'Defund the police' movement hits semantics roadblock

Activists calling to "defund the police" are encountering early opposition to their slogan, with some supporters saying it’s confusing and others worrying the overall goal could be misinterpreted.

The phrase, which has become a rallying cry among some advocates during the George Floyd protests, broadly refers to cutting funds for law enforcement and redirecting them toward social programs, particularly those focused on crime prevention and alternative forms of public safety.

The slogan became an easy target for President TrumpDonald John TrumpGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska NYT: Trump had 7 million in debt mostly tied to Chicago project forgiven MORE and other Republicans who have seized on the wording in an attempt to paint Democrats as supporting lawless communities. However, top Democrats, including presumptive presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska Jeff Daniels narrates new Biden campaign ad for Michigan MORE and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Trump says stimulus deal will happen after election | Holiday spending estimates lowest in four years | Domestic workers saw jobs, hours plummet due to COVID Hoyer lays out ambitious Democratic agenda for 2021, with health care at top CNN won't run pro-Trump ad warning Biden will raise taxes on middle class MORE (Calif.), quickly distanced themselves from the phrase.


“The slogan may be misleading without interpretation,” Rev. Al Sharpton said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this past week, adding that he understood the phrase to be more about deep-rooted reform efforts.

"I don't think anyone other than the far extremes are saying we don't want any kind of policing at all,” he said.

But the need to explain the meaning behind the wording comes with its own set of critics.

“If you’re explaining, you’re losing, and there’s a lot of explaining going on,” Meghan McCainMeghan Marguerite McCainChris Cuomo, Ted Cruz explode in off-the-rails CNN interview Meghan McCain, husband welcome first baby girl, Liberty Sage McCain Domenech Kasich to Meghan McCain: Concern over abortion 'dwarfed' by need to beat Trump MORE, a right-leaning commentator said on ABC’s “The View.”

“If you mean reform, say reform. If you mean defund, say defund. People are confused,” she added.

Evan Nierman, the CEO and founder of crisis communications PR firm Red Banyan, said the message has its pros and cons.


“The plus for them is that it’s a phrase that’s a call to action, it’s something tangible that they can demand. Rather than just saying ‘equal rights for all’ or ‘justice for all,’ we want this concrete thing,” he said.

But long-term, Nierman said he didn’t think it was a good slogan.

“It may be good at prompting a conversation, but the language is so extreme that it alienates. If they came up with something that more accurately portrays the policy, it might get more public support,” he said.

Some prominent activists and political leaders have pushed back on the idea that a grassroots slogan should be changed so that it has broader appeal.

“Lots of DC insiders are criticizing frontline activists over political feasibility and saying they need a new slogan. But poll-tested slogans and electoral feasibility is not the activists’ job. Their job is to organize support and transform public opinion, which they are doing,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezBitter fight over Barrett fuels calls to nix filibuster, expand court Scaramucci says Trump has united country: 'It just happens to be against him' CNN won't run pro-Trump ad warning Biden will raise taxes on middle class MORE (D-N.Y.) tweeted.

“And by the way, the fact that ppl are scrambling to repackage this whole conversation to make it palatable for largely affluent, white suburban ‘swing’ voters again points to how much more electoral & structural power these communities have relative to others,” she added.

Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, has opposed any watering down of the slogan, calling the debate around it a distraction.

“We cannot message test our way to freedom, and if we are more concerned with the message than the mission and the substance, we have failed to show up for what this moment calls us to do,” she said in Thursday’s hearing.

The American people, she argued, would come around.

Recent polling would suggest that she’s right.

Net support for Black Lives Matter has risen 33 points in the last three years, The New York Times reported.

“I have not forgotten how Black Lives Matter was considered too radical, how we were told to change our name to all lives matter in order to make people feel more comfortable. Thank God we did not do that,” she added.


Still, lawmakers are offering up various interpretations of the slogan, even on the same side of the aisle.

