On Tuesday, a proposal to fundamentally restructure the Minneapolis police department in the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020 was soundly defeated, a setback that even many Democrats acknowledged could be laid at the feet of the “defund the police” movement that some within the party embraced last summer.
“I think allowing this moniker, ‘Defund the police,’ to ever get out there, was not a good thing,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) told The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel on Thursday.
That’s a remarkable turnaround from how politicians – in and out of Minnesota – acted in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death and the summer of nationwide protests that followed.
Nine members of the Minneapolis City Council appeared at an event in June 2020 in which they pledged that they would work to dismantle the police force in the city. They did so on a stage that featured large cutout letters spelling out “Defund Police.”
“We committed to dismantling policing as we know it in the city of Minneapolis and to rebuild with our community a new model of public safety that actually keeps our community safe,” City Council President Lisa Bender told CNN at the time.
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps the best known progressive in Congress, warned that dismissing calls to defund the police – or, at the very least, to reconsider the way police interact with a community – was a mistake. “It is not crazy for Black and brown communities to want what White people have already given themselves and that is funding your schools more than you fund criminalizing your own kids,” she said.
Even as liberal members (and the activist community) were pushing for the party to embrace the “defund the police” movement, others within the party were warning of the political dangers inherent in the slogan.
“This movement today, some people tried to hijack it,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-South Carolina), the highest ranking African American in Congress, warned his party, according to reporting in Politico. “Don’t let yourselves be drawn into the debate about defunding police forces.”
Clyburn’s warning proved prophetic. Then-President Donald Trump seized on the issue during the 2020 campaign, casting it as evidence that Democrats were out of touch with the average person. “LAW & ORDER, NOT DEFUND AND ABOLISH THE POLICE.,” Trump tweeted in June 2020. “The Radical Left Democrats have gone Crazy!” And then this the following month: “Corrupt Joe Biden wants to defund our police. He may use different words, but when you look at his pact with Crazy Bernie, and other things, that’s what he wants to do. It would destroy America!”
Even as Trump and Republicans were working to make “defund the police” a national issue (Joe Biden had made clear he did not favor defunding), the Minnesota politicians who were at the forefront of the “defund” movement were beginning to back off in the face of rising crime in the city. As Minnesota Public Radio reported in September 2020:
“Just months after leading an effort that would have defunded the police department, City Council members at Tuesday’s work session pushed chief Medaria Arradondo to tell them how the department is responding to the violence.
“The number of reported violent crimes, like assaults, robberies and homicides are up compared to 2019, according to MPD crime data. More people have been killed in the city in the first nine months of 2020 than were slain in all of last year. Property crimes, like burglaries and auto thefts, are also up. Incidents of arson have increased 55 percent over the total at this point in 2019.”
(The City Council had, months before, moved $1.1 million from the police department to the health department.)
After several fits and starts, Question 2 was added to the 2021 ballot. Among its provisions was replacing the Minnesota police department with a department of public safety, getting rid of language that requires a minimum number of police officers to be employed by the city and forcing the mayor to win the city council’s support for someone to run the new department.
While the vote was expected to be quite close, it was, in fact, not.
“The status quo-affirming result is a setback to both citywide and national efforts to fundamentally reduce or eliminate the role of police in America. Opponents of calls to “defund the police” will point to the vote as fresh evidence that the backlash to police abuse that fueled last year’s protests, which followed the killing of Floyd by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Talk of curbing police departments by cutting or limiting their resources has run into a countervailing wall of concern over public safety and waning support from early allies – including leading Democrats who largely view it as political poison.”
The question now for Democrats is whether they totally abandon efforts to remake policing in this country. (A bipartisan police reform attempt failed in Congress earlier this year.) Or if they continue on while doing their best to leave the “defund the police” slogan behind them.