I had an uneasy feeling of déjà vu. Not a precise echo, but more like the same response to a different, but similar, situation. The feeling came over me when I heard former President Barack Obama dismiss the movement to Defund the Police as a “snappy slogan.”
I understand messaging. As inclined as many of us are to simply be forthright about our views, the vagaries of human communication mean we must consider how we are talking to a large audience if we want to be understood.
Throughout my professional career, I’ve focused on how to make a case both honestly effectively, especially when the first of those two concerns tends to be a lot less important to my opposition than the second.
When I took the job as co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace in 2002, messaging was our focus. Our first serious step after becoming a staffed and formally structured organization was to bring in a communications expert, Cecilie Surasky, who would steer so many of JVP’s efforts for nearly a decade and a half. We felt that activism on the issue of Israel and Palestine too often presented people with a choice between their real principles and effectiveness. We believed it was possible to present ideas and proposals that were considered radical at the time, and still reach new audiences and begin to impact the mainstream discourse as well. Time has proven us right.
I also understand that the “messaging” argument can be correct yet still be disingenuously deployed. I’ve seen this happen many times with all sorts of terms, slogans, ideas, or labels, used to discuss Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians and denial of their basic rights. It was most clear with the word “apartheid” in the first decade of this century when the situation on the ground was not yet so indisputably an apartheid situation.
The “A” Word
Many argued, myself included, that “apartheid” diverted the conversation into a debate about classifying the Israeli occupation and its treatment of its own Palestinian citizens. Indeed, I often argued that the problem with “the ‘A’ word” was that it was too harsh for the condition of Palestinians within Israel and not harsh enough for those in the West Bank and, especially, Gaza.
Right or wrong, that was a genuine argument about how to advance the cause of supporting equal rights for Palestinians. Because the root of that argument was the defense of Palestinian rights, I, and others like me never deployed it as a criticism of those who used the term. In my own case, I simply didn’t use that term for a long time, and only expressed my view on it when asked.
But it was also deployed in defense of Israel, as a defense against stigmatizing it with the “apartheid” label. Right-wing defenders of Israel would simply get high-handed and cry, with wide-eyed offense, “How dare you compare Israel to South Africa,” essentially arguing that, by virtue of being “The Jewish State” Israel was above such comparisons, regardless of its actions. People advancing this argument often made it the centerpiece of their case, criticizing those who used the term, calling them “extremists” or even, you guessed it, antisemites.
That was an obviously cynical tactic, made to defeat those standing for justice in Israel and Palestine, not to promote a better future. More liberal defenders of Israel, who genuinely did (and do) believe the occupation is wrong but saw it, first and foremost, as a threat to “Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state” would argue that it was “bad messaging,” because it would turn off the audience and make it harder to convince people to change their views and support a two-state solution.
The argument, in that context, was disingenuous not because those making it didn’t care about Palestinian rights; they often did. Nor was it because they didn’t genuinely believe that the labeling of Israeli policies as “apartheid” was harming efforts to end the occupation; they certainly did believe that.
The disingenuity arose when the primary concern was not the rights of the downtrodden Palestinian people or the need for universal systems of protecting human and civil rights, but rather the future of the “Jewish and democratic” state of Israel. If the primary goal of the messaging argument was to protect Israel, it makes the argument far less persuasive, even if it is made from the genuine belief that the word “apartheid” was detrimental to the cause of Palestinian freedom. The reason is that, too often, it was used to decide which defenders of Palestinian rights were acceptable and which were not. That is a decision that people who are primarily supporters of Israel, the occupying power, are not entitled to make, regardless of whether they are secondarily sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians.
A Disingenuous Argument
The same problem presents itself with Obama’s argument. He was not, as he later contended, speaking from a place of support for the goals of Defund the Police, but very much in opposition to them. How do I know? Obama said so: “If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal-justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan, like ‘defund the police.’ But, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.”
Obama makes it clear that he wants to “reform” the criminal-justice system, with an eye to seeing that the system “treats everyone fairly.” In other words, the problem is not a system that depends not on crime prevention but, at best, deterrence, and relies on a system—incarceration—for that deterrence that has proven over centuries to be ineffective. The only problem for Obama is that this system is not applied equally, presumably referring to its wildly, and demonstrably, racist application.
