Don’t Blame “Defund”

Don’t Blame “Defund”

We haven’t seen much to suggest that last summer’s uprising pushed persuadable voters to the Republican Party. And in a number of states, the protests ignited voter registration efforts that directly helped Democratic candidates.

Outside a burned Wendy's restaurant in Atlanta during protests over the killing of Rayshard Brooks on June 15, 2020 (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

On May 28, 2020, after three days of anger over the murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct burned down. Protests that had already spread beyond Minnesota erupted nationwide, connecting Floyd’s death to the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. These demonstrations responded to the routine criminalization of Black and Indigenous people, as well as other people of color, while at the same time white communities and protesters seemed to defy stay-at-home orders without penalty. The uprising was also linked to the failed government response to COVID-19, which had exacerbated the public health and economic hardship people were already experiencing before the pandemic. The contrast between police armed to the teeth with high-tech equipment and essential workers without personal protective equipment was stark.

All this led to what some argue is the largest protest movement in history—with estimates in the range of 15 to 26 million participants. The protest tactics were multifaceted, differing not only from city to city but also from block to block, and from one night to the next. Some of the protests had an insurrectionary nature: people burned down buildings and police vehicles, looted stores, and resisted arrest.

In response, many warned of a law-and-order backlash that would damage the public standing of the protests and sink the Democrats’ chances of beating Trump in November. A number of scholars of civil resistance also argued that more “violent” protests were likely to dampen participation. But the protests didn’t subside in response to looting or direct confrontations with the police. One public opinion poll found that 54 percent of people believed that the burning down of the Third Precinct was justified. Over the summer, even larger majorities sided with the protests as a whole. And while the phrase “defund the police,” the slogan that became most identified with the uprising, didn’t itself find majority support, well over half of people polled did support specific proposals like shifting resources away from armed cops toward mental health experts and social workers.

Still, right-wing forces tried to take advantage of the moment. Donald Trump tweeted that he would send the National Guard into cities to quell protests and encouraged the military to shoot looters in Minneapolis. He had protesters tear gassed and beaten so that he could stage a photo op in front of a church. In some cases federal and local police agencies kidnapped protesters, and thousands more were arrested, many facing serious criminal charges. Liberal mayors, meanwhile, were worried about the reaction to the demonstrations in their cities. New York City’s Bill de Blasio, Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot, and Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms demonstrated their law-and-order bona fides by praising the police, condemning looting and more confrontational protest, and rejecting the demand to defund.

The backlash may have increased right-wing turnout in the election—Trump received over 10 million more votes in 2020 than in 2016—but it didn’t find an electoral base capable of capturing the presidency. The right-wing police nationalism of the GOP did not win the day. But some Democrats, disappointed at the party’s failure to take the Senate, to build or even hold their majority in the House, and to secure an expected blowout in the presidential race, named “defund the police” as the cause of their underperformance.

There’s no doubt that Republicans pumped up their base by tying even moderate Democrats to the uprising. But we haven’t seen much to suggest that “defund” hurt Democrats with persuadable voters. We do have evidence, however, that the protests ignited voter registration efforts that benefited Democrats. There was a surge in Democratic registrations in the summer of 2020, especially in the weeks right after protests began, in critical states like Georgia, Michigan, and Minnesota.

The 2020 election had the highest turnout in any U.S. election since 1900. Trump was banking on that high turnout, campaigning on issues that excited his base and polarized the electorate—open calls for voter suppression, COVID-19 skepticism, more funding for police, opening up the economy—and deploying an intensive ground and digital operation. Biden, by contrast, ran a persuasion election, focusing on “consensus” issues and his broad appeal as a reasonable statesman while moving away from more polarizing demands from the left for radical immigration reform, Medicare for All, the Green New Deal—and defunding the police.

