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Democrats are grappling with calls to “defund the police”

Reps. Jim Clyburn and Ilhan Omar have very different views on what the polarizing slogan means.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, in a dark suit and a kente cloth stole, speaks into a microphone; behind him are Nancy Pelosi in a red suit and Chuck Schumer in a blue suit — both masked and also wearing kente cloth stoles.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, who pushed back against defunding the police Sunday, unveils sweeping police reform legislation with senior Democrats on June 8.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) explicitly rejected the “defund the police” slogan that has emerged among progressive activists fighting against police brutality and racism in recent weeks, saying on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday that “nobody is going to defund the police.”

Later on the same program, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) embraced the term. She suggested defunding efforts are often misunderstood, and argued that they do not mean “that the community is not going to be kept safe.”

The disconnect between the two prominent Democrats symbolizes how “defund the police” is emerging as a wedge issue between the activist left flank of the party and its more moderate leadership. The nature of the debate also brings to the fore advocates’ and critics’ struggle to communicate precisely what the phrase “defund the police” means as they go about adopting or rejecting it.

In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Clyburn firmly opposed embracing the concept amid Democrats’ push for criminal justice reform legislation.

“I would simply say, as I have always said, nobody is going to defund the police,” he said. “We can restructure the police forces, restructure, reimagine policing. That is what we are going to do. The fact of the matter is, the police have a role to play. What we have got to do is make sure that their role is one that meets the times, one that responds to these communities that they operate in.”

Clyburn went on to say that growing up he didn’t fear the police, but that “all of a sudden now I do fear police.”

“The fact of the matter is this is a structure that has been developed that we’ve got to deconstruct. So I wouldn’t say defund. Deconstruct our policing,” he said.

Clyburn did not define what exactly he meant by “deconstruct,” but there are some measures that would achieve some of the goals he described included in police reform legislation unveiled by Democratic lawmakers last week. That bill includes measures that would make it easier to prosecute and regulate police misconduct and to demilitarize police departments. It would also end qualified immunity, a policy that gives police officers and other public officials immunity from civil lawsuits.

Clyburn has previously suggested that he opposes defunding the police because he believes it is a phrase that is vulnerable to opposition messaging from the GOP.

“You know all that will do is give Donald Trump the cover he needs,” Clyburn told CNN’s Ana Cabrera Saturday in a separate discussion about the slogan. “I’ve been saying to people all the time, ‘If you allow yourself to play the opponent’s game, you’re going to lose and the opponent will win.’ Let’s not play his game.”

Omar’s outlook on police reform is different. When speaking to Tapper, she argued forcefully that the Minneapolis Police Department — whose officers killed George Floyd — was in need of a fundamental overhaul.

“A new way forward can’t be put in place if we have a department that is having a crisis of credibility, if we have a department that’s led by a chief who’s sued for racism, if we have a department that hasn’t solved homicide — half of the homicides in Minneapolis police department go unsolved,” Omar said. “There have been cases where they’ve destroyed rape kits. And so you can’t really reform a department that is rotten to the root. What you can do is rebuild.”

She pointed to San Francisco’s proposed measures for narrowing the range of issues that police respond to as a model. “And just like San Francisco did — right now, they’re moving towards a process where there is a separation of the kind of crimes that solicit the help of, you know, officers, and the kind of crimes that we should have someone else respond to.”

She also argued that criticism of “defund the police” was based on a misunderstanding about what it really meant. “I think that’s really where the conversation is going wrong, because no one is saying that the community is not going to be kept safe,” she said. “No one is saying crimes will not be investigated. No one is saying that we are not going to have proper response when community members are in danger.”

Omar said what’s needed is “dismantling [policing infrastructure] and then looking at what funding priorities should look like as we reimagine a new way forward, is what needs to happen.”

Both Clyburn and Omar used sweeping language about taking apart policing as we know it — and language about re-envisioning law enforcement that overlapped significantly. Where they appear to disagree is how far the reform process should go, and what it should be called — a disagreement at the heart of the debate around defunding the police.

The meaning of defunding the police isn’t widely understood yet — but it’s polarizing

As Vox’s Matt Yglesias has explained, “defund the police” isn’t a firmly defined concept just yet:

The “defund” slogan dances ambiguously between abolition-type schemes and just saying officials should spend less money on policing at the margins. The Black Lives Matters #DefundThePolice explainer page argues that “law enforcement doesn’t protect or save our lives. They often threaten and take them.” By contrast, a Justin Brooks op-ed at the Appeal titled “Defund the Police Now” is an extended argument for spending somewhat less money on crime control and somewhat more on social services, as a win-win resulting in less crime, less punishment, and less police violence against civilians.

The latter perspective — a focus on spending priorities and narrowing law enforcement’s portfolio of responsibilities — seems to be gaining more traction among left-wing elected officials. Consider, for example, self-described socialist and New York state Sen. Julia Salazar’s take on the matter:

I think we need to consider a divest/invest model. When we look at their resources, and how they’re deploying them violently and recklessly, it makes the case even stronger for reducing their budget, and then using those funds for social services, and specifically for things that New Yorkers would want the police to do but the police are not currently doing: harm reduction, community-based public safety.

Polling so far indicates that a strong majority of the public opposes the ideas represented by the slogan. An ABC News/Ipsos poll released Friday found that 64 percent of Americans oppose calls for defunding police departments, while 34 percent support the efforts.

The opposition decreases but remains strong even when defunding the police is framed as a spending reallocation program: “Sixty percent specifically oppose reducing the budget for police to reallocate it to other public health and social programs, while 39 percent support that move,” said ABC News. The poll did find that 57 percent of black Americans support defunding the police, however.

Overall, the slogan “defund the police” appears unpopular today. But it has entered the public consciousness in a matter of weeks — and people’s relative unfamiliarity with the concept could mean public opinion on it will change over time. For now, it elicits far less sympathy than support for the protests against racism and police brutality.

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