When McCain asked Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden pushes into Trump territory The Hill's Campaign Report: One week from Election Day | Biden looks to expand map | Trump trails narrowly in Florida, Arizona The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - One week out, where the Trump, Biden race stands MORE (D-Calif.) for her position on the matter, Harris’s initial response, “How are you defining ‘defunding the police?’”

Harris, who is seen as the top contender to be Biden’s running mate, said she supported rethinking the way public safety was approached and redirecting some policing funds toward other programs that could boost public safety.

That response contrasts with Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarOcasio-Cortez: Republicans don't believe Democrats 'have the stones to play hardball' Progressive lawmakers call for United Nations probe into DHS 'human rights abuses' Ocasio-Cortez hits Trump for 'disrespect' over calling her AOC during debates MORE (D-Minn.), who had a different take at a rally this week.

"I will never stop saying, ‘Not only do we need to disinvest from police but we need to completely dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department,’” she said, calling the police department “rotten to the root” and a “cancer.”

But Omar has also advocated for replacing the department with another public safety entity, as opposed to telling police to turn in their guns and badges and go home.


Minneapolis’s city council has said it intends to dismantle the police department, but only after a year-long process to plan a transition into something new.

An ABC/Ipsos poll this past week found that 34 percent of respondents supported the movement to defund the police. Among Democrats, it was at 55 percent, compared to just 9 percent for Republicans.

When pollsters spelled out the broad goals of the movement -- reducing police budgets to shift money toward education, housing and mental health -- overall support increased by just 5 percentage points, to 39 percent, suggesting the slogan isn't weighing things down very much.

Del. Eleanor Holmes NortonEleanor Holmes NortonHillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to express openness to Section 230 reform | Facebook removes accounts linked to foreign influence efforts ahead of election | YouTube adding warnings to videos, searches on Election Day Hillicon Valley: Hospitals brace for more cyberattacks as coronavirus cases rise | Food service groups offer local alternatives to major delivery apps | Facebook says it helped 4.4M people register to vote The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - White House plans for another in-person Barrett event MORE (D-D.C.), speaking at a hearing led by the Congressional Black Caucus, said she had trouble reconciling calls for fewer police resources in places with high crime rates.

"If I may speak for the poorest people in my district, in Wards 7 and 8 where a lot of that or most of those homicides and crime occur, I'm not sure I would hear them saying we ought to reduce the number of police, I may hear them saying just the opposite," she said.

Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHouse Democrats introduce bill to invest 0 billion in STEM research and education Long-shot Espy campaign sees national boost in weeks before election House chairman asks Secret Service for briefing on COVID-19 safeguards for agents MORE (D-Miss.) said he and his 21-year-old granddaughter had an argument over the matter "because she wants to do away with the whole thing. You know, just done," he said.


"And I said, ‘What happens, baby, when you need help?’"

Connie Rice, co-founder of the Advancement Project, argued there was evidence that deep, structural reforms could help break the culture of impunity among the police, and turn them into “guardians” instead of “gladiators,” a change she said impoverished communities desperately want.

"They are not saying ‘no police,’ they are saying, ‘Stop them from hunting us, stop them from putting all of our children in prison. Stop the pain,’" she said, while noting the police still have a role to play.

“You want enforcement for the rapes and the robberies and the shootings. Let the police do their enforcement stuff for the violent crime. But organize the community around restoration, safety and investment,” she said.

Valerie JarrettValerie June JarrettThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Pelosi, Mnuchin push stimulus talks forward, McConnell applies brakes Jacobin Editor-at-Large: Valerie Jarrett's support for Citigroup executive's mayoral campaign 'microcosm' of Democrats' relationship with Wall Street Hollywood gives Biden's digital campaign final star-studded push MORE, who was a senior adviser to former President Obama, suggested this past week that slogans don’t capture whether certain ideas are worth pursuing.

“The question is are we really using our law enforcement in a way that is fair and just, and that builds this bond of trust. And I think that's a much more complicated question than simply should we cut their funding or not,” she said.