Since the May 25 murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, calls across the U.S. to defund police departments—shifting resources from law enforcement to social services—have grown louder. In June, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio shifted $1 billion from the NYPD—at least on paper (Gothamist, 6/29/20)—and Minneapolis city council members vowed to dismantle the police department and build a new model of public safety (though the city’s charter commission kept an initiative to eliminate a requirement to maintain a minimum number of police officers off the November ballot—Washington Post, 8/5/20).
Conversations around the issue of defunding or even abolishing police have grown more complex in activist circles. However, the Washington Post’s coverage of the issue has paternalistically painted police defunding only as a radical utopian fantasy that would hurt Black communities.
In the past few months, the Post’s coverage of the “defund the police” debate has mindlessly echoed the same conservative scare tactics right-wing media have been amplifying: Black neighborhoods need more policing, not less, because Black-on-Black crime is rampant.
A July Washington Post/ABC news poll (7/21/20) found that while 69% of respondents believe Black people and people of color face discrimination in the criminal justice system, 55% of Americans oppose moving funds from police departments to social services—and 43% say they oppose it strongly.
However, with the Post’s prominence as a leading publication for political coverage, it’s no wonder Americans are resistant to the idea of defunding: The news they’re reading is telling them to resist it.
An article headlined “On a DC Street Beset by Gun Violence, Calls to Fix Policing, Not Defund It” (7/10/20) begins with the visceral description of children marching against the death of Davon McNeal, an 11-year-old boy who was shot and killed at a 4th of July cookout in DC. The piece goes on to describe a majority Black neighborhood infested by crime:
A grandmother afraid to leave her apartment after a gunman ran by her seconds after Davon fell mortally wounded; a young boy forbidden from taking out the trash because it’s too dangerous; a mother who piled her family’s belongings in boxes, rushing to escape.
The piece shares quotes from locals justifiably upset by the violence that gripped the area, and makes clear that Blackness is not a monolith. But instead of highlighting a discussion and offering credible arguments on both sides, the Post exploits a community’s pain to deflect from the conversation about police violence.
While community members throughout the article express their anger that activists are not paying more attention to crime within Black neighborhoods, the Post fails to flank their statements with facts that debunk the “Black-on-Black crime” myth.
In reality, any person is more likely to be killed by someone in their own community than they are an outsider. Because the US is still very much segregated, a Black murder victim is about as likely to have been killed by another Black person as a white murder victim is to have a white killer—though, oddly enough, this statistic prompts no media hand-wringing about why whites don’t speak out more about “white-on-white crime.”
Yet one population does kill Black people more than it does any other: Black individuals are more than 2.5 times more likely than white people to be killed at the hands of police.
Instead of facilitating a constructive debate and introducing arguments from both the pro- and anti-defunding sides, the Post takes one community’s tragedy and weaponizes it to discredit Black people who are calling to defund the police. Those mourning the death of an innocent child killed by a fellow community member are painted as the “good Black people,” and those calling to defund the police are the angry, illogical radicals.
Another article, “D.C. Activists and Lawmakers Confront Challenges of ‘Defund Police’ Movement” (7/25/20) discusses the DC City Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety unanimously approving a plan to reduce the city’s $533 million police budget. Again, the Post mentions the reality of violent crime in the area without delving into the nuance of how systemic racism fuels crime in under-resourced areas, or the fact that more police does not equal less crime, research the Post itself (6/7/20) reported on the month before. The piece simply volleys the quotes and differing opinions of politicians and activists without contextualizing the arguments with facts beyond spitting back crime rate statistics.
The July 27 “African-American Mayors Lay Out Plan for Police Reform Without ‘Defunding’” coverage (7/27/20) harks back to the same rhetoric used in the article about 11-year-old Davon McNeal: The fact that some Black people oppose defunding is offered as proof that defunding is unrealistic. The article makes clear that the nation’s Black mayors are outraged by the murder of George Floyd and countless others—but defunding the police is a step too far:
In interviews, the leaders of the African-American mayors’ group said they want to build on the momentum of the police reform movement ignited by the death of George Floyd—and they do not favor “defunding the police.”
The African-American Mayors Association’s proposed Peace Pact, mentioned in the article, recommends steps like revising police training, banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and providing transparency to communities. Although some of these proposals are constructive policy changes, the Post fails to present any challenge to the idea that in themselves they constitute an effective solution to police violence.
In fact, the Peace Pact’s ideas are not new. There have been efforts toward increased transparency and improved police policies in the past, yet police violence in the US continues to disproportionately affect Black communities. There is no mention of the fact that despite chokeholds being illegal in the NYPD, for instance, Daniel Pantaleo still killed Eric Garner in 2014 and got away with no charges.
Nor is there acknowledgement that releasing dashcam and bodycam footage does not always lead to justice. Last year, Hamilton County, Tennessee, set up a hotline for residents to report police misconduct after dashcam footage showed deputies Daniel Wilkey and Bobby Brewer beating and conducting invasive searches on a Black resident as he was handcuffed face down on the road. Sheriff Jim Hammond, who had repeatedly defended these deputies and denied that they conducted the body cavity search, is still in his position, despite calls for him to resign.
The “defund the police” debate is nuanced. There are not yet any definitive examples of police defunding success (despite misinformation about Camden, New Jersey, being a model). But radical imagination is a powerful tool in justice work; “We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable,” author Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote. Instead of offering a critical analysis of this product of radical imagination, the Washington Post’s reporting instead upholds the status quo.
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