Calls to “defund the police” filled the streets during the 2020 uprisings against racist police violence and continue today. Racial justice advocates say housing, health care, public education, and other supports known to reduce violence and suffering remain chronically underfunded in cities across the country, but local and state governments continue to pump more than $200 billion into bloated budgets for jails and police each year.
The ideas and policy proposals behind “defund the police” have sparked millions around the world to engage, educate and agitate around these issues. In the national political realm, though, both Republican and Democratic politicians insist on distorting the movement’s message. Former President Donald Trump and other leading Republicans attempted to fashion the words into a sledgehammer for attacking Democratic politicians, who had little to do with demonstrations for Black lives and defunding police.
Commentators worried the phrase was politically “toxic” and Republicans pounced, conflating anti-racist visions of public safety with vague images of chaos and disruption. Trump even suggested that only he could protect “America’s suburbs” from being overrun with protesters and low-income housing.
Meanwhile, most Democrats in office are stridently pro-police. President Joe Biden is setting the tone for his party with repeated calls for Congress to fund the hiring of 100,000 new police officers along with billions of dollars in additional spending.
Biden has also been focusing his pro-police message on calling out apparent hypocrisy among “MAGA Republicans” who say they are pro-police yet refuse to condemn the bloody January 6 attack on the Capitol. He added that Republicans in Congress voted against additional funding for cops, a likely reference to Biden’s signature pandemic relief packaged passed in 2020.
The “answer,” Biden said, is to fund the police, not defund police.
“Look, you’re either on the side of a mob or the side of the police,” Biden said to applause in a speech on Tuesday. “You can’t be pro-law enforcement and pro-insurrection.”
Biden’s message is clearly designed to appeal to mainstream Democrats and swing voters who are souring on Trump in the wake of January 6 and, now, the investigation into secret national defense documents the former president allegedly absconded with as he left office. Trump’s outrage over the FBI search of his home on August 8 — which he used to generate media coverage and raise donations — was repeated across the right, with conservative commentators and lawmakers bizarrely calling to “defund” or “abolish” the FBI. (Of course, activists on the left have been calling to defund the FBI for far better reasons for a long time.) Death threats against federal law enforcement put offices across the country on high alert, and a gunman was shot and killed after attacking an FBI office in Ohio.
But critics say Biden’s speech and the rhetoric from the right obscures the real issues behind “defund the police,” watering the words down to an empty political Rubicon. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago mansion was not “raided” by federal agents, who had negotiated with Trump’s lawyers over the allegedly stolen government documents for months. When police raid the homes of BIPOC and working-class people over much smaller matters such as drugs, for example, they use flash bang grenades, battering rams and arrive heavily armed. Both adults and children get hurt in the process. Breonna Taylor and Amir Locke were both famously killed in botched police raids. The so-called “raid” on Trump’s lavish mansion-resort was a cakewalk in comparison.
“Once you had Marjorie Taylor Greene and the like talking about defunding the FBI, it was clear that things have jumped the shark a little bit, the waters are getting muddy,” said Amara Enyia, manager of policy and research for the Movement for Black Lives, in an interview. “There are so many thing that are happening, and I think the issues now are getting conflated, confused.”
In his latest speech on the issue, Biden cherry-picked some racial justice activists’ talking points, saying we “expect police to do everything” — to be psychologists and sociologists all while protecting the public. The “defund the police” movement also makes this point, arguing that police are ill-equipped to respond to complex social and public health problems such as homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness, not to mention the heavily armed teenager in Uvalde, Texas, who was allowed to go on a killing rampage inside an elementary school while dozens of police stood by.
Where Biden and the “defund” movement depart is over the solution: Biden wants more cops and money for them, while “defund” activists are calling for investments in communities that make them safer.
The problems that activists called out in 2020 are still very much at work: Police budgets are ballooning while people struggle to access quality housing, health care, and other essentials. For example, in Chicago, public schools are slated to lose $30 million in state funding while the police department enjoys a significant boost in funding.
“People are seeing with their own eyes that perhaps that is not the best use of those funds,” Enyia said. “Perhaps we should be addressing the root causes of violence.”
Biden’s Safe America Plan includes $20 billion for “services that address the causes of crime and reduce the burdens on police,” including mental health and addiction services as alternatives to incarceration. Critics say people should not be facing jail time for health problems to begin with.
A White House fact sheet suggests that at least $1 billion would be used to train police and further pad their budgets. The money is meant to incentivize policing reforms Congress failed to pass, but researchers say federal funding mechanisms for the criminal legal system are outdated and in dire need of repair. Meanwhile, abolitionists say the policing reforms would just put a Band-Aid on a broken system that needs to go.
Enyia said Biden could’ve used his bully pulpit to explain why confronting environmental racism or funding public schools and hospitals — two priorities that have slipped from the top of the White House agenda — would make communities safer in the long run. Democrats could have an “open and honest” conversation about how public safety is defined in disadvantaged communities. Instead, Biden is continuing on the same path the government has always taken, a path we know leads to racist violence.