“LAW & ORDER, NOT DEFUND AND ABOLISH THE POLICE,” tweeted former U.S. President Donald Trump on 8 June 2020. Only two weeks earlier Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin brutally murdered George Floyd, which convulsed America and my block in Brooklyn. Immediately after Floyd’s death, two local activist groups in Minneapolis—Reclaim the Block and Blacks Visions—circulated a petition calling for the city council to reallocate $45 million of the police department’s $200 million budget. Two weeks later, in the face of escalating protester demands, the Minneapolis City Council voted to entirely dismantle the city’s police department and begin a process of envisioning new forms of public safety. A radical, new mantra of the wider Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement suddenly became policy in a matter of weeks.
How, in such a short time since Floyd’s passing had this far-left idea ricocheted across American media to reach the White House? And who even supported defunding the police? While Trump pinned the idea on “Radical Left Democrats”, the divisive slogan found little support among elected Democrats. Campaigning the day before Trump’s tweet, then presidential candidate Joe Biden unequivocally told CBS News: “No, I don’t support defunding the police”. Neither did leftist Bernie Sanders, or most Democrats according to polls (Pew Research Center, 9 July 2020). If the discourse of police abolitionism crashed across the American public imagination with previously unexpected force, the swiftness with which it has receded is also striking: two years on, most Democrat-run cities are increasing their police budgets. Although BLM’s US track record is muddled, it has also quickly moved to and remained within Europe and other parts of the globe. If BLM emerged from the specific context of race in America, what does globalized or at least a more European BLM now look like?
Rather than something that came out of 2020s distinct global pandemic infused ether, the proposal to defund the police is rooted in decades of academic and activist work—from Angela Davis to Alex Vitale—which advocated abolitionism as a framework to oppose oppressive state institutions like prisons, the military, and police. In the more recent decade since Trayvon Martin’s murder catalyzed BLM, a growing body of academic literature studied the movement. The longevity with which the underlying concept motivating BLM’s rallying cry remained within academic circles suggests that radical ideas rarely get such traction, especially those that attack an institution of white power such as policing in the US which first emerged from slave patrols. Beyond academia, one oft-cited reason for BLM’s success is its activists’ savvy in harnessing social media to organize collective action and focus public attention on police brutality.
Indeed, Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, stated in 2020 that “seven years ago people thought that Black Lives Matter was a radical idea, and yet Black Lives Matter is now a household name and it’s something being discussed across kitchen tables all over the world” (NBC News, 7 June 2020). Yet, even as social media enables activists to set the political agenda while drawing upon these once radical intellectual ideas, it also provides competing frameworks shaping public perception of the movement. An analysis of thousands of the most popular Tweets across three periods of 2020 reveals that when our political language is no longer gatekept by journalists and academics, the meaning of phrases like “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police” morphs.
Even people adopting the “Defund the Police” catchphrase disagreed about its policy implications: while some advocated for full abolition of police departments, many alternatively pushed for budgetary half-measures reallocating funding into economic and social programs. When Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, had “Black Lives Matter” painted in large yellow letter on a street leading to the White House, activists painted “Defund the Police” next to it without city approval. Asked what she thought was meant by the phrase, Bowser told CNN that people were just “saying that they want reform and that they want good policing.”
Most contemporary activists would disagree with Muriel Bowser’s washed-down sentiment. Yet this frequently presumed activist consensus emerged through just a handful of decentralized voices. In the days after Floyd’s death, just three tweets among the thousands of most popular US posts mentioned defunding the police. They were posted by @BLMLA, BLM’s LA chapter, and @whitney_hu, a Brooklyn activist and self-described “abolitionist”. Just one month later, the number of popular posts about defunding the police skyrocketed, which involved a diverse array of mobilizing voices: activists, journalists, celebrities and even politicians.
The hashtag was also regularly hijacked by people opposed to BLM, with right-wing voices tagging critical posts with the popular hashtags in insidious attempts to contort meaning and obfuscate the coherence of the movement’s language. Despite BLM’s relative success, the empirical reality remains: millions of Black Americans are still subject to police brutality, department budgets are again increasing, and due to US crime spikes, law-and-order politics is back in fashion. Nor are bloated budgets solely a Republican feature; recently elected Black mayors like New York’s Eric Adams and Cherelle Parker in Philadelphia, my native city, also ran on the platform. Another review of tweets from 2020 reveals that the individuals or groups amplifying “defund the police” most were increasingly opponents on the right who viewed it as a useful maligning tactic against Democratic candidates in the lead up to the November election.
Moving beyond BLM’s patchy US legacy, BLM swiftly became a global anti-racist movement. In Berlin on 6 June 2020, 15,000 people gathered in Alexanderplatz chanting Black Lives Matter. It was an impressive display of anti-racism inspired by events a continent away, despite just 2% of Berliners identifying as Black. The response produced tangible results: Berlin passed Germany’s first state anti-discrimination law that June, allowing victims of racism to sue for damages and compensation. In the three years since, post-BLM conversations have cast increasing public attention on Germany’s own colonial past — history often overshadowed by Holocaust guilt. In 2021, the federal government finally apologized for Germany’s role in perpetrating the 20th century’s first genocide of the Herero and Nama people in Namibia, a former colony. Last year, Germany returned over 1,000 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.
As the German case illustrates, European anti-racist activism necessarily assumes contextualized vocabularies. European communities who experience systemic racism are often not Black: they are immigrants with Arab, Turkish, and other backgrounds. In wealthy states with brutal colonial histories like France, Belgium, the UK, and the Netherlands, discourse about reparations and restitution square prominently within anti-racist work. But these same arguments lack potency in many southern and eastern European countries where populations who likely identify as white have been victimized throughout the 20th century through different forms of colonialism, exploitation, and subjugation. It can be easily forgotten within the context of today’s pax Europa that has most recently deeply been disrupted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the historically deadly ethnonationalism that swept 20th century Europe literally reshaped the continent’s national borders and displaced millions.
Much like the US, German opponents have also misconstrued BLM’s legacy on antiracist discourse. Just this winter Kai Wegner of the center-right CDU improbably became mayor of red Berlin after a campaign tinged with racist demagoguery. “Riots” on New Years in immigrant heavy Neukölln led to weeks of media panic, with Wegner demanding to know the first names of the suspects, illegal under German law, to prove that the violence was caused by “people with migrant backgrounds” who “refused to integrate”. Similar scapegoating and integrationist views echo continent-wide, in various forms. While a degree of critical self-reflection is expected within Germany, France does not officially recognize racial identities, and “antiwokisme” is a national pastime from commentators on the right to the old-school left.
This is not the first time that US ideas of racial and social justice have crossed into Europe. When the Black expatriate writer William Gardner Smith resided in Europe just after World War II, he was alarmed to discover that his Black colleagues in Paris failed to support Algeria’s fight for independence from its French colonial rulers who still occupied the country at that time. Other seminal thinkers like James Baldwin who also lived in Paris at the time were haunted by this contradiction. As Baldwin noted, “[r]esponsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated”. With this ethos finally cohering, BLM’s principles now increasingly extend to being Black in Germany or Arab in France. And yet beyond these binaries, white Europeans nonetheless continue to invent subaltern categories of racialized others as varied as the continent’s white skin tones. Thus, in the case of BLM’s transliteration to Europe’s varied tapestry of colonial pasts it is the responsibility of white Europeans not to import or reject BLM, but to ask themselves what racism their countries continue to manifest and why.