But “reform” is not the goal of “Defund the Police.” As Zak Cheney-Rice pointed out in The New Yorker, the “snappy slogan” was coined by abolitionists whose ultimate goal is, indeed, abolishing policing as it is currently practiced and, more importantly, doing away with the carceral state in favor of more effective forms of crime prevention.
The message of “Defund the Police” was centered on the fact that reform has utterly failed. There have been decades of attempts at reform, to no avail. Obama, and his former number two, President-elect Joe Biden, absolutely do not want to go beyond reform.
“Defund the Police” is born of the recognition of the inherent racism in our systems of policing and incarceration, but it is not limited to a critique of racism. As Obama clearly framed it, the entirety of the message to him is racism. If police violence and a system that requires large numbers of imprisoned people would simply pick its victims in an equitable fashion, it would be not only acceptable, but ideal.
Policing and the Carceral State
Abolition begins and remains strongly rooted in anti-racism, but it brings a class, gender, and human rights analysis to the question that expands the issue beyond racism, while keeping anti-racism front and center. True to its roots, abolition cannot and would not wish to move anti-racism out of the center of its ideology, but it touches on the very fabric of our society in every way.
Abolition is, of course, a frightening prospect for many. Few indeed, I suspect, are people who easily embraced prison and police abolition the moment they heard of it. It’s an idea that is unthinkable to many, in large measure, because it presents the image of doing away with law enforcement in one fell swoop. The result is a vision of uncontrolled anarchy and barbarity.
But in fact, what leading abolitionists envision is a transformational process that involves our entire society. No one believes such a thing can happen in a day or a week or a year or a decade. Abolition is a complex and massive undertaking. It’s a vision of a different way of living our lives, where people’s basic needs are addressed through our collective action and will, where society is based on nurturing and support rather than competition and a penalty/reward system.
Defund the Police is, in fact, a modest first step toward that goal. Yes, the end goal is to free up the resources spent on policing. But the first steps are about demilitarizing civilian police forces, so that they are not purchasing—and more importantly, deploying—military equipment from the federal government; taking responsibilities for dealing with social ills like homelessness and mental health away from police who are not trained, not equipped, and, in many cases, not well-disposed toward dealing with them; redirecting efforts toward social services that diminish the need for police by preventing crime, both violent and non-violent; and, the major piece, restructuring our economic, political, and social systems that are the root cause of the overwhelming majority of violence in our society. With each step, the need for police diminishes and a cycle of abolition is in place.
We can recognize that dependence on policing and incarceration has been created and work to wean our society off that dependence in a manner that avoids the shock of an instantaneous, and therefore necessarily only partial, change. The need is self-evident. Prevention is far preferable to deterrence; that is axiomatic. And deterrence is obviously ineffective, as evidenced by our enormous and growing prison population.
Prevention is harder, as it necessitates the society-wide changes discussed here. As with any massive change of this kind, it’s likely to be a difficult road, with some significant problems and crises in moving from an old, ineffective system on which we have become dependent to a new one that cannot be built in a day.
Protecting the Status Quo
That makes it frightening. A frightening course is one that can be easily demonized and that is just what Obama was doing. It is a course that can be bluntly refused, as Joe Biden has done. Both men believe on the system that is currently in place, in essence. At most, they will try to make minor changes to address some inequities, but fundamentally, they believe this system of capitalism, of limited democracy, can be made better by incrementalism and minor reforms that build upon themselves over time.
History, however, provides overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It has only been through radical demands and forthright action—be it by landed colonial elites in the 18th century, abolitionists and civil rights workers for the past two hundred-plus years, suffragists, union organizers, LGBTQIA activists, and more—that change has been realized.
Liberal politicians like Obama and Biden need not be cynical actors here. One can acknowledge that they genuinely believe that reform is necessary, that they see the racism in the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many more and want to change it. So they press for reform, both because it blocks more revolutionary change and because they see it as a significant boon for marginalized people.
