Booker went on to say: “This senator has given the gift that finally once and for all we can put to bed this scurrilous accusation that somebody in this great, esteemed body would want to defund the police. So let’s all of us, 100 people, not walk but sashay down there and vote for this amendment and put to rest the lies, and I am sure I will see no political ads attacking anybody here over defund the police. And I would ask unanimous consent to add something else to this obvious bill, can we add also that every senator here wants to defund the police, believes in God, country, and apple pie? Thank you”
In terms of political strategy, Booker’s speech brilliantly distanced Democrats from GOP rebranding of the defund the police movement, a distance I’m sure Republicans will seek desperately to fill, but the problem with any deliberate distancing from the defund the police movement on behalf of Democrats is that it also reinforces misconceptions about what it means to defund police. Booker’s speech was followed by a 99-0 vote of support for Tuberville’s amendment.
The GOP legislator tweeted on Tuesday: “My amendment is simple: if a city council believes the ‘woke’ thing to do is to cancel the police department, then they shouldn’t expect the federal government to bail them out.”
The movement to defund or demilitarize police was never about canceling police departments. It is a call to government officials to reallocate a portion of police budgets to mental health, education, and social services. That call gained traction following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man brutalized by a former Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, ultimately killing him.
Freshman Rep. Cori Bush, of Missouri, has been an outspoken advocate in the movement, taking a stance that didn’t align with that of more moderate Democrats, most notably former President Barack Obama. He criticized the branding of the phrase “defund the police” when he appeared in video posted last December on journalist Peter Hamby’s Snapchat series “Good Luck America.”
“If you believe as I do that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly,” Obama said, “I guess you can use a snappy slogan like ‘defund the police, but you know you’ve lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.”
Obama added: “But if you instead say, ‘Let’s reform the police department so that everybody’s being treated fairly. Divert young people from getting into crime. If there’s a homeless guy, can maybe we send a mental health worker there instead of an armed unit that could end up resulting in a tragedy? Suddenly a whole bunch of folks who might not otherwise listen to you are listening to you. So the key is deciding do you want to actually get something done, or do you want to feel good among the people you already agree with.”
The point progressives made in response to Obama then is the same one they’re making with Booker. To be effective, we don’t have to play by outdated marketing rules that have never served people of color. “Fam, this is the time to sound the damn alarm,” Black Lives Matter leaders tweeted in response to Booker’s speech on Tuesday. “We must show these folks that WE hold the power. Our demand is real: we must divest from the systems that are killing us and reimagine public safety as a public health imperative for Black people.”
City officials in Rochester, New York actually did cut its $95 million policing budget last year by 4% to fund a “person in crisis” team that dispatches staffers who work in mental and behavioral health with officers on police calls involving someone suffering a mental health crisis. The decision followed the deadly detainment of Daniel Prude, who was naked, unarmed, and having a mental health crisis when Rochester police officers Mark Vaughn, Troy Taladay, and Francisco Santiago brutally apprehended him and placed him in a spit hood on March 23. Prude died one week later.
“I’m from this community, and people from this community have spoken after they saw how police treated Daniel Prude. That’s what birthed our program,” Dre’ Johnson, a social worker on the city’s new crisis team, told the Independent. “I don’t think it’s taking a shot at the police to say that people weren’t happy with the responses they were getting when it came to mental health, or substance abuse and homelessness. There was a void and we’re filling that void.”
Bush, who worked as a triage nurse during unrest in Missouri following the death of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014, has repeatedly maintained that the defund the police movement is about saving lives, plain and simple. “It’s not a slogan. It’s a mandate for keeping our people alive,” she tweeted in response to Obama’s remarks. She zeroed in on the same point recently when a CBS News reporter asked her to address criticism that she spends too much on private security to also be a proponent of defunding police. She said “defunding the police has to happen” to put money into “social safety nets because we’re trying to save lives.”
Despite GOP framing, the call to reallocate a portion of police budgets to social services has nothing to do with private security in response to racist and vile threats on a Black congresswoman’s life. “My security is not to keep me safe from the people of St. Louis,” Bush said. “My security is to keep me safe from those racist attempts made against my life. Now if you want to do something about that, stand up and do something about that.
“I didn’t see any of those people that have come against me with this negativity, with these lies, with these smears stand up when they saw the N-word, when they saw me post stuff about me being hung, the threats on my life, hanging me and burning me, frying me and my family like bacon. They didn’t say anything about that.”
But Booker did. When Bush tweeted 13 messages she received riddled with hate speech, profanity, racial slurs, and threats, the senator tweeted: “It’s going to take all of us to root out and confront white supremacist hate around this country. I’m grateful for my friend @CoriBush and her leadership and conviction to speak her truth.” He’s also been on the front lines of police reform negotiations in Congress, stalled as they may be.
“One of the reasons why a lot of law enforcement groups I’ve been negotiating with have leaned in is because they just know we are losing ground because of the erosion of trust amongst communities and law enforcement,” Booker said in late June. He is trying to get things done. That much is clear, but progressive Democrats and activists alike don’t want to see the issues that are important to them sacrificed along the way—an all too common theme in American politics.