The Dangers of Mission Creep to the Movement of the Moment
Take the win, don’t squander the moment, and don’t trade the good that can be done today with overwhelming support now for a fantasy laundry list later.
The message of the black lives matter protests has taken to streets across America. Since last Monday’s events where the president cleared the street near the White House for his photo op/campaign add march down it, that particular street has become a focal point. Now some folks want to make sure it stays that way.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser renamed a street in front of the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and had the slogan painted on the asphalt in massive yellow letters, a pointed salvo in her escalating dispute with President Trump over control of D.C. streets.
City officials said the actions Friday were meant to honor demonstrators who are urging changes in law enforcement practices after the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in the custody of Minneapolis police.
“There was a dispute this week about whose street it is, and Mayor Bowser wanted to make it abundantly clear whose street it is and honor the peaceful demonstrators who assembled Monday night,” said John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff.
On Friday, city workers included a D.C. flag at the end of the display in front of St. John’s Church, close to where federal law enforcement forcefully cleared the area of largely peaceful protesters Monday night just before Trump walked over and posed for news cameras, a Bible in his hand.
The art takes up two blocks on 16th Street NW, between K and H streets, an iconic promenade directly north of the White House. Local artist Rose Jaffe said she and others joined city work crews to paint the giant slogan, starting before dawn.
Shortly after 11 a.m., Bowser watched silently as a city worker hung a sign at the corner of 16th and H streets that said “Black Lives Matter Plz NW.”
Alright, performative and a bit on the nose but attention grabbing and nobody gets hurt so, so far so good.
That lasted less than 24 hours before the new art to “honor the peaceable protestors” got a very political addendum:
Just a day after D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser ordered “Black Lives Matter” painted down 16th Street NW to make a statement to President Trump, a group of Black Lives Matter activists made a statement of their own as an addendum to the city’s now-famous mural.
They painted “DEFUND THE POLICE” in the same bright yellow paint as Bowser’s much-publicized statement.
On Friday, Bowser renamed a street in front of the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and had the slogan painted in giant letters leading toward Lafayette Square, which has become the epicenter in the District for protests over police brutality. Saturday night’s update by Black Lives Matter D.C. now follows soon after, 10 feet from the original street art.
Makia Green, a core organizer for Black Lives Matter D.C., said Saturday the “defund the police” display by the organization is a “direct response” to the mural from the mayor. Black Lives Matter D.C. tweeted the original mural commissioned by the city “is a performative distraction from real policy changes,” adding the mayor has consistently been on the wrong side of “BLMDC” history.
The “wrong side” means Mayor Bowser’s budget included increases in police funding. Something tells me that if the mayor announced anything short of immediate abolishment it would be not enough for some of the BLMDC folks. Already on social media, plenty of activists, leaders, and office holders are sensing the problem here and working on variations of “What we mean by defund is…” which is probably true in some cases. Chanted slogans in the streets is, has, and always will be about the impact and rhyming scheme more than technical accuracy.
But if you want to harness the moment you better be very, very precise in your phrasing.
Tom clarifies in subsequent Tweets he is aware of defunding becoming, in his words, “bloated” in meaning. But this is a great example; What is described here is better classified as “demilitarizing” the police, something that a huge majority of people would support depending on details. “Defund the police” comes across as anarchy and support drops immediately. The wording is going to matter, a lot, going forward if anything positive is going to come from the current situations. Of course police budgets are bloated and out of control in many cities. Sure there are plenty of things to cut. But the devil is very much in the details. “Defund the police” is too broad a call, and counterproductive. Like with other sacred spending cows, any attempt at reigning in bloat in education results in cries of “They’re stealing from teachers and cheating our children” for anyone with the temerity to think administrators making six figures a year without ever seeing the inside of the classroom don’t need week-long junkets to Miami or wherever on the taxpayer dime to bring up testing standards. Similarly, there is no part of government that gets more wasteful funding than the Department of Defense because any cut is framed as taking the weapons out of the hands of the troops, when in reality it layer upon costly layer of superfluous bureaucracy by folks never leaving a desk that is the problem.
“Defund” runs too close to “abolish”, which the more aggressive activists also push for while holding their ACAB signs (All cops are bastards, for the uninitiated, a slogan borrowed from the UK). All cops are not, in fact, bastards, and you better have good people willing to do that not easy job even while holding them to the higher standard the profession must adhere to. No city in American can go without a police force. Suggesting otherwise is utopian nonsense. Even in the cases of a “disbandment” folks that point to the Camden, NJ model need to be reminded that a mid-sized city closing its city department to make it a county law enforcement agency with double the size, and driven as much over budget issues as police reform concerns, is a model of reform not abolishment. It is also probably non-transferable in the whole of concept, due to some unique situations surrounding Camden, but surely there are lessons there to be considered and learned.
The conflict to come, that is already happening beneath the headlines, is while the terminology and original meaning of “Black lives matters” has become far more accepted and sympathetic to folks as a worthy cause, Black Lives Matters the organization has a long list of items they are seeking that go far beyond the scope of police reform and racial issues.
So you get what we have here, a progressive mayor fully supporting black lives matter the message, with Black Lives Matters the organization immediately moving the marker for the next item on the agenda while directly attacking an elected official who is ostensibly an ally as being insufficiently helpful.
The term here is mission creep and it is a very old tactic to continue a cause past it’s stated purpose and objection. Many folks in the country are aware and paying attention to the issues of policing and race at the moment. Vast majorities are in agreement that something should be done. Those sentiments can be harnessed, but they cannot be browbeat. Things like consensus and compromise are not popular words amid a “movement” but are still the currency of actually getting things done. The folks that protest professionally have a habit of moving the goalposts every time the general population gets close to where they proclaim the promise land is, and will do so again here. Which is their right too, and they have plenty of reasons to pursue that tactic.
But for the folks that just want things to get better in their lives and communities, the unattainable goals of revolutionary perfection tend to leave them in the no man’s land between the aftermath of the current crisis and the inevitable dissipation of the moment without anything substantial changing. Or worse, ill thought out reactionary policy that might make the horrible unimaginably worse.
The pincer movement of viral videos and advocacy has achieved a victory in getting attention on the issues of how a free people that self govern police themselves. It’s not just the usual suspects in the streets, but plenty of new folks who have never protested before feeling like they need to do something. If you told police reform advocates a month ago you would have police joining marchers, the bulk of headlines for two weeks, and Mitt Romney marching in a black lives matter protest they would have laughed at you. All that happened just yesterday.
Take the win, don’t squander the moment, and don’t trade the good that can be done today with overwhelming support now for for an unattainable fantasy laundry list that isn’t coming later. The protests made a statement on the streets. The president made a statement clearing and marching down the street. Mayor Bowers made a statement painting that street. The Black Lives Matter leadership upped the ante by painting even more on the street while declaring the first painting insufficient.
The danger is the high profile folks keep making statements and counter-statements to one-up each other while nothing gets done at the levels of government necessary to change things for the better for the regular folks that have to live with it.
“This is no longer about George Floyd” isn’t just going to be a talking point, it’s a warning to those seeking change to not let mission creep, or getting caught up in the moment, or just good old fashioned hubris and self-righteousness carry you farther than the moment and the people that are on your side right now, today, are willing to go. Take the win, then build for what comes next.