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The narrative power of “abolish the police”

It isn’t just a policy proposal. It’s also an idea of what the country could be.

A protestor holding a sign that reads, “No justice, no peace, abolish the police” Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In the wake of heavy police pushback against the nationwide protests against police brutality, spurred by the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, an idea that was previously confined to the far-left reaches of the American discourse has gained rapid adoption across the broader left: Abolish or defund the police.

At first blush, the notion that modern police departments could be defunded and dismantled seems, to many, like a misguided impulse from out of nowhere. Without police departments, how will we deal with violent crime? Sure, many on the left would agree that the war on drugs that has put so many people behind bars — especially people of color — must be radically overhauled or completely ended. But what about murder? Are we not going to arrest murderers anymore?

This concern has been raised by lots of people online, including some of my liberal colleagues. Few on the left would disagree that modern, hypermilitarized police forces have shown little regard for anyone or anything that doesn’t directly relate to the police or the protection of the interests of corporations and other business owners. (Even then, police departments nationwide haven’t done a great job of preventing theft.) And few on the left would disagree that heavy police reform is necessary, possibly at a federal level, or that the right to peaceful assembly guaranteed by the Constitution’s First Amendment should be reinforced as well. But getting rid of the police? How would you do such a thing?

There’s a vast swath of well-argued writing on the concept of abolishing the police and the closely related concept of prison abolition, and what those ideas might look like in practice. (See here and here and here and here and here, as well as this more succinct Twitter thread from my friend and Eater colleague Jaya Saxena.) But I’m not here to inform you of that. I’m not even really here to tell you that the police should be abolished — I’m no policy expert. But a lot of people I tend to agree with on other questions of sociopolitical interest, people who know what they’re talking about, think doing so, or at least significantly reducing the power of the police and reimagining their function, is probably a good idea.

But if such a drastic approach seems so wild as to be impossible, don’t think about “abolish the police” as merely a policy proposal, though it is that. Think about it as a narrative that holds the power to change how people think. From that perspective, “abolish the police” is an objective to rally behind, one that conveys a much more powerful narrative than “completely rethink how police departments in the US are funded and what laws are meant to govern them.”

Viewed that way, it also offers a lesson in how, if the broader left is going to make meaningful advances with regard to its progressive agendas in the near future, it needs to work on its storytelling skills as much as its policy proposals.

There’s a tendency among many on the left to assume good policy will win out. But recent history suggests otherwise.

President Barack Obama signs the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

When we think of “storytelling” in the US, we tend to think of a three-act structure — a character climbs a tree; people throw rocks at the character; the character climbs out of the tree. It’s beginning, middle, and end, and it’s still the basis of most storytelling in our culture. But at the core of it is a character with a goal (climb the tree), who then faces opposition to that goal (oh no! rocks!).

We have this core narrative basically hardwired into us from childhood. If you have ever seen a movie or TV show, you probably have a solid idea of the plausible routes the plot can travel, because stories have a gravity that asserts itself. If you’ve ever read a book where everything snapped together satisfyingly in the end, you know what I’m talking about. It just feels right.

Applying these storytelling rules to the political realm shifts the introduction of the main character and the goal — the first act, in other words. Different sides advance different ideas of what goal should be accomplished (in this case, police reform), and which protagonist should be at the forefront (in this case, a broad sociopolitical movement often defined by key individuals). The audience (in this case, the American public) ultimately chooses which story it most wants to hear.

For a useful example, consider the now ultrafamous Greta Thunberg and her movement to stop climate change before her generation inherits a planet careening out of control. She’s the rare modern version of one person doing something that (maybe) changes the world. Her lonely protests became a local movement, then a national one, then a global one. And those protests sold a character (the world’s children and teens) with a goal (stop climate change before the world falls apart).

Thunberg didn’t expressly set out to launch a massive policy initiative — though it’s clear she understood so much more about the science and potential solutions to climate change than most of us. She simply created a narrative overlay for the world. Climate change suddenly wasn’t a battle of dueling white papers: It had a face and a name, and it came to have many faces and many names as her movement spread.

So it is with “abolish the police.” Here, the “protagonist” is a combination of over-policed black communities and the protesters who have rallied to those communities’ side in the last few weeks, and the goal is to dismantle the de facto police state those communities live in.

Setting goals versus proposing solutions is a big divide in how people on the left talk about politics

Protesters hold signs reading, “Black lives matter,” “Defund the police,” and “Stop killing black ppl.”
From left to right, Laurel Sager, Giulia Alexander, and Michael Parks Randa hold signs of protest in front of LAPD Headquarters on June 4.
Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

A lot of the tension between leftist politics and more mainstream liberal politics boils down to one big disconnect. The former group reads “abolish the police” and internalizes that statement as a goal perhaps even more than as a solution. Even the most hardcore advocate of this position would agree that we should probably have a process for dealing with murder and other violent crimes.