This is where the messaging argument becomes particularly useful. It can press the reform agenda while disrupting the movement for fundamental change. I would argue that this is the essence of Democratic party thinking and strategy, standing in contrast to Republican hostility even to mild reforms.
Obama’s “messaging” critique is a subterfuge, hiding opposition to the actual goals of “Defund the Police.” Because he is hostile to those goals, his critique of “losing a big part of the audience” implies radicalism, political irresponsibility, and a willingness to sacrifice potential success for little more than a sense of uncompromising self-righteousness.
That same characterization is often deployed by those working to establish the boundaries of “acceptable” criticism of Israel and that which is beyond the pale. Not so long ago, and despite the fact that Israeli prime ministers were already telling their own populace that Israel was in “danger of becoming an apartheid state,” those who applied “apartheid” to Israel were outside those boundaries. Now, it is a common phrase.
This same process is what Obama is typifying. He’s not alone, of course. Rep. Jim Clyburn famously denounced “Defund the Police” and, with no evidence, blamed the slogan and, implicitly, the Black Lives Matter movement for Democrats’ shockingly poor showing in the 2020 election.
As with pro-Israel efforts to establish what is and isn’t legitimate criticism of Israel (similar rules, it’s important to note, are not applied to the Palestinians), this is an effort to stifle crucial activism. In this case, it is being openly led by powerful politicians. That should be of concern to everyone.
A genuine debate on how to advance the cause of abolition, and what terminology and messaging techniques to employ to do so would be most welcome. It is also very fair to debate the merits of abolition itself, just as it is fair to debate any political goal and the movement behind it.
But that’s not what Democrats are doing. They are telling activists to just shut up and go away. They say that “Defund the Police” scares people and loses votes for Democrats. Democrats constantly argue that, even if they don’t advocate a certain position, Republicans will score points by saying that they do because progressive activists champion some cause. For some reason they never explain, Democrats imply that this doesn’t work in reverse as a tool they can use against Republicans.
The argument echoes ones often made about Palestinian rights. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, this was the argument many Democrats made against talking about a Palestinian state. Breaking with that orthodoxy got you labeled antisemitic. Even President Jimmy Carter found that out.
This line of thinking has been deployed against every push for progressive change. In America’s early days, it was the need for abolitionists to compromise with slave holders. Then it was the need to not scare white people with the horrifying thought that Black people might live right next door to them and even vote in elections. Or it was women having the right to vote, to work, to have ownership over their own bodies. It was workers being allowed to organize, to bargain collectively, to strike for a shorter workday, a minimum wage, for safe working conditions. It was people being able to create families with those they loved regardless of gender.
All these things are scary, to those who are not oppressed by the conditions the movements revolted against. They changed the fundamental ways in which our society functioned. There is going to be resistance to that, but the specter of losing an election cannot be allowed to dissuade activists for pressing for what is right, what is good, and for what can change our society for the better.
That’s why what Obama did was so objectionable.
None of this means activists should ignore good messaging. On the contrary, if the point is how best to pursue the goals of justice and civil and human rights, we can and must engage in the debate, and we should all thank those who raise legitimate concerns about messaging.
I would agree that “Defund the Police” as a slogan is worth re-examining. It’s worthwhile to ask ourselves if that is the best way to advance the cause of abolition. It’s a debate that should never end and should always be embraced.
But when that debate is raised not to enhance the goal of justice, but to maintain the status quo and to appease those who are reluctant to take the hard steps toward change, we must reject that call, as so many did with Barack Obama’s cynical comment.
If we can come up with a better slogan for the abolition movement than “Defund the Police,” I’m all for it. There is clearly room to criticize it, as it is vague and leaves too much room for people to scare themselves. But I, for one, have no intention of abandoning a cause that I believe is just and desperately needed because it might offend someone who isn’t sure if they should vote against a Donald Trump, a Mitch McConnell, a Mitt Romney, or a Kevin McCarthy. That’s a worthwhile consideration for a Democratic strategist, not an activist for justice who must, by definition, take a longer view.
Barack Obama failed to bring significant change in almost every regard during his time as president. Joe Biden explicitly refuses to even try. These are not the people whose advice movements for justice should be heeding.