Since the shocking, videotaped killing of George Floyd, an African American man, by a white Minneapolis policeman on May 25, tens of thousands of Americans have taken to the streets in protest. In many places, demonstrations against police violence were met with callousness and more police violence, often military style.
You can’t have a protest without slogans, and of all the slogans that have appeared during these protests, the one that has been the most visible and provocative is “Defund the police.” On HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” host John Oliver devoted an entire show to the slogan and the issues behind it. The president, unsurprisingly, took the bait and tweeted repeatedly in opposition. A couple of his supporters escalated the threat.
“Defund the police” T-shirt via Etsy
I’ve been following the arguments over “Defund the police”—from “Is there a better way to say it?” to “What does it even mean?” (Interestingly, the OED doesn’t include a definition for defund that means “withdraw financial support from something,” although American dictionaries do.) My conclusion: Whenever you have to explain a slogan by saying “What we really mean is…”, it’s a bad slogan and you’re losing the argument.
Especially when your “explanation” uses a word like “decommodify” that needs more explanation. I don’t know who created this graphic; I found it on Reddit.
The commentary that spoke most directly to me comes from a Twitter user who goes by The Hoarse Whisperer and who tackled the subject the way those of us who work in branding and communications would.
My timeline is still filled with people heatedly talking about “Defund the Police” as a slogan.
Rather than be annoyed by some of the hyperbole, let me just offer some potentially soothing perspective from the communications world.
— The Hoarse Whisperer (@HoarseWisperer) June 8, 2020
The thread isn’t about word choice or even about the role of the police in a democratic society. It’s about strategy: What is our objective? Who is our audience? And it’s about process: What are the steps we need to take to arrive at an effective outcome?
“Demilitarize police” is also about only one specific thing. It is also too specific and too narrow - but part of the bigger thing.— The Hoarse Whisperer (@HoarseWisperer) June 8, 2020
“Reform police” is too soft and has old connotations that foot backwards to things like “reformatories” rather than forward to something new.
“Right now,” writes The Hoarse Whisperer (who does not reveal his/her/their real name), “we’re having a public debate about only one aspect of police reform: rethinking investment levels. That is automatically too narrow to be an umbrella for all police reform - but it is one aspect of it.” Another frequently used term, “demilitarization” is, again, just one important aspect. “Reimagining,” which also crops up, isn’t active enough.
Creating an effective slogan doesn’t always require a committee (sometimes that’s the most counterproductive thing), but it does require thoughtful analysis and solid listening skills. I encourage you to read the whole Hoarse Whisperer thread, and also a subsequent thread about how to do the necessary research and education to start the work. Also useful: this thread by Eddie S. Glaude Jr., who chairs Princeton University’s department of African American studies.
Reject the frame of law and order, of being tough or soft on crime, and offer a more robust account of public safety that involves massive investment in our communities. And then offer a slogan, if you like. Someone emailed me and suggested “communities first”. 5/— Eddie S. Glaude Jr. (@esglaude) June 9, 2020
Update: Thanks to Angus B. Grieve-Smith for sharing this image, originally posted on Facebook.
For more about how to develop a creative brief—the essential first step in a branding project like this one—see my ancient-but-still-relevant post, “How to write a naming brief.”