June 12, 2020

Anything to Everyone“defund the police” through the lens of “open source”

If you’re a software person hearing and reading “defund the police”, plus a dozen competing lines about what that means, you can be forgiven for feeling déjà vu. On a much more important issue, on a much larger scale, the slogan “defund the police” works much like “open source”.

I’ve avoided posting about open source of late. The ethical crisis in the abuse of black Americans, manifested only most visibly in police practice and policy, takes long priority over anything in or about software. We’re talking about real freedom here, not for privileged enthusiasts, but a downtrodden caste. So I’ve allowed myself to publish the usual only when I really needed to blow off steam. Having attended a mass protest, developed symptoms, but eventually tested negative for COVID-19, there was a bit of steam.

Many of the people in my world are software people, and many of our recent conversations have touched on Black Lives Matter. So I’ve found myself talking about police reform in terms we share as nerds. I’ve found myself talking through aspects of the movement in open source terms. And, shockingly to me, it’s actually helped.

On the basis of experience with “open source”, we can see the magic of a slogan like “defund the police” is at least threefold.

First, it’s short, punchy, vague, and unencumbered. The slogan “defund the police” fits on signs, in the titles of blog posts, and on the sides of buildings. Other than “police get less money”, it’s not immediately evident what exactly it means. Moreover, as political greenfield, the phrase isn’t beholden to anyone. Taking it up doesn’t require any formal permission, doesn’t entail submission to any outside authority. No claim to use is secure, but no claim to use is structurally prohibited.

Second, “defund the police” enables people with different specific ideas about what should be done about policing in America to shout one thing together, rather than a thousand things at each other. Anne might support replacing sworn officers in her city with mental-health first responders. Bob might support shifting the police department’s investigation budget to a civilian oversight body. Charlie might support eliminating budget for military and crowd-control weapons. They can all support “defund the police”. Each of them can hear “defund the police” as support for their own position.

Third, “defund the police” allows people who might be driven away by specific policy preferences to join in shouting the same thing, too. Perhaps Dan supports reallocating funds to a mental health response corps, but strongly opposes taking military rifles out of police hands. That’s in line with Anne, but in direct conflict with Charlie. But Dan, Anne, and Charlie can all march in the same protest, shout “defund the police” together, wave the same banners, sign the same petitions, and click the same posts on social media.

A slogan that gets all these people marching and shouting together enables critical mass to gather on a complex issue in a diverse society. Based on my own experience, I believe that “defund the police” has achieved critical mass here in Oakland. I suspect many of our city council members, though not our exasperating mayor, have come to the same conclusion.

We are beginning to see symptoms. Proposed text for a ballot measure increasing the power of our civilian police commission has finally been sent out for meeting and conference, on its way to the ballot this November. Work on a proposed mental health response corps, ongoing for several months, might actually be taken up and approved ahead of schedule. I strongly suspect lingering use-of-force policy line items, like prohibitions on carotid chokes and the use of tear gas, will break through, for whatever that’s worth. One police commissioner openly floated the idea of reallocating funds from Oakland PD internal investigations to the independent community police review agency.

Back in reality, where the people live, we are seeing all manner of approaches. Those connected to more “defunding” skeptics, especially folks living outside the urban cores, are softening the message. Many stress that “defund” doesn’t mean abolish, or only means abolish in time, if everything goes well. Others take the hard line that “defund” means exactly “abolish”, either now or on schedule under some committed plan. A few of these may actually believe $0 police budget is politically feasible. I suspect many more are starting low and digging in with hopes that will exact more police concessions in the end. It is functionally impossible, outside preexisting relationships of close trust, to tell who is speaking their true desires, and who is speaking tactically. This, too, is normal.

As for the politicians, rest assured, whatever the city eventually does manage to do, if “defund the police” maintains critical mass, incumbent politicians will rush to say that whatever they did, they “defunded the police”. They will do to the words whatever it takes to make their actions seem responsive.

In other communities, the dynamic may be inverted. The rise of “defund the police” may represent an opportunity for reactionary political performance art. I won’t be surprised to read about self-consciously arch-conservative governments increasing police funding, despite the looming COVID budget crisis.

Political opponents, of course, will try the opposite. In Oakland, they’ll charge the incumbents with ignoring and coopting the popular movement, with obstinately protecting elite interests, with thinking themselves smarter than the people they represent, with succumbing to pressure or corruption from sheriffs and the police union. Their success will depend on their messaging and reach, limited somewhat by the gravitational pull of the factual universe.

No one has any authority to resolve the debate about what “defund the police” means by dictate. But many of those attempting to influence the outcome will try. Some will claim first right by showing they’ve been agitating for “defunding” the longest. Others will appeal to plain meaning, dictionaries, and past usage. Others will lean on expertise—in policing, in law, in policymaking, in politics itself—to speak over their rivals. Still others will use process, hosting events and forums and then leveraging participation for legitimacy of their resolutions. The most adept will do several of these, tailoring to their audience of the moment.

Years from now, when the initial work of “defund the police” is long past, activists will continue to buttress their positions with vague allusions to the Spirit of 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the legitimacy plays in the bid to translate words to actions that best serve their interests at the current time. But the main vitality of the moment will have passed. The streets will be quiet, or ring with new and different slogans. But the systemic effects of measures taken in the moment will play out, will continue to cumulate, will pay off and take their tolls, for good and for ill.

Perhaps, in the right circumstances, “defund the police” or “Black Lives Matter” will live in the streets again. And perhaps, when they’ve gasped their last political breaths, a new movement will rise, as disappointed by the ’20s as we are of the ’60s, to take up unfinished business. If, in our vanity, we see fit to erect monuments to the sainted figureheads of our generation, later generations will find good reason, in clearer conscience, to pull them down again. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but ever toward the light…

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