And if you’re focused on that ultimate goal, you can work toward it by building better and better solutions along the way. You’re probably never going to completely get rid of the police (or something like the police), but you might reduce their power so drastically that the violence we’ve seen them commit against protesters this week might never happen again.

But more mainstream liberals too often read a statement like “abolish the police” and think it’s meant as a singular, literal solution rather than a larger, farther-reaching goal. This confusion stems, I think, from the way that modern liberal discourse is steeped in an earnest belief that at some point, the best policy will win out. And I get it. I used to really, really believe in the power of good policy, too. But recent history has perhaps shown us that this is not the case. (The Affordable Care Act, for instance, is much better than the health care system America had in place before it, but it still has gigantic holes in its safety net that millions of people fall through, especially if the administration in power isn’t particularly inclined to patch those holes.)

If I could be slightly too reductive, I would say most leftists hear “abolish the police” and understand it to mean “[work to] abolish the police [in their current form by taking several well-planned steps to reform the existing justice system],” while more mainstream liberals hear that phrase and understand it to mean, “abolish the police [first, and then something something something],” where “something something something” is a host of unforeseen consequences that will sweep in without more incremental change.

But “abolish the police” isn’t a solution. It’s a statement of intent. It’s saying, “Sweeping police reform is our goal. We are people who want to accomplish that goal. Are you with us?” It’s shifting the storytelling frame we use to think of the police, who are usually depicted in American popular and political culture as hard-working heroes with well-deserved authority, to one that better reflects how they are perceived by those who are too frequently the targets of aggressive policing.

Thus, the surface-level debate over “abolish the police” is not a matter of policy; it’s a matter of political discourse. And it’s already bearing fruit, if the moves made by local governments throughout the country — Minneapolis’s pledge to dismantle its own police department is an obvious example — are any indication. Even if you vehemently disagree with the idea of abolishing the police, just the statement of the phrase shifts the Overton window and makes you rethink what is possible within American politics.

The resurgence of leftism in the US is directly tied to how much better leftists are at framing political narratives

Bernie Sanders was a big part of the revitalization of the American left. But he wasn’t the only part.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

One reason leftists may be so resurgent within American political discourse is that they’re better at telling these kinds of political stories than those in the center-left who have dominated what amounts to the American liberal agenda for roughly 50 years.

The irony is that essentially everyone in Hollywood, the world’s foremost storytelling factory, is part of that center-left. And yet the mainstream Democratic Party is pretty lousy at coming up with clear, concrete goals to advocate. Of recent mainstream Democrats, Barack Obama was the most skilled at narrative-friendly goal-setting, but the goals he most famously campaigned on (“Change we can believe in,” for instance) were sort of empty in the end. (Relatedly, the brief sense many people had that Elizabeth Warren might unite the party’s left and moderate wings may have emerged from the way she blended concrete goals — end corruption! — with extensive potential solutions in her many, many plans.)

The modern Republican Party is pretty good at telling these sorts of stories, even if they’re functionally meaningless. “Make America great again” is a goal, but not one that even hints at what a solution might look like beyond a vague sense of dragging everyone bodily back to an imagined 1950s. Regardless, when Donald Trump, who had a slogan and not a lot else, ran against Hillary Clinton, who had a whole bunch of policy ideas and no unifying story, the slogan (barely) won.

The core theme behind much mainstream liberal politics coalesces around a vague sense of the Democratic Party as the smartest people in the room, crafting the smartest policies. But that’s not a narrative, because it’s structured more as an aspiration than a goal. Don’t you want to be one of the smartest people in the room? Someone who believes in science and loves diversity? Someone who wants to make sure the ideals you support are both well-designed and at least somewhat fiscally responsible?

I’m not going to say those ideals are worthless. I believe in science and I love diversity and so on. But the whole persona feels like an attempt to define a political self as a photo negative of something else — a non-Republican, more or less. And that constantly keeps the Democratic Party at a disadvantage when it comes to establishing an overarching story. The hope, I guess, is that narrative will follow good policy, that success will speak for itself. But the results of the 2016 election show how electorally shaky that theme is as a winning proposition.

What the broader left in the US must always remember is that policy almost always follows narrative, not the other way around. Narrative establishes extremely clear moral stakes. It forces everybody involved in the discussion to occupy your story, rather than you winding up in somebody else’s. And if nothing else, “abolish the police” more than sets clear moral stakes in a way just about anybody can understand immediately. That’s why it’s such an effective political statement.

I’m not saying that having a story is necessary to accomplish great things in politics, and I’m aware of the irony of writing about the importance of political storytelling over policy (or at least in addition to policy) at Vox, a site that never met a policy proposal it couldn’t dissect. (I love my policy wonk friends and colleagues.) But a compelling goal and a clear slogan never hurt.

The police reform bills being passed or proposed across America offer a sense of how a group of people united behind a clearly communicated idea can keep moving toward that idea, even if they’ll never quite get there. “Abolish the police” isn’t just a firmly stated policy position. It’s a destination.

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