Defund the Police? A Conversation

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Divided We Fall sat down with Professor Saida Grundy of Boston University to understand the politics and the rhetoric of “defund the police.” Professor Grundy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Boston University and has done extensive research and writing on race, ethnicity, and gender.

Parisa Syed contributed to this article. This interview has been cut and edited for clarity.

Joe Schuman: Thanks for joining us today, Professor Grundy, to discuss defunding the police. I’d love to start with your definition of what “defund the police” means and hear your perspective on the topic.

Saida Grundy: Defund the Police is one of these terms that’s very new and originates from activists, particularly in the digital space. It is not universally defined, and I actually think that’s one of the things that needs improvement. If you’re a young, anti-racist activist, Defund the Police for you might mean a vision of the world that is police-free, which is, for some people, a very comfortable vision. There are those who can envision social structures that are free from this element of law and state control. I think that is a vast, vast minority of the population who share that kind of vision.

For some, defunding the police means putting a band around very engorged, very bloated police budgets; it means trimming the fat that lets police run amok. For the past 20 or so years, particularly after September 11, we have seen the Department of Defense (DoD) spending money on superfluous, unnecessary material arms, and then go off selling those at bargain close-out prices to civilian law enforcement. For example, DoD bought a tank for $4 million and sold it to Tuskaloosa, Alabama’s Police Department for $150,000. What does Tuskaloosa need with a military-grade tank? No one can tell us. So that is what some people mean by defunding policing; it’s basically demilitarizing a police force that has become militarized in the last 20-25 years.

Then there are some for whom Defund the Police is a completely egregious, dangerous idea; because for them, the idea of trimming any of the pennies that go to “law and order” or “public safety” is unfathomable.

Police unions and coalition with politicians have been really, really good at holding public sentiment hostage to the idea that any accountability for police is acting as a danger for the public. There are some who would say that defunding the police, looking at their budgets again, and even looking at their allocations is a direct threat to public safety. And that has actually been a propaganda that’s been effectively spun by police unions and politicians themselves.

Defund the Police

Joe: There are definitely a lot of different interpretations of what the phrase means. I wonder what the implications of that are for its popularity. I know there’s polling that shows only 20 or 30% of Americans currently support, at least what they understand, defunding the police to mean. I wonder if either side might interpret it more or less favorably based on their working definition.

Saida: The lack of consistency is actually one of the greatest weapons that you can use on your side. So, if you are pro-law enforcement, you’re pro-state control, then the lack of consistency in the message can be something that you can highly exploit; You can say something like ‘they’re trying to take away all your cops,’ and ‘when they come for you, who will protect you?’, and we see that. So, I think that communicating the idea of what defunding the police means is going to be essential for those who are talking about things within reach in terms of police accountability and re-allocating municipal budgets.

Municipal budgets right now are overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly, distributed towards law enforcement agencies within the city. Sometimes the city has one law enforcement agency, sometimes the city has multiple law enforcement agencies. There are 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States America. I was just explaining this to my students yesterday: We have one of the highest ratios of law enforcement agencies to the population in the world; nobody has more cops than the United States. There is law enforcement for everything; in fact, post-9/11, we intentionally created redundancies in law enforcement.

I’ve also heard cops, former cops, and former law enforcement say this themselves, and this is considered empirically known facts—the United States, compared to other developed nations, has one of the lowest clearing rates of major crimes. So, for all of our 18,000 law enforcement agencies, we actually can’t keep people safe in terms of major crimes. We love these very rudimentary, tangential performances of security. But what would actually keep us secure are things like centralized databases, for example. Since states don’t have a centralized database to talk to each other, mass murderers know that if you just drop a body off past the state line, you’re more likely to get away with it.

While we overly fund law enforcement, we’ve crippled funding for all the other state and local services. As a result, we have law enforcement performing these functions. Social work has been defunded and we defunded mental health care. Any cop on-the-beat in any city will tell you they spend a disproportionate amount of their time corralling and moving around vagrants on the street. What if we had actual social services funded? What if we weren’t asking for all of our problems to be a nail because the only hammer we have to address these issues is policing? That’s what the defunding the police means for me, but because we haven’t actually articulated that very clearly, it can very well be propagandized by whomever wants to manipulate what it means for their special interest.

Joe: It sounds like you fall into this “reform” school of thought perhaps, as opposed to the “revolution,” and what you’re really talking about is re-allocating funding from police departments to social services and empowering other people to help.

Policing is so encoded into our culturally baked response to all of our problems.

Saida: I want to make clear that philosophically, I can envision a world without police; I don’t think that’s actually far-fetched. I can philosophically understand and envision a world in which you respond to your problems differently than state control. Policing is so encoded into our culturally baked response to all of our problems. For example, I had this conversation with my partner not long ago, who asked the question, “Why did we decide that police should be doing traffic enforcement?”

