'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 TrumpLil Wayne gets 11th hour Trump pardon Trump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon Trump expected to pardon Bannon: reports 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 BidenTrump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon Scalise bringing Donna Brazile as guest to Biden inauguration Sidney Powell withdraws 'kraken' lawsuit in Georgia MORE and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Memo: Trump leaves changed nation in his wake New York court worker arrested, accused of threats related to inauguration GOP Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene referred to Parkland school shooting as 'false flag' event on Facebook 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 McCainMeghan McCain: Trump's legacy is DC looking like a 'war zone' Cindy McCain on possible GOP censure: 'I think I'm going to make T-shirts' Arizona county's Republican committee debates censuring Cindy McCain 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-CortezFacebook has no current plan to end the Trump suspension New York court worker arrested, accused of threats related to inauguration Ocasio-Cortez: Facebook, Zuckerberg 'bear partial responsibility' for insurrection 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 HarrisScalise bringing Donna Brazile as guest to Biden inauguration McConnell, Schumer fail to cut power-sharing deal amid filibuster snag Howard University's marching band to escort Harris at inauguration 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 OmarDemocrats poised to impeach Trump again Pence opposes removing Trump under 25th Amendment: reports Pelosi vows to impeach Trump again — if Pence doesn't remove him first 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 NortonThis week: Democrats barrel toward Trump impeachment after Capitol attack Boston removes statue of slave kneeling before Lincoln Pelosi, McConnell receive COVID-19 vaccine 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 ThompsonNew coalition aims to combat growing wave of ransomware attacks Acting DHS chief Chad Wolf stepping down Security boosted for lawmakers' travel around inauguration: report 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 JarrettBiden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Richmond says new pandemic relief bill should be passed before Christmas Progressive group Justice Democrats criticizes Biden appointments 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.