The Origins of ‘Defund the Police’

In the wake of the widespread protests galvanized by George Floyd’s death, the idea of “defunding” the police, a fringe proposal consigned to university campuses and left-wing activist groups as recently as a few weeks ago, is now being debated seriously by politicians, media commentators, and organizers across the country. Most Americans are skeptical of the policy; but its presence has become an increasingly influential feature of our political discourse. 

In material terms, however, it remains to be seen what “defunding”—often used interchangeably with “dismantling” or even “abolishing”—actually means. Mainstream progressives have been quick to explain that the movement is merely an attempt to “reimagine” the role of police in American society, paired with a prudent reallocation of some of the tax dollars being spent on law enforcement. But this line of argument is made more difficult by the movement’s more radical advocates, who insist that the phrase should be interpreted literally. As a recent New York Times headline reads: “Yes, We Literally Mean Abolish the Police.”

Two newly prominent organizations, #8Can’tWait and #8toAbolition, highlight this divide. The former takes a more gradual approach to defunding, seeing abolition as a long-term goal to be reached through important intermediate steps; the latter argues that the gradualist approach is “dangerous and irresponsible, offering a slate of reforms that have already been tried and failed [and] that mislead a public newly invigorated to the possibilities of police and prison abolition.” 

Despite those disagreements, almost all of the movement’s adherents share the same end goal of a future in which the number of armed police is drastically reduced, and are largely informed by the same theories and academic framework that originally birthed the idea of police abolitionism. The roots of the push to defund the police lie in a set of ideas that have been popular in some segments of American society for decades.

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