And for me, that was just so simple and yet so mind-blowing because I was like: “Wait a minute! Why do we have police pull people over…why are police doing traffic anyways?” We never even stopped to think that another agency or perhaps no agency at all, artificial intelligence could be doing traffic enforcement. We have basically everything we need to take the human aspects of discrimination out of traffic enforcement, and we can be handling this as we do in so many cities with sophisticated machine learning, with artificial intelligence, with cameras, etc. This is 2020. If we took police out of the human interaction of pulling Black people, do you know how many lives that would save? But we can’t even envision that police should be divorced from traffic enforcement because we’ve so accepted that that is police terrain. Why?

Joe: So, your position is more sequential perhaps, in that you have a sort of pragmatist approach, at least as far as Defund the Police is concerned initially, but perhaps a more revolutionary approach in the long-term.

Saida: Yeah, the revolutionary approach is one that I can envision, but I am very much driven by in the immediate as well. But that is not going to win you any public sentiment, and to think strategically, you almost have to speak in the language of the public.

So, I know you want to ask me about public opinions about Defund the Police. What we know is that it’s not a popular idea, again, partly because there’s maybe different understandings of what it means, but it’s also because the police are very popular in this country. There is a very strong public support for police partly because of how they have spun their own narrative and this very tight-knit coalition of bed fellows they have with politicians. It would be political suicide, or in most districts with white voters, to show up and talk about reforming the police in any way that would take a dime out of their budget.

We know that the police are a very popular form of civic society everywhere except the internet, and the internet skews disproportionately to people of color and disproportionately to the young, so it’s not really representative of the American electorate. For me, it is important to get to the pragmatists and also to sometimes speak their language. Framing a narrative is so powerful and it’s really something I only appreciated in the last couple of years my life. Just the way you phrase a question on a survey, right? If you frame the question in terms of physical austerity like, “Oh well, do you think that cities should have more money for such?” or “Are your tax dollars disproportionately going to one agency over another?,” you can get a much different result in terms of people’s willingness to hear that the police are in engorged in most municipalities and needs to be trimmed back. But if you frame the question as, “This is in the interest of keeping Black people alive,” you will not nearly get the same support. If you frame it as an ideological or political necessity, or a necessity for a marginalized group of people to feel safe, it won’t work.

Joe: A lot to follow up on. I guess the first thing is about this question of framing and communication. I personally have wondered: What would the effect have been if the slogan was “Re-allocate Funding to the Police?” It certainly doesn’t roll off the tongue in the same way, and it certainly doesn’t catch your attention in the same way.

Saida: What if the slogan had been “Relieve the Police”? What if we would’ve said: “Police are over-burdened. They’re doing jobs that aren’t theirs. They’re doing jobs that should be social work. They’re doing the job that should be psychologists. They’re doing the job that should be EMTs. Relieve the police. They’re doing way too much.”

Joe: Yeah, it’s a complete 180 on framing, but perhaps could lead to the same outcome.

Saida: Right, exactly. That’s what I mean. I think the more I study about the Civil Rights Movement, the more I’m like, “Wow, they were just masterful strategists.” They just knew how to get the job done, they understood it from every angle, and they understood new technology. The new technology of their day was television! They understood how white violence was going to look on the screen. And oftentimes, they went after the most racist, violent sheriffs they could find because they knew how that white violence was going to look on the screen. They were willing to subject their bodies to that type of brutalization to get the narrative out to the country.

Racial Justice

Joe: Speaking of other racial justice movements, I would be interested in comparing and contrasting Defund the Police with Black Lives Matter. Certainly in terms of public approval of the slogan, the movement, and the ideology, BLM has certainly improved over the past 5-10 years and very significantly over the past year. I’m wondering if that’s because the framing and narrative have been more popularly understood and have been more clearly tied to American values of equality and justice. Have those things have helped a gain mainstream and if so, would something like Defund the Police might follow a similar trajectory?

Saida: Yeah, so it’ll be interesting to see. My parents are in their 70s, and one of the conversations I’ve had with my father is how today is very similar to 1968. He was a young adult, a student at the time, and one of the things that he laments is about the nation building during Black Power. We were talking about what would it look like if Black people had their own institutions, what it would look like if Black culture were elevated to the same importance as Western colonialism. What would it look like if we taught Black culture in university? Now, we’re just asking for our lives to matter.

I’ve heard this said very well by an original civil rights activist, one of King’s lieutenants, who actually was in Boston for most of his adulthood: Dr. Virgil Wood. I interviewed him about C.T. Vivian’s death because they were such close friends, and he said it so clearly. He said, “Some rights you don’t ask for. There is a time to march, and there’s a time not to march.”

