In the two years since the progressive left’s call to “defund the police” went mainstream, the word “defund” has been weaponized against them by Republicans and Democrats alike. Now in the run-up to New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ first budget, the city’s progressive movement is trying to reclaim “defund” – in some cases, turning it against the mayor saying that he is the one trying to “defund” public safety.
The tactics have been on full display as activism around the city’s fiscal year 2023 budget heats up while the City Council holds hearings on Adams’ preliminary budget. The final budget is due before July 1. On Wednesday, hundreds of members of the city’s progressive movement heard from City Council Member Tiffany Cabán at a rally organized by The People’s Plan NYC criticizing Adams’ “austerity budget.”
“We’ve heard a lot of scare-mongering the past few years,” Cabán said, and people like her and those at the rally who use “scary words” like “defund” have been “blamed, castigated and denounced for any manner of problems.”
But the one that will really cause problems, Cabán said, is Adams. “Mayor Adams has proposed a budget that would defund many of our most vital public safety and public health agencies and institutions. It would defund schools. It would defund sanitation. It would defund homeless services. It would defund our public hospital systems. It would defund the departments for youth and community development. It would defund the department of small business services.”
By one interpretation, that’s all true. Adams proudly touted the fact that he asked for 3% budget reductions for most agencies, and he got it. The Department of Education’s budget is projected to be down $1.3 billion, according to city budget documents (though the city is actually expecting to increase its share in respect to federal and state funds by nearly $600 million). Sanitation would be down $136 million (though, again, the city itself would spend $314 million more). Homeless services would be defunded by $615 million compared to the current year’s budget. Health + Hospitals spending would be down $1.3 billion. DYCD, $184 million less. And SBS, $379 million less.
The New York City Police Department, by the way, would see $204 million less in its expense budget – though the NYPD budget is expected to grow when more state and city funding are factored in.
That goes to show that budgets, especially preliminary budgets are a blunt instrument, a messy shorthand that might not actually reflect the impact of the money and the services rendered. New York City spends almost double per pupil on schooling than Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean the education is twice as good.
But the art of Cabán’s statement was that it turned this loaded word, “defund,” against the mayor. And her office is itching for a fight. “Throwing down the gauntlet here,” Cabán’s spokesperson Jesse Myerson texted reporters Thursday, sharing a clip of Cabán on NY1 saying that Adams’ budget “defunds” homeless services, schools, parks and sanitation.
The word defund – and the idea behind it of reducing police departments’ budget to weaken their influence – has been used as a political cudgel in the two years since a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, sparking Black Lives Matter protests nationwide. In the summer of 2020, the call by progressives to defund the NYPD by at least $1 billion and reinvest the money to support low income communities got so much attention that then-Mayor Bill de Blasio felt he had to stretch the truth to its limits in order to claim that he hit that $1 billion goal. In reality, the budget was reduced by far less, and planned cost shifts such as moving school safety agents to the education budget have been reversed.
Still, almost immediately, opponents variously derided the call to defund the police as wrongheaded, disrespectful to brave officers or an academic theory only pushed by primarily white people living in safe neighborhoods. Republicans used it to criticize all Democrats, and moderate Democrats are still denouncing it to this day. “The answer is not to defund the police, it’s to give you the tools, the training, the funding to be partners, to be protectors,” President Joe Biden said at NYPD headquarters during a February visit. A month later, it was an applause line at his State of the Union. “We should all agree,” Biden said. “The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police.”
You wouldn’t know it by reading some coverage, but Adams himself has largely avoided the red meat of criticizing the defund movement, even as he ran for office on a platform centered on public safety. He gave into the obvious temptation sometimes – telling New York magazine that the defund conversation was being led by “a lot of young white affluent people” – but he never leaned in as much as others. Maybe because he agreed that the NYPD’s budget could be reduced, noting in his campaign plans that the city could save $500 million by reducing overtime and moving some uniformed officers out of clerical positions.
Adams’ office responded to Cabán’s charge that he was defunding essential agencies. “The budget that the mayor proposed last month is fiscally responsible while making upstream investments to promote an equitable recovery,” a statement from the City Hall press office emailed to City & State read. “The truth is that for too long, New Yorkers have not gotten their money’s worth from our government, and we need to make it better and more efficient. We’re also increasing investment for New Yorkers in the greatest need – adding 30,000 summer youth jobs, expanding the city’s Earned Income Tax Credit, baselining funding for the Fair Fares program, and promoting affordable childcare.”
Ironically, Adams’ argument that he was spreading money to other areas got a boost at the very rally where Cabán spoke Wednesday. There on the steps of the Department of Education’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan, organizers from the progressive advocacy group Vocal-NY held up a massive Black and white sign reading “defund means invest.”
Two days later, organizers held the same sign again at a people’s public safety rally in City Hall Park, where VOCAL-NY organizing director Jawanza James Williams explained that it was just another way of reclaiming the term “defund.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever had to not reclaim it. I think that it’s been intentionally misconstrued,” he said. “It’s been intentionally politicized in a way to erase its actual meaning.”
Cabán’s new rhetoric doesn’t mean she rejects the sign of the message behind it, her spokesperson Myerson explained. They’re just two sides of the same coin. “Both approaches are attempts to re-contextualize that word, which has become such a hideously whipped scapegoat, here and around the country,” Myerson wrote. “The core message of each is the same: we need to shift our budgetary priorities away from policing, prosecution, and punishment, and toward community, care, and compassion.”
Across the rallies, some speakers seemed to show discomfort with the word “defund.” Jails reform advocate Darren Mack said we need to “strategically deflate” the Department of Correction’s budget. But “defund” is still on progressive activists’ lips, even two years later. After Mack’s moment at the mic, dozens gathered in a chant. “Defund the police, invest in our communities!”