ST. LOUIS — Outcry over “defund the police” has built what seems like one roadblock after another around a champion of the slogan. Naturally, she’s yelling back at the encroaching lines, unwilling to disperse.
“I am the activist,” U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, said in a recent interview. “I am going to do what needs to be done to help bring the awareness.”
Her message — part of her platform as a first-term congresswoman from St. Louis — was born out of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the months of protests that followed. While the incident fueled a national movement challenging lethal use of force, it also shed light on municipalities unfairly bolstering budgets through traffic tickets, fines and fees levied on the poor.
New laws and policies cracked down on disparities. Yet many view “defund the police,” and Bush for that matter, as enemies of law and order. They say less police means more lawlessness. St. Louis is Exhibit A. Another viewpoint says the criticism is reminiscent of sensationalizing the Black Power movement to scare away votes in the 1960s and ’70s.
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Conservatives regularly use “defund the police” to further drive a wedge between Democrats and Republicans. Moderate and progressive Democrats have also distanced themselves. Nervous about midterm elections, some suggest rebranding the slogan to better fit its intended purpose, which is to serve minorities trapped in concentrated poverty with something more effective than police geared up for war.
In February, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said: “Community safety, to protect and defend in every way, is our oath of office” but that “defund the police” is “not the position of the Democratic Party.” President Joe Biden, a Democrat, hammered the message home during his State of the Union address with a full-throated endorsement for funding police.
Bush reiterated to the Post-Dispatch that she wants to keep “defund the police” in the forefront. Yes, it’s made people angry and uncomfortable, yet more motivated to act.
“This is the thing, people have been saying: ‘Well, we need to reinvest. We need to move money,’” she said. “We need to do all that for a while. It hasn’t happened. But when we started saying defund the police, and that started to get a lot of momentum, then people started to move.”
She said people “gaslight” her by suggesting the slogan should be rebranded.
“You are more worried about the slogan than you are about getting it done,” she said. “So don’t even say the slogan. Just do the work. Reallocate. Do whatever you want to do. Do that. And don’t worry about the slogan.”
The political implications?
“They will use anything,” she said. “Right now, it’s defund the police. The next thing it will be school choice or it will be abortion. This is just the one that they can use because they are talking about the activist from the movement that they weren’t a part of.”
Lawyer. Educator. Business owner. Farmer. Auctioneer. These are some of the backgrounds of people in Congress.
St. Louis, in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, tends to draw activists.
William L. Clay was a leader of the Jefferson Bank & Trust Co. protests, the signature event of the civil rights movement in St. Louis. He was an alderman who went on to co-found the Congressional Black Caucus, serving in Washington from 1969 to 2001. His son, William Lacy Clay, carried the baton until 2020, when Bush defeated him in the Democratic primary.
Brandon Bosley, alderman of Ward 3, said activism is needed in St. Louis because there is so much to advocate for in the Black community. He said those neighborhoods, like his around Hyde Park, have been hit much harder by disinvestment, population decline, lead poisoning, industrial pollution and disparities in health care than white neighborhoods.
“Folks tend to act like history isn’t important,” he said. “There’s a reason why you teach it in school.”
He said “defund the police” sends a “different message than the intended purpose.”
“We know it starts with redirecting dollars,” he said. “No matter how many officers we get on the street, we still have a social and cultural problem that hasn’t allowed us to bridge the gap between community, police and what we consider the system.”
He said there are still people vividly aware of the Jim Crow era, people who still remember the Fairground Park race riots in 1949 that stemmed from desegregating the pool.
“Imagine the first 10 or 12 years of your life, you are told that you can’t go north of Grand. You are told to ride in the back of the street car. You are told that you can’t buy a house in a certain area,” Bosley said. “And if you know you can’t go to a swimming pool, then you know you can’t go to a good school. All of those things happened. They enforced it utilizing the police.”
“We still see some of those things taking place,” he added, referring to video of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, killing the Black man in 2020. “You can’t make this up.”
Bush takes the lesson to a broader audience.
“St. Louis and I rise today because if America’s students are not taught the truth in school, we can at least make the floor of the House of Representatives their classroom,” she said from the floor.
There was a large picture behind her of a crowd gawking at two lynched Black people.
“What we must remember is that for every Black person they hung from a tree, dozens of white people came to celebrate,” she said, adding: “This is the truth about our country that too many racist lawmakers want to prevent our students from learning.”
In an interview, Bush said she drew inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “fierce urgency of now.”
“The people of St. Louis elected me to speak plain and to speak truth in the face of anyone,” she said. “That’s what I have to do in D.C.”
So far, she doesn’t face a high-profile opponent in the next election.
Andre Smith, a political scientist, said it’s been compelling to watch Bush’s trajectory from street activist to lawmaker. He said she caused an “earthquake” by unseating Clay because it ended a north city political machine.
“These younger voters, they don’t know the Clay name,” he said. “Cori Bush was able to parlay her time on the street during the Ferguson protest to those younger voters. She’s throwing these flames at the institution. And they really like that. They feel like the older African American leadership was too institutionalized.”
He said her position challenges the broader Democratic Party.
“If Cori Bush’s primary goal is reelection, it’s a very good strategy. She has a very rational strategy. One that we shouldn’t discount. It speaks to her constituency,” Smith said. “She’s kind of a maverick that she is basically saying to her party that I don’t care about your macro issues.”
Even though “defund the police” sounds good to someone who had a bad experience with an officer, he said it only goes so far, for instance, in areas of concentrated poverty where residents are more likely to be victimized by crime.
He was also speaking from his own experience. Smith grew up in the Peabody public housing project in south St. Louis. He was a police officer in St. Louis for 20 years, mainly in north city. He earned a doctorate in political science while on the force. His last stint was as a sex crimes detective.
“Those people need the police more than anybody,” he said of abuse victims. “But the problem is this: There are no other institutions in those communities. They just don’t exist.”
Smith, who now teaches at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, said the doctor’s offices, dentists, grocery stores and gyms are gone from north St. Louis.
“What happens is the police is the only institution that this community deals with on a regular basis,” he said.
For their part, he said, the police have failed to build “effective communication networks” in north St. Louis. Places like the 6300 block of Sherry Avenue. He said that area, right on the city line with Jennings, has had outsized drug activity for decades.
“We weren’t able to communicate with elderly homeowners on that block,” he said.
View from Sherry
A 73-year-old woman with a cross dangling from her neck answered one of the front doors on Sherry last week. She said she’d lived there 35 years, raised three children.
She said she didn’t want to be named out of fear of being “targeted.” She said she and her neighbors look out for each other. She said there was a recent fatal hit-and-run at the intersection of Goodfellow Boulevard. She recalled a fatal police shooting at a nearby gas station in 2018.
She said she didn’t understand what “defund the police” means. She said she’s not against the police, but some officers need to be better trained. Her main complaint was all the concrete barricades on Sherry and other nearby streets.
She said the replacement value of her home, compared to other areas, is one large obstacle to uprooting.
LaShonda Jamison, 45, waited at a nearby bus stop, on her way to work. Originally from Vinita Park, she said she moved to the area three years ago, seeking more affordable housing after losing her job as a manager of a clothing store in Brentwood. She hears a lot of gunshots at night and looks out for high-speed cars and chases.
“I don’t think they should defund the police,” she said, catching the bus to her new job at a discount store. “We need as many police as possible around here because of the violence.”