It seems these tactics had some success in winning over small margins of white suburbanites who voted for Trump in 2016. But Biden and other Democrats also underinvested in many down-ballot races and on mobilizing voters in communities of color; the presidential campaign lacked a strong ground game, and it underspent on digital campaigning. In many Black and Latinx areas in major cities, Biden’s performance was no better than Clinton’s in 2016, and in some places it was worse.

Many analysts juxtapose militant disruptive action with electoral organizing. But there is a way of reading this election as a case where the tactics reinforced one another—where the protests contributed to a Biden win by preventing a turnout collapse in the absence of a campaign that excited and mobilized consistent Democratic voters. The pivotal progressive electoral organizing done by the Black women leadership of Black Voters Matter, the New Georgia Project, and the Working Families Party was deeply connected with the protests against police violence, while voter turnout operations by Mijente and LUCHA in Arizona built upon grassroots campaigns against Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County and opposition to SB 1070, the notorious 2010 state law that permitted police to stop and question anyone they suspected was undocumented.

In Georgia and Arizona, civil disobedience, mutual aid, and year-round base-building contributed substantially to Biden’s 2020 victory. The victories in these states show a plausible alternative to the conventional wisdom of the Democratic establishment. They demonstrate that progressive, even radical, demands can help build an electoral base when connected to compelling digital outreach and the on-the-ground knowledge of organizers.

An additional underreported consequence of the uprisings is the defund campaigns that have sprouted up all over the country. In my experience in labor, community, and political organizing, turning people out for local budget issues has always been a heavy lift. Budget fights usually attract political hobbyists and activists but rarely people who don’t identify that way. Organizing to defund the police has changed this, bringing together street protests, town halls, and meetings with local officials in pressure campaigns in a manner that progressive revenue agendas haven’t in the past.

In the Defund Chicago Police Department campaign, we worked out an organizing framework that emphasized mass in-person training that was socially distant and outdoors. We made sure to do the trainings in June, July, and August at the height of the uprisings in order to absorb as many people as possible in preparation for an October and November budget fight. The trainings covered ideological topics (“What is abolition?”), program topics (“How is Defund a non-reformist reform?”), strategy for the upcoming budget fights, and tactics (direct action, mutual aid, canvassing, and meeting with officials). Over 2,000 people were trained in a matter of three months. They canvassed neighborhoods all over the city, organized actions against city councilors who didn’t support defund, and increased participation at the public comment portion of the Chicago budget vote hearing. Unfortunately, the budget passed 29–21 without cuts to the police budget, but this was one of the tightest margins for a budget bill in a long time. (One year earlier, organizers were hopeful after eleven councilors voted against an austerity budget.) This kind of organizing around local budgets is happening all over the country, opening a new arena of electoral struggle that will be vital for any left electoral renewal that relies on voter enthusiasm and high turnout.

This isn’t just a story about centrists against progressives. A number of candidates endorsed by the Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, Justice Democrats, and Local Progress who voiced some support for the uprising this summer were scared to run on a message of defund the police and refunding our communities. We know that support from progressive and socialist elected officials is an important part of how demands like defund move from the margins to the mainstream. That is the story of Medicare for All, Black Lives Matter, and Fight for $15. We also know that it’s often the way such issues are posed that determines their popularity. We need to push progressive politicians to elevate our version of these demands to build support and inoculate voters against right-wing and liberal-reactionary framing.

Contentious demands also require serious organizing to overcome well-funded pushback, which could explain why even left-leaning consultants shy away from something like defunding the police. The 2020 elections made even clearer that we are in an age of polarization, where even narrow wins require all-out efforts to turn out your base. Yet many working people still feel distrustful of both parties; to convince people who don’t usually vote to come out will require the hard work of proving that you can do something to make their lives better. If socialists and progressives run on the courage of their convictions, they can lead the way.

Jasson Perez is an organizer for DSA’s AfroSocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus who focuses on creating mass-based campaigns to defund police, end incarceration, and bring about socialism. When he isn’t organizing or selling his labor, you can find him rapping with the group BBU.