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How Are Activists Managing Dissension Within the ‘Defund the Police’ Movement?

7 minute read

In June 2020, the Minneapolis city council announced plans to disband its police department following the killing of George Floyd. The council’s decision came after days of protesting and unrest in the city—and across the country—related to Floyd’s death and calls for larger-scale accountability from law enforcement. Central in many of these calls-for-action was a phrase soon to go global: “defund the police.”

Eight months later, however, and the city’s police department has not been dissolved, though a lot has happened in the interim; Minneapolis’ struggle to implement meaningful reforms serves as a microcosm of how the “defund the police” movement has impacted the country. Council members who initially supported the idea have walked back their positions. In August the city charter delayed the council’s proposal to disband the police pending further review, only to reject the proposal entirely in November. (Instead, there have been some rollbacks within the department as a result of cuts to its budget.)

In those eight months, the term “defund” quickly became divisive—viewed widely as a lightning point in larger culture wars. This has been apparent not just between those operating on different sides of the U.S. political spectrum, but between moderate and progressive politicians in the Democratic party’s coalition, as well as between newly-engaged activists and those whose work towards police reform dated back years/decades.

In the aftermath of the 2020 elections, some pundits and lawmakers argued the reason some Democrats in swing suburban districts lost their races was due in part to fear-mongering and misinformation surrounding the term “defund.” Though others have pushed back, pointing to a number of other relevant factors, the New York Times reported on Feb. 20 that analysis of Democrats’ performance in both House and Senate races being undertaken by “a cluster of Democratic advocacy groups” will include messaging on police reform.

Read more: America’s Policing System Is Broken. It’s Time to Radically Rethink Public Safety

There are now varying (and even contradictory) takes on what the term “defund” actually means—and in what ways it should be used to foster change. Some activists use it to describe their goal of wholly disbanding police forces, others take its definition to mean the reallocation, to varying extents, of a police department’s budget. Others still believe the term can be used to describe both goals, or use it simply as a broader call for accountability.

This dissent is now apparent across the country, particularly in communities where issues of over-policing, gun violence, and systemic racism are most prevalent. Activists worry it could hamstring large-scale action to reform policing.

Demonstrators calling to defund the Minneapolis Police Department march in Minneapolis, on June 6, 2020.
Demonstrators calling to defund the Minneapolis Police Department march in Minneapolis, on June 6, 2020.Stephen Maturen—Getty Images

“The ‘defund the police’ slogan to me [has become] a mask for ‘remove police from the streets’. In a time of rapidly rising violent crimes, it is the very last thing that we should be doing,” Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City tells TIME. “That’s just the worst thing we could do right now.”

With 2020 ending as one of the most violent years in the U.S. in decades, Aborn is among those who see a direct correlation between calls for defunding and a rise in crime (though other experts have pushed back against that assertion, arguing the situation is more nuanced).

“If you have to explain a term like this so much that means it’s a bad term,” Aborn says, adding he is not against taking certain responsibilities away from the police. “The answer to excessive police conduct is not to eliminate the cops, it’s to change the conduct.”

“I think language is very important,” adds Chi Osse, a Brooklyn activist currently running for a seat on NYC’s City Council. “I think the right has done a good job of changing what it actually means. Some people don’t even give you a chance to explain.”

Osse says he likes to use the word “divest” when explaining his take on the slogan—and says, in his experience, people agree with its overall message more often than not when they’re offered more policy-oriented context: that there needs to be investment and support for social services and grassroots organizations. “The bottom line is we need reinvestment in our underfunded systems,” Osse says.

Read more: Society Is Paying the Price for America’s Outdated Police Training Methods

“What’s really disturbing is how the term has been demonized while ignoring what is most importantly being called for—which is renewed investment in social services,” Justin Christian, an Atlanta activist with For a World Without Police says, arguing that critics of “defund” willfully ignore more nuanced goals he believes are possible. “When we say ‘defund the police’ we’re also saying to fund community health care centers, [to] provide money for community college and job training,” calling police budgets “wasteful, and that “increased police budgets only increase violence.”

However, even in neighborhoods impacted by over-policing, there are differing perspectives. A lot of times those divisions are generational. “I think for some people, policing is fine as it is now.” Reverend James Perkins, a Detroit activist tells TIME of many people in his community. “They don’t want to change policing.”

Detroit was one of the many cities that saw a significant increase in gun violence in 2020, but Perkins argues that it’s on activists to hold city leaders accountable in addressing reforms: like adjusting the training and making sure there are consequences when an unarmed person is killed. And when it comes to abolishing the city’s police force entirely, “I am not with that at all. We need the police,” Reverend Perkins says.

Demonstrators gather for a protest after an Atlanta police officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, 27, at a Wendy's fast food restaurant drive-thru in Atlanta, on June 14, 2020.
Demonstrators gather for a protest after an Atlanta police officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, 27, at a Wendy's fast food restaurant drive-thru in Atlanta, on June 14, 2020.Ben Hendren—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Devren Washington, a Philadelphia-based activist, doesn’t think the idea of defunding and abolishing should be mutually exclusive. “I think it’s really important not to divorce the defund movement from the abolition of police entirely,” Washington says. “When you’re looking at a lot of society’s problems, the police are not used to fix them. They’re used to put people in jail.”

“People hear defund the police or abolish the police and think that this is about creating a gap and it’s not,” Washington continues. “In reality, we want to take away something that is suffocating our imagination so that we can give so much more [to communities].”

Some cities have already begun implementing such initiatives. In Denver, Colorado, a program was launched in June 2020 with healthcare professionals replacing cops in the handling of mental health incidents. Since the program started, these workers have gone out on nearly 800 calls and, according to city officials, the program is showing success.

In Austin, Texas, meanwhile, funds from the police department will be used to buy a hotel to support the homeless community; the Los Angeles school board voted on Feb. 16 to eliminate a third of the city’s school police officers, and “diverts funds from the department to improve the education of Black students.”

With these kinds of steps forward—be they large- or small-scale—many community leaders are hopeful that more common ground on the issue can be found. Antoine Towers, the co-chair of the Oakland Violence Prevention Coalition, thinks that the divisiveness amounts to little more than political showboating. He says that those who are putting in the work on the frontlines are not working against one another, regardless of different priorities or divergent strategies.

“I think everybody actually has the same goal in mind. We’re all trying to accomplish the same things. We’re all trying to come to a place where we’re safe,” Towers says. “The only thing that creates the separation is the wording.”

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Write to Josiah Bates at josiah.bates@time.com