“Defund the Police” Was Popular in 2020. What Happened Then?
The most popular slogan in 2020 might have become the most toxic one for Democrats in 2021
In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, which sparked the largest national protest against police brutality in the United States in the 21st century, a slogan began to spread in unison among protesters: “Defund the Police.” According to a June 2020 poll, 72 percent of respondents supported reallocating funding for armed police officers to relevant specialists to respond to mental health emergencies. The difference between the scope of the issue itself and the broader cuts to police funding is both factual and symbolic.
More than a dozen months later, the smoke of the Floyd protests has not subsided: while the perpetrators of Floyd’s murder have received their consequences, the federal government is faced with the dilemma of needing 60 percent of the Senate to pass the bill due to the Filibuster rule. Democrats, with only half the Senate, and Republicans, who steadfastly refuse to budge on sweeping police reform, cannot agree on anything. Meanwhile, the seemingly vocal campaign to cut police costs has fallen into a deeper predicament. According to media reports, many major cities are giving back some of the money stripped from their police budgets the previous year in 2021, and Minneapolis, the base of the Floyd outbreak, is seeing increasingly strong calls to resist divestment.
This phenomenon is the result of an extremely complex set of factors, many of which began to simmer early in the outcry. However, the proponents of the slogan, who were too caught up in the emotions, did not correctly assess the situation and the development of the situation, and as a result, “Defund the Police” is now not only unsupported but even shunned by many politicians and individuals.
The Racial History Behind Police Debates
Let’s start with the history of this slogan. Although concrete discussion and implementation of this slogan began to emerge mainly in 2020, early in the 20th century, the pioneers of the Black civil rights movement, Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois, began to use the American police system at the time as a political tool for systemic oppression of the Black community. Their concerns were well founded: taxpayer-funded police departments did not first appear in Boston until 1839, but as early as the early 18th century, slave-holding Southern states had spontaneously formed “slave patrols,” which were exclusively white, to monitor enslaved Black men working on the plantations. This system was not abolished until after the end of the Civil War.
Looking at history from the perspective of Wells and Du Bois, it is easy to see that the police often became a tool for harboring and condoning racial violence: often, after a black person was accused of a crime, a self-organized white population would carry out public lynchings in front of the courts and police, without going through the normal trial process. During the Tulsa race massacre, which directly resulted in a white mob razing of the Greenwood neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street”, the all-white local police and National Guard chose to stand idly by. This capricious deprivation of life and racialization of crime has profoundly affected many Black communities’ understanding and perception of the police, and as history has developed and police violence in response to public protests has been repeatedly condoned and acquitted, the problem has been perpetuated.
Potential Political Solutions to Change the Police
After Floyd’s death ignited public outrage in the United States, some political researchers in academia began to analyze how to implement the slogan of cutting police costs into policy. One relatively mainstream appeal is that diverting funds to social services that improve mental health, addiction and homelessness would avoid potential friction between these clients and gun-toting police. On the other hand, working with community groups to reduce youth involvement in violence in high-crime neighborhoods from within, in the form of persuasion and job placement, has also become a major goal for cities, including San Francisco. In the view of these scholars, implementing this process requires several important steps: reducing police budgets, removing police from schools, demilitarizing police equipment, and reallocating funds.
Although these demands seem very reasonable and were highly praised during the protests, the corresponding support has never really been mentioned in the polling data. Four public opinion polls conducted in June showed that only 31 percent of respondents directly supported reducing funding for the police department on average, compared to 58 percent who directly opposed it. According to an analysis by the polling site FiveThirtyEight, the underlying reasons for this result are diverse: many respondents, especially non-Blacks, often do not have a first-hand understanding of the problem of police violence; in addition, simply using the slogan to reduce costs as a survey question ignores the important detail of reallocating funds for policing to other parts of the social safety net.
Political Attempts at Police Reform
Even at the height of public discontent with the police, top Democrats, including then-candidate Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, never publicly supported the idea. Their opposition to publicly supporting the concept stemmed largely from the wording of the slogan: In their view, the slogan, which showed no majority support in public opinion polls, was too controversial and alienated voters who might be on the fence about how to change the police status quo.
