Last year the call to create change by defunding the police could be heard from all over. It was meant as a step forward to re-envision public safety, rather than the immediate abolition of policing. While there were many who didn’t understand the purpose and reality of the cause, organizers like myself were able to garner solidarity from places we had never been able to reach. Trapped by the pandemic and glued to their screens, people seemed unable to turn away from the inequities in our so-called “justice system” and actually wanted to do something about it. But after a whirlwind year of public outcries and companies branding themselves “BLM friendly,” the abandonment of calls to Defund the Police by politicians and social media activists is more alarming testimony to the attention span and performative, reactionary nature of this country.
This is partly because we’re not in an election year anymore and too many people feel less motivated now that former President Donald Trump isn’t in office. In 2020, streets were full of budding revolutionaries who chanted “No Trump! No KKK! No Racist USA” to vote for Biden, jarred from their apathy for the political process by the brazen racism of public figures and hate groups. When you are thirsty for water in a desert, a mist can feel like a tsunami, and Defund the Police activists hoped they could drink heavily from that momentum to fuel their efforts.
The problem is that many of those would-be revolutionaries still didn’t understand the systemic nature of racism and police violence, or how without concentrated disruption and public pressure, governments often work in a cycle of “new name, same policy,” regardless of the party in power. Going door to door during the election, I rarely saw apathy—people tended to be enthusiastically engaged in the political process and potential for change. But I also heard people say they “just wanted the nightmare [of Trump] to be over,” and those who were “sympathetic” to the Defund movement wanted the streets to be clear and all to be well again. While I was canvassing, I met community members who expressed interest in efforts to Defund, but believed the problem of racist police violence began and ended with defeating Trump like a television villain.
But Trump wasn’t the source of the problem, merely the current vessel. When you put all the blame for something like anti-Black police violence in one place, on one person, and that person is removed from office, it’s easier for the opposition—and your own tired feet—to say, “Aren’t you satisfied yet?” This lack of understanding often leaves the newly converted unequipped to debate the finer points and benefits of defunding the police, leaving others to unquestioningly accept the prevailing perceptions around what policing is and lean back into less threatening proposals based on reform.
People’s waning interest in the Defund movement is also related to the spread of both intentional misinformation and mistaken takes that have made the term “defund” synonymous with “abolish.” As a result, politicians who performatively called for defunding are now leaning back into reforms that don’t actually remove more power and responsibility from the police. Because power, and who holds it, is at the heart of what it means to “defund the police.” The myth that police and the criminal justice system are what keep us safe is deeply ingrained in our culture. So the Defund movement isn’t just about reallocating funds, it’s also about reallocating power away from the police and breaking the hold of that myth. Because when you explain the reality and the history around policing, it dissolves the perception that the police are like superheroes who arrive just in the nick of time to save the day.
But it’s hard to do the necessary political education in the streets. So how do we move forward? The larger answer includes creating alternatives to the current system while actively creating spaces for self-actualization in communities. It’s important for people to know how resources meant to improve public safety are misused by the police, and how using those resources elsewhere would allow communities to improve their standards of living and thrive in collaboration, rather than competition. We can also equip our communities with the full knowledge and understanding of the origin and purpose of policing. For example, in 2020 In Defense of Black Lives Dallas, a coalition of related organizations, held public political education rallies and other creative actions to push and explain what defund is. Currently, they’re surveying the community about their priorities and needs while building and growing support for the Defund movement.
At this moment, I believe we must also call out the stakes politicians hold in maintaining the status quo. That accountability can take many forms, such as highlighting who takes contributions from police union funds and who changes their standing based on public scrutiny. After Dallas politicians began to publicly shift their positions from support of the Defund movement to support more money for the police, the Afiya Center’s Dallas organizing strategist Dominique Symone highlighted how politicians are complicit in the system because they benefit from maintaining the status quo, and how changing it threatens their positions and power.
“The goal has always been to put dollars into community-based alternatives that serve the people’s needs as opposed to supporting punitive systems that line the city’s pockets,” Symone said. “Anybody who doesn’t support real change for the sake of our people endorses consistent harm doled out by the current policing system and the carceral state.”
Ultimately, this is why the call to Defund matters—it’s not just about removing power from the police, it’s about further weakening all systems of oppression and those who help sustain white supremacy by extension.
Last year in Dallas, thousands of strong cries could not be ignored as we filled the streets. Many new activists, organizers, and organizations sprang into being from that summer, mobilized by a moment and a feeling, united by their frustration over the blatant disregard for Black lives. Today, the Dallas police have won the most recent battle over the budget, and the war continues.
When asked why the call to Defund has shifted since the election, Dallas Organizer Amber Brown pointed out that the issue is no longer at the forefront of society for those who aren’t people of color—specifically, for those who aren’t Black. People haven’t turned out to city elections or town hall meetings. They’re not taking to the streets. And local governments know that they’re not going to lose their seats if people don’t show up, so they have no reason to act or vote differently.
“We rely heavily on social media instead of actively working to uplift, hear, and stand up for Black communities—there has to be persistent action, not just words,” Brown said. “It’s always an acute moment of urgency, then years go by when it’s almost as if nothing about police brutality matters. How many people who marched are engaged with a grassroots organization fighting for liberation today?”
The answer, of course, is “not enough.” Many activists who were mobilized in the moment are no longer engaged, whether because of burnout or loss of interest. Some organizations have switched to non-profit charities who do much needed cleaning around the city or help when a disaster hits. This is important work, but the ongoing struggle to politically change the culture of policing relies on more people understanding that it’s an entire system that they’re fighting, not just “a few bad apples” or a particularly virulent bigot in the White House. It needs the involvement, passion, and commitment of those who are in it for a bigger picture of change beyond 2020. That election was momentous, but it was only one battle in an ongoing war, and it’s one we can’t afford to sit out.