of racism and the demographic realities of the United States. Protests help us to start necessary policy discussions around issues that are often ignored. The rhetoric used during protests articulates what a world free of oppression could look like. Still, no one attended protests this summer because they were impassioned supporters of #defundthepolice.

People attended these protests because they were tired of seeing Black people killed by police. Our rhetoric should not hinder our ability to implement policies that make protesting police brutality unnecessary.

Brandon Hicks serves as Director of African American Affairs for the Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo. He is a former National Organizer for National Action Network, a civil rights organization founded by Rev. Al Sharpton. His opinions are his own.

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