"No, I don't support defunding the police," Joe Biden told CBS News recently, thereby keeping Democratic hopes for his presidential candidacy alive.
Has there ever been a dumber political slogan?
"Demilitarize," definitely. "Reform," absolutely. But "Defund the Police" is just plain stupid; a political suicide note. What does it even mean?
A couple of weeks ago, everybody was all about our heroic "first responders." The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cops shocked everybody. Even so, most Americans broadly support law enforcement. But with even Boss Trump giving lip service to reform, what I call the "Anti-gravity Left" had to come up with something suitably absurd.
The eminent psychologist Steven Pinker dealt memorably with the broader question in his 2002 book "The Blank Slate." As a lad growing up in peaceful Canada "during the romantic 1960s," he'd fancied himself an anarchist. Then the Montreal police staged a wildcat strike in October 1969.
"By 11:20 a.m., the first bank was robbed. By noon, most of the downtown stores were closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a (rival) limousine service ... a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, 12 fires had been set, 40 carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and $3 million in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters."
CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota recently put a pertinent question to Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender, a Bernie Sanders supporter and passionate exponent of defunding: "What if in the middle of the night, my home is broken into? Who do I call?"
Bender, who rose to prominence advocating for bicycle commuters, informed Camerota that her sort of question "comes from a place of privilege." Do these high-minded specimens even hear themselves?
The remainder of the interview consisted of multisyllabic bafflegab, making it practically impossible to determine exactly what "defund" meant to Bender and Minneapolis city council members who voted unanimously for a (nonbinding) resolution supporting the concept.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, you may recall, was heckled and driven from the platform by angry protesters after saying, "I do not support the full abolition of the police department."
But then precious few activists using the slogan actually do. "For most proponents," explains Georgetown law professor Christy E. Lopez in The Washington Post, "'defunding the police' does not mean zeroing out budgets for public safety, and police abolition does not mean that police will disappear overnight -- or perhaps ever."
Then don't use the phrase, professor. A political slogan you've got to keep explaining away is counterproductive.
Instead, Lopez would recommend "shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need." You know, increased care for the mentally ill, alcohol and drug counseling, homeless shelters, domestic violence interventions and the like. All that good stuff.
"We must teach officers to be guardians, not warriors," Lopez adds in a resonant phrase that probably means something to her.
In short, all we've got to do is transform Minneapolis or Little Rock into Copenhagen, and there will be a lot less police violence.
OK, I'm being a smart aleck. But let's get real. Most cops would be happy to be relieved of having to deal with psychotic or delusional people. Also with public drunkenness and drug overdoses. They famously hate domestic violence calls, notoriously difficult and dangerous to handle.
People call police because they're scared. You can have an army of social workers on call, but it's going to be cops who make first contact. And if I have to call 911, I want somebody competent and decisive to show up fast.
I mention Little Rock because that's where I live: a leafy, pleasant city where it's nevertheless common to hear gunfire in the night. One time a couple of years ago, six out of eight houses on our street got broken into at 2 a.m. Probably the roaring of our elderly Great Pyrenees, Jesse, kept us safe.
The thieves broke into several homes. They kicked two small dogs into a neighbor's swimming pool and left them to drown.
No cops? Please.
The Little Rock Police Department has been a hive of factionalism and discord basically forever -- feuding, bickering and suing each other. They're as contentious as a college English department with guns. Much of the fighting centers upon race. