When “Defund the Police” became a progressive slogan and a priority for Indivisibles this spring, my inner alarm bells went off. Memories of Willie Horton reminded me of how easily right-wing media have exploited—for political gain—any apparent ‘softness’ towards criminals on the left. I learned later that James Clyburn had the same reaction, fearing it could set back the vital work of Black Lives Matter despite national revulsion at the killing of George Floyd. Yet when I raised my concerns in a CA state Indivisible call, the response was a lecture from a national Indivisible leader to the effect that I was ignorant or misguided—that ‘Defund the Police’ didn’t really mean what it said. Actually, I’d read the fine print and largely agreed with it, but felt that the slogan itself was an open invitation to GOP fear-mongering.
I was attracted to Indivisible in the first place out of a sense that it was not just another leftist movement, but an organization grounded in political reality, where the history of what’s been effective or ineffective in actual practice would inform actions going forward. As a long-time resident of Berkeley, I get it that progressive realists face pressure and shaming from the far left. I understand the liberal guilt and self-doubt that accompanies any hesitation to endorse a minority-led campaign—the temptation to prove bona fides and “wokeness” by endorsing any initiative launched by Black activists. But I’ve thought Indivisible was more pragmatic, more alert to how ill-chosen actions and slogans can hurt the causes they were designed to support.
On Monday’s Indivisible NCN call, the issue came up again following leaked discussions of Democratic Party leaders in which Representative Abigail Spanberger warned of the damage ‘Defund the Police’ headlines have done to Democratic electoral prospects. Again, the reaction from Indivisible leaders was to argue that the problem was in the candidates’ messaging. Somehow we should be able to make sure even the occasional voter has a nuanced understanding of a complex issue whose trumpeted slogan doesn’t mean what it says. When has that ever worked?
The Indivisible movement has to choose between two possible roles. It can be part of the ultra-progressive left, trying to shift the range (the ‘Overton window’) of what’s politically acceptable by pushing radical change. Or it can work to elect majorities of reasonably progressive senators and representatives who can get critically important legislation passed and signed into law. Both roles have value and can find adherents within the movement. But Indivisible may not be able to do both. Trying too hard for the former may doom the latter.
I hope we can have a discussion of this at a future meeting.