On the surface, the slogan did garner political change beyond the appeal: in the 2021 budget, a host of major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, reduced or reallocated police funding, with reductions largely on the scale of 15 percent or more. In Austin, the capital of Texas, the police budget has been reduced by an even greater 34 percent, with a full $153 million allocated to community programs or other branches of government and the closure of the oft-criticized forensic department.
Since the Minneapolis protests sparked a series of violent onslaughts and arson, the Republican Party has quickly unified, equating Democratic calls for police reform with condoning and even supporting violent riots. During the 2020 election, Trump’s campaign frequently put videos of the riots on social media in a pinch, describing the phenomenon as “Biden and the Democrats’ America.” The backlash quickly overwhelmed the Democrats: during the 2020 election, such slogans cost them several swing seats in the House of Representatives.
The problems caused by being on the defensive about “defunding” also became more evident after Biden took office: the filibuster left effective police reform dead in the water. This, in turn, was used by Republicans as evidence of Democratic ineptitude. Unable to pass the bill by a simple majority (i.e., 50 votes), the Democrats had to eliminate the “qualified immunity” that had been widely called for at the height of the protests to eliminate the lack of precedent to justify police crimes, and abandoned the need to rewrite the criminal code to explicitly require that government officials not deprive anyone of their constitutional rights. The Democrats’ abandonment of these measures means accepting the objective reality that comprehensive police reform is out of the question because the Democrats are far less consistent and less powerful in convincing the public than the Republicans. Simply by putting a few riot clips on their campaign ads, Republicans were successful at dissuading voters to focus on police reform and accountability.
Case in Point — Burlington, VT
Republican resistance may be the source of the failure of federal police reform, but it does not explain why many cities that had cut their police budgets chose to re-fund them. Take the small city of Burlington, Vermont, as an example: in June 2020, the city of about 42,000 people limited the number of police officers from more than 90 to 74 by legislation and opened hiring for unarmed officers who focused on community needs. This proposal was met with massive backlash and protests from the local police department from the start, with many choosing to retire early or resign outright, resulting in the city’s police force now numbering less than 70. These community police officers were generally not properly trained, and the Burlington Police Union’s open resistance had made it impossible for the city to reach a consensus with them. Threatening to resign amid rising crime, the panicked City Council offered a compromise: continue to cut the number of police officers, but give the existing police department a $1 million emergency funding grant. However, according to local reform supporters, the police department’s racist over-targeting of Black people has not changed at all because of the reduction in police numbers. How to appease residents upset about crime and satisfy activists desperate for reform has become the biggest reason for the cities’ hesitation on the issue.
The Big Picture
The situation in Burlington maps to the entire United States. According to the latest data put out by the FBI, the homicide rate in the United States shows a significant increase in both 2020 and 2021, with the 2020 figure reaching nearly 1.3 times the 2019 rate. Many of the Black politicians involved in major cities tend to have a different view of the riots sparked by the Floyd protests than the activists protesting in the streets. In their view, the rise in homicides and other violent crimes in the last two years is not the result of police inaction, but a persuasive reason for why police budgets cannot be cut. Once budgets are cut, many ethnic minority communities with high crime rates will choose to use the “solve problems in our own hands” rule when community forces are not able to fill the gap in a timely manner, resulting in a significant increase in violent crime.
Concerns about violent crime were ultimately the last straw that prevented the “defunding” issue from gaining widespread support. According to a September 2021 Pew poll, only 23 percent of Black respondents and 25 percent of Democrats said they supported reducing police funding this year, compared to more than 40 percent in June 2020. At the same time, 61 percent of respondents believe violent crime is a very serious problem, a full 20 percent more than the August 2020 figure.
The American public and government are not indifferent to the reality of the police problem. However, in a system that is systematically unfavorable to minorities, both federal-level reforms and local-level proposals have met with significant resistance, preventing a range of otherwise promising ideas from becoming reality once again. The public’s concern about violent crime is at the heart of the Democrats’ inability to speak with one voice: no matter how complex the reasons for the increase in crime, the public’s deep-seated mentality that “the police are the only ones trustworthy in solving crime and keeping peace” remains unchanged. Perhaps this is the fundamental reason why “Defund the Police” as a political slogan cannot be implemented.