You don’t ask for Black lives to matter because the concession is nothing. If you have to ask white people “do you agree that I deserve to be alive?,” the common sense, logical response is to say, “Okay, that doesn’t cost me anything to admit that you deserve to be alive.” But if you actually expand that and say, “Then what do we mean by me being alive? By me being alive, that is tangential to defunding police,” then you lose them. We call this the principle implementation gap in the social sciences. Economists study it, sociologists study it, psychologists study it, and political scientists study it. It means that you can get people to agree on something on principle, but you can’t get them to agree to any of the policies necessary to actualize that principle. For example, you can get them to agree that racism should be over and that we should practice racial equality, but you can’t get them to agree about desegregating schools. Or you can get them to agree on desegregating schools, but you can’t get them to agree to any government policies that would make that happen.

So far Black Lives Matter, and the fact that pendulum has swung so swiftly in the last couple of years in terms of public attitude, tells me a couple of things. One, it tells me that it doesn’t cost white people anything to agree with the idea that Black lives matter. Dr. King said this about the right to vote, and he said this about the Civil Rights Act: “The right to vote cost them nothing.”

I think this is the wall that you hit time and time again. Defund the Police is of course not nearly as popular an idea as Black Lives Matter, but it’s defunding police, redistributing police allocations, or reforming police budgets. However, you can’t get white America to connect the two. They want one thing. They can agree with one thing in principle, but they can’t join you on any implementation to make that happen. That’s the principle implementation gap.

Joe: So, we’ve discussed framing and rhetoric. If you have been following the Presidential campaigns, Joe Biden said something that I found interesting. I hadn’t heard the phrase before, but when pressed on law and order, he said that he supports “law and order and justice,” which was interesting. Thoughts?

Saida: These turns of phrases are interesting. If you go back to Richard Nixon’s 1968 Republican National Convention speech, you will see Nixon gave white suburbanites a language to say, “I’m not racist, I just believe in law and order,” or “I’m not racist, I just believe in safety.” What they were really talking about was that they saw Black liberation and activism as a threat to the state. And so instead of saying, “I’m against Black liberation,” which would sound uncouth to a nice, moderate, suburban white person, Nixon literally gives them the language to say that “I’m the silent majority. I’m one of these good Americans who’s not out here rabble rousing, and I just want to restore and law and order.” Trump does the same today.

Biden is in a very particular place—losing white voters because you support Black movements is a real risk. This is why politicians don’t do it, because white people understand basically racial advancement as a zero sum game. They believe that because Black people are getting ahead, they must be losing something. Basically, if America is a pie, if someone else gets a bigger slice of the pie, it must be because it came from white people’s life. So they see anti-racism as reverse racism. Ain’t that something? They believe in anti-white racism, which is not a thing. That’s what we call an oxymoron right there.

They believe that if racism is on the decline, that it must be because reverse racism is exponentially increasing. Biden is stuck in this little intersection in which he had to phrase law and order is not a threat to white state control. But he also needs to get a Black base to believe that he’s going to do something about this problem. He’s trying to have his cake and eat it too.

Joe: Any closing thoughts, or anything we didn’t cover that you hoped we would?

Saida: I would just say that if Defund the Police is going to be anything more than the hashtag, the biggest questions to ask are: How do you frame something so that it doesn’t just seem like you’re taking money out of police’s pockets? How do you frame things like re-examining police contracts? For example, with Breonna Taylor’s murder, the reason that it’s so hard to get justice is because Louisville, Kentucky is an exceptional city in terms of its strong police contract—they couldn’t terminate those cops because it’s in the contract! That’s not something that would cost you anything to fix. That’s about the power of a police union when they go up to re-negotiate their contracts. They couldn’t terminate them.

Joe: I think there’s a whole other conversation on police unions, because I think it’s another one of these interesting issues that splits people perhaps not exactly on partisan lines, with progressives traditionally very supportive Unions but not as much in this scenario.

Saida: And that’s what’s so paradoxical about unions. People who are pro-labor are like, “Wait a minute, we’re criticizing unions?” But police unions don’t operate like other labor unions. They didn’t arrive on the scene to protect the 40-hour work week for cops. Police unions operate expressly for keeping cops from being held accountable. And when you’re talking about police unions, here’s the thing: The only people who are experts on the police union stuff are the lawyers for the police union!

Joe: Yeah, we actually published a piece on qualified immunity, which is another element, and it has its own interesting histories and implications. There are a lot of dimensions to this conversation, no doubt. But thank you, Professor Grundy, for talking through some of them with us.

Saida: Thank you for this, Joe. It’s been great.

If you enjoyed this conversation, you can read more Spirited Discussions here

Saida Grundy

Saida Grundy is a feminist sociologist of race & ethnicity and Assistant Professor of Sociology, African-American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at Boston University. Her research to date has focused upon formations and ideologies of gender and racialization within the Black middle class. She is the author of "Manhood Within the Margins: Making middle class masculinity at the historically Black college for men."

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