In a meeting with the Democrats caucus two days after barely winning her election by less than 5000 votes, Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger - said that Republican ads attacking her Party’s stand on ‘defund the police’ nearly cost her the seat. Other Congressional Democrats bickered over why their party fell short of electoral expectations, lost safe seats, failed to beat Republican incumbents, were still behind in the senate, and barely held on to the House of Representatives.
The centrists blamed the progressives' rigid stand. The progressives blamed it on the party not going far enough to embrace boldness. Kristen Hawn, a Democratic strategist said in a Time article that the Democrats, “didn’t have a clear enough message as to what we’re for and what we’re not.”
In contrast, what Trump delivered were simple, direct messages: Democrats will turn the USA into a communist haven, ‘defund the police’ will leave streets undefended, democrats think only black lives matter, masks, and other pandemic restrictions will destroy the economy.
Trump, instead of being the defensive incumbent as all previous US presidents running for re-elections have been, went on the offensive blaming Biden, surprisingly even for problems he as a President is supposed to tackle, some of which he either created or inflamed.
What Trump had and the Democrats lacked, was the power to simplify. Of course, Trump lied and blatantly made things up. Yet when Democrats had so many points, why couldn’t they frame their messaging simply enough to rally more people in? Messaging like Trump is a dangerous liar, his manhandling of coronavirus can literally kill voters, if he called himself the war president could he be called a war criminal for killing so many, he’s a tax fraudster who belongs in prison, or that Russia elected Trump not USA, etc.
Trump gave Democrats so many low hanging fruits, that watching Democrats almost bungle up while making the jam of victory was just exasperating.
Beyond many other reasons, I think, what gave Trump ammunition and almost cost Biden his presidency, are some badly coined protest movement phrases which the party took up and which instead of uniting people under a common cause, ended up polarising them into confusion. Two phrases that harmed him the most – and I reiterate I’m not criticising the movement but their catchphrases, are - as Abigail Spanberger said -‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Defund the Police’.
‘Black Lives Matter’ is a war cry against systemic racial injustice and a call to inclusivity, equality, and equity for all by highlighting the plight of Blacks in America. The idea is such that except for a small openly racist group of people, everyone else should fall behind it, especially conservative Christians who believe in the good Lord’s message that all are equal in the eyes of God.
Yet it is a collection of words that have been used by many Republicans led by Trump to sow discord. Their argument: “If they want equality, how can only black lives matter?” The counter-reaction to BLM from them has thus been the All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements.
When I first heard the term ‘Defund the Police’ after the protests post the murder of George Floyd, I wondered why protestors were asking for the dissolution of the police when whether we like them or not, some form of policing is necessary. It took me some study to realise that protestors were in essence asking to rearrange police funding. If that’s the case, I wondered then and still do, why don’t they just call it ‘Rearrange Police Funding’ or ‘Redistribute Police Funds’ instead of calling it ‘Defund the Police’ even when they are not asking to completely defund the police?
Ultra-liberals would call people who don’t understand the intention behind the phrases stupid, racist, and bigoted. That’s easy escapism. Truth is, most hardworking folks busy in the rigmarole of survival do not have the time, energy, or inclination to get into details. They need clear, simple words they can understand at one glance. Thus when actual bigots like Trump tells them that Black Lives Matter promotes Black exclusivity and exceptionalism, they look at the phrase and decide that the president is right. They look at the words ‘Defund the Police’ and wonder who are these dumb liberals who want the police completely out of the streets?
Joe Biden himself understands this and hence during the presidential debate, he said “I’m totally opposed to defunding the police budget,” even as he smartly explained what ‘Defund the Police actually meant. Yet, as Abigail Spanberger said, that did not stop it from hurting her and other Democrats.
The reason for this, I believe, is the coinage of the terms. Both could have been phrased more judiciously. ‘Black Lives Also Matter’ is a much stronger and inclusive battle cry for justice. The message is clearer and without the possibility of innuendo or mischief. There is no way it can be deciphered as meaning that only Black Lives Matter.
I agree it is less catchy and longer than a simple ‘Black Lives Matter’. But removing any possibility for miscommunication by sounding more inclusive, would help the movement by getting more people into it.
As for ‘Defund the Police’, the option I’d have preferred is, as I said before, ‘Rearrange Police Funding’ or ‘Redistribute Police Funds’ or ‘Organise Police Money’ etc.
Again I agree these are slightly harder to say or chant and that its tone feels passive over the directness of ‘Defund the Police’. But these are terms that force a listener to think: what do the protestors want the police funding to rearrange to? This could lead to more engagement with the problems with policing, spread awareness about the movement’s needs for the police to be a helpful, cooperative force rather than a brutal law enforcement one every single time.
A majority of Americans don’t look at themselves as racists. Yet they behave like one because, I believe, they haven’t been introduced into the subtle racism they practice. They think racism is a relic of the past that involved lynching by hooded Klan members. They have missed the evolution of racism entirely and hence liberals continuing to call them racists based on micro-assessments without first explaining it throws them into the arms of bigots like Trump.
The fight against racism in the USA and casteism or communalism in India isn’t helped by self-righteous accusations. What it needs is what hundreds of BLM members have been doing in the grassroots – engage in the education of the masses. Their almost eight years of groundwork has led white folks to join the post-George Floyd murder protests in such large numbers.
Words are the foundations of civilization. Like they hurt us personally, words also hurt groups, even dominant powerful groups. Politicians who need to make their arguments simply, precisely and quickly, need words and phrases that do not confuse or hide innuendoes that can be used negatively. Movements need words that do not shun people or induce fear, which invites direct positive engagement rather than indirect revulsion. Both the terms ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Defund the Police’ – despite their best intentions – seems to do just that to a large number of Americans.
Having seen movements grow from the ground up in India, I know catchphrases often grow on their own. Yet at times it is deliberated upon, chosen, and then encouraged. Yet in divided times like these, I believe that a call for ‘Black Lives Also Matter’ and ‘Redistribute Police Funding’ instead of their more direct counterparts, could go some distance in healing the flailed nerves of the seventy million people who voted for Donald Trump and bring many of them into the movement.
Even if it’s too late to change these terms today, I hope leaders of future movements will remember to create more inclusive protest chants the next time they sit down to deliberate on the name for their movement.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)