Columbia Journalism Review

THE POLICE BRUTALITY CRISIS

Prior to May 25—the day Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, killed George Floyd, a Black man, while three other cops looked on—“Defund the Police” was not a message widely repeated in the press. But after that day, it was impossible to ignore. Protesters across the country were painting it onto cardboard signs and boarded-up windows. In march after march, the phrase could be heard in chants and shouts. Reporting from a protest in Oakland, I saw the words scribbled in Sharpie across a skateboard.

By June, “Defund the Police” had spawned an entire genre of coverage. “Defund the police? Here’s what that really means,” a headline in the Washington Post read. “There’s a growing call to defund the police. Here’s what it means,” offered CNN. The Guardian asked, “What does ‘Defund the Police’ mean?” posing the same question that would appear three days later in New York magazine as “What Could ‘Defund the Police’ Mean in Practice?” Similar pieces ran in the New York Times, NPR, the Miami Herald, Esquire, the Christian Science Monitor, MTV.com, Rolling Stone, and dozens of other outlets.

By their titles, these explainers may have appeared almost all the same, but in fact they varied dramatically. Journalists discussed “Defund the Police” as a slogan ripe for interpretation. “It’s become something of a semantic argument about what that means, exactly,” Willie Geist, an MSNBC anchor, told viewers. For some, it was simply a strong call for reform—more body cameras, no choke holds. For others, it was a rallying cry for revolution, including a complete abolition of police departments. A reader could be forgiven for finding the resources hard to parse. Soon, an awkward reality set in: many journalists were trying to explain a concept with which they had little familiarity. As the clumsy reporting continued, arguments over the “real” definition, the , , and other publications—that provided frustrated-tone correctives on how the media had gotten the protesters’ demand wrong.

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