A Letter to White People Engaged in Conversations Around the Phrase “Defund The Police”

Jaime Mulligan Jaime Mulligan | Jun 11, 2020 | 6 min read

I’m seeing a lot of white people critique the phrase “defund the police,” while saying that they agree with looking at how much our society decides to allocate to police in budgets.

For those people reading this who I don’t know personally, I design public affairs campaigns. This isn’t exclusively what I do, but it’s been part of my professional work for at least the past 15 years. I offer this context because I want to be clear that one perspective I’m bringing to this write-up is someone who thinks very intensively about messaging, on the regular. I’m also a yoga teacher and a health and well-being coach, so you’ll see me refer throughout this piece to what’s happening in our bodies, because that’s important here.

I’ve seen an argument that the phrase “defund the police” is problematic because “people don’t understand it” right away. I’ve also seen arguments that – you may recognize these phrases — “this terminology turns off a lot of people” or “it’s not inclusive” or “it doesn’t make people feel good.”

There’s a lot to dig into around the assumptions these phrases are making, including exactly who we’re talking about when we use words like inclusive, but I want to start with our bodies.

I think white people have a nervous physical and emotional reaction to the phrase “defund the police.” This reaction starts in our amygdalas and we often feel it in our bellies — it’s a sense of unease. This isn’t a surprise if you’ve studied neuroscience, brain development, anthropology, etc. This is how human socialization works — it embeds cultural messages in us that we feel before we know how to put into words. In this case, I would argue that what is occurring is that the white supremacist culture is raising its fists in our minds, trying put us back in check. The reason for that is pretty simple: white supremacist culture wants us to avoid critiquing law enforcement, because law enforcement is one of the ways that culture maintains its power. So the cultural messages we’ve internalized make us feel afraid.

Here is a key point: it doesn’t mean you’re a shitty person if you have this kneejerk reaction / these sensations. It means you swim in the same waters we’re all in right now, and you’ve got some socialization going on in you. So you have to do some self work to recognize these sensations and moments for what they are.

But also, the next move is to be careful with what you say next, because that socialization is going to try to get you to reinforce the status quo (white supremacy).

If you don’t pause, and you start trying to talk about it from that place of unquestioned unease, your mind will frantically look around for a way to explain what you feel, and it’s gonna have its hands out and grab whatever makes the most sense to it based on your socialization.

So one of the things that could come out is “trying to be reasonable” by saying “this branding is just terrible.” This is even the case with people who agree that we need to reassess budgets and are doing a bunch of reading on the nuances and spectrum of how we can actualize a concept like defunding the police.

The problem is that “this branding is just terrible” makes little to no sense for a couple of reasons.

First, not all branding/marketing is designed to make people feel good. In some cases, actually, marketing is designed to make you feel inadequate so you buy a product. We all allude to this when we roll our eyes about skinny models on the covers of magazines, right?

So let’s put to bed the idea that all branding is about making people feel good.

Second, in other cases, marketing is designed to PROVOKE you, so you remember, so you are challenged, so you don’t forget. In public affairs campaigns in particular, where we’re talking about policy ideas and initiatives, you’re often trying to move public perception from a place of relative ignorance or unquestioned assumptions to a new understanding.

So let’s put to bed the idea that there isn’t a place for slogans to be intentionally provoking.

Third, the phrase/policy demand in this particular case, by definition, pushes on our cultural assumptions and forces us to deal with our shit — which includes our underlying white supremacist cultural conditioning around law enforcement.

It is a reckoning, and reckonings do not feel good, they feel appropriately challenging and hard.

So let’s now put to bed the idea that the phrase used for this campaign should make white people feel comfortable. It should be doing the opposite, according to how our culture is set up, which is EXACTLY what it is doing — and forcing a very critical conversation about our societal budget priorities.

This all brings me around to another point, and here, I am hearing James Baldwin in my head, writing about how Black people know white people better than white people know white people, because they have to, in order to stay alive. I am seeing that video of Amy Cooper in the NYC park acting out a white supremacist drama like a scene from Get Out in my head. And this is where I am going to get real blunt to my fellow white people:

We need to be clear that when you make these comments about branding, what you are suggesting is that Black activists leading this movement should be shaping their messaging to what white people are comfortable with, something that “won’t turn [the white people] off.”

We need to get honest with ourselves here: white people weren’t (and many still aren’t) comfortable with the simple phrase Black Lives Matter. That’s changing a bit but I think we forget how “RADICAL” that phase was. And still is in some groups of white people, despite the street painting happening. [Read patrice cullors’ and asha bandele’s book when they call you a terrorist for more on this.]

The reality is that if Black activists stuck to messaging that white people felt comfortable with, they would have to stop saying ANYTHING. Because we white people are fragile as hell on these issues. [I know it’s on backorder but please, please read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and engage with the text.]

So, no, no, no, no, no. Black activists should not design their messaging for white people comfort. And white people should NOT be spouting off about how Black activists don’t understand branding. That is just wrong. Black activists know what they are doing. And none of them need me to say this, but if you’re a white person reading this, and you need me to reiterate it: I tell you again — as a white public affairs professional — using the phrase “defund the police” is EXACTLY how you design an effective campaign around this issue given the cultural context.

White people need to do the work of thinking critically about white supremacy, doing the research on the options for how funding works, and coming to their own conclusions about whether they are on board with the policy idea. And — here is my yoga teacher side — we need to really sit with those uneasy sensations, instead of grabbing for a socialization explanation.

What this all comes down to is this: programs get defunded all the time when the money should go elsewhere or someone decides they aren’t properly accountable. Why is law enforcement different? Why? Tell me why it’s more important than education, or health care, or housing, or any other number of priorities that make our lives better. And more importantly — who wants you to believe that it is, and why? And why does your socialization want you mired in a conversation about branding instead of how we spend money?