The D.C. mayor unknowingly wrote half an equation on 16th Street NW Friday evening. From above, in 35-foot yellow letters, the pavement read “Black Lives Matter.” But protesters added an equal sign overnight, and now there is a new political problem in the road just a block from the White House:
“Black Lives Matter = Defund the Police.”
And when Mayor Muriel Bowser directed municipal workers to refresh the original paint on Monday, after two days of protests, they left the street edit alone, raising a new question as the country comes to grips with racism, police brutality, and the death of George Floyd.
“If that’s what the movement means,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at Monday’s press briefing, “of course, the president stands against defunding the police.”
Hours earlier, the Trump campaign claimed that Democrats were on the other side of the equation. “As the protesters like to say, silence is agreement,” campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told reporters. “By his silence Joe Biden is endorsing defunding the police.” If that happens, Carolyn Bunny-Welsh, a former sheriff of Chester County, Pa., warned there would be “chaos and anarchy.”
But what does the “defund” in “defund the police” actually mean? Not long ago, Republicans had to learn this lesson the hard way when their base demanded that those politicians take their promise to “defund Obamacare” quite literally.
A similar algebra now belabors the minds of many on the left. For some, defunding the police means cutting a portion of funding and reallocating those resources to other community programs, as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged. For others, like a veto-proof majority of the Minnesota City Council, defund means dismantling a conventional police force and replacing it with a new, yet to be determined, public safety system.
Murtaugh referenced both cases on the call and apparently takes the phrase both seriously and literally, telling RealClearPolitics that “we take them at their word that ‘defund’ means ‘defund.’”
Either way, within minutes, the Biden campaign released its own statement. The first line? “As his criminal justice proposal made clear months ago, Vice President Biden does not believe that police should be defunded.”
“He hears and shares the deep grief and frustration of those calling out for change, and is driven to ensure that justice is done and that we put a stop to this terrible pain,” wrote campaign spokesman Andrew Bates before noting his support for other “community policing programs.”
It was the first comment that the Biden campaign had made on the slogan. Trump World was clearly trying to corner the former vice president on the issue over the weekend, and on Friday, the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., demanded to know if the candidate agreed with “this dangerous left-wing extremism.” RCP asked but never heard back from the Biden campaign.
The question was put to the mayor of Minneapolis on Saturday in different language and with more disastrous results. A woman with a microphone in the middle of a protest downtown demanded to know—“This is a yes or no”—if Jacob Frey stood with his city council and would defund the Minneapolis Police Department.
Through a face mask and barely audible, according to local press, he said he did not support “the full abolition of the police.” Protesters booed him away with chants of “Go home, Jacob, go home!” and “Shame!” and expletives. Both Trump and Biden campaigns were watching, and both take the word “defund” literally.
It would have been difficult for Biden, author of the controversial 1994 Crime Bill, to do anything differently. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Delaware Democrat was synonymous with a “tough on crime” politician. Things have changed in the subsequent decades. The public no longer wants politicians who lock up criminals and throw away the key.
They also see the actions of police differently. After Floyd died with a knee on his neck, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that “Americans by a 2-to-1 margin are more troubled by the actions of police in the killing of George Floyd than by violence at some protests.” What’s more, and as Politico noted, a Monmouth poll conducted the day after Floyd died showed 57% of Americans and 49% of white respondents believe police are more likely to use excessive force against African Americans. It was a sea change moment.
The president may have missed it or interpreted those numbers differently as he continues to tweet, almost daily and always in all capital letters, “LAW AND ORDER.” Meanwhile, many members of the Grand Old Party with presidential aspirations in 2024 told Tim Alberta of Politico that it was well past time to rethink that “tough on crime” party line.
But then Democrats went in the other direction on Monday. Even before members of their congressional delegation donned African kente cloth and kneeled in silence outside the House and Senate Monday, a Biden campaign adviser called for defunding the New York Police.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she’s “actively engaged in advocacy” for a “reduction of our NYPD budget and defunding a $6 billion NYPD budget that costs us books in the hands of our children and costs us very badly needed investment in NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] and public housing.”
This doesn’t track with Biden’s thinking, another example of how allies on his left flank often march out of step with the party standard-bearer. It also gave the White House another chance to knock the presumed Democratic nominee.
Trump continues to bang the “law and order” drums.
And for the last two weeks of protests, the president has been consistent on two points. First, that what happened to Floyd was unjust (he directed the Department of Justice to expedite an investigation). Second, that if protests turn to riots, authorities should crack down hard (he considered sending in the military to quell looting and bragged about the “vicious dogs” protecting his White House from protesters).
He subsequently flooded the streets of the nation’s capital with National Guard and law enforcement from assorted agencies, which the administration says resulted in orderly daytime protests and peaceful, quiet nights. It didn’t happen by accident, presidential assistant Alyssa Farah remarked. “Juxtapose Washington, D.C., two weekends ago, when there was widespread vandalism, property damage, and arson, with this past weekend,” she told RCP. “It was night and day.”
On a national scale, Farah credits the peace to the police and National Guard troops that Trump urged mayors and governors to employ. “The streets of America didn’t spontaneously become peaceful,” she said.
But only one candidate, so far, has called for increased police funding. Biden, before the “defund the police” controversy, called for an additional $300 million to support community policing efforts.
Asked whether Trump would support another line item in the next budget for local law enforcement, McEnany declined to comment at the White House press briefing.
Monday’s back-and-forth left some in the Biden camp feeling confident they had won the upper hand in the debate. Reacting to the Trump campaign’s response, a senior Democratic aide borrowed a line from the movie “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Republicans, the aide said, “don’t know whether they’ve been shot, f—–, powder-burned or snake-bit.”
No one knows, meanwhile, what the “defund” in “defund the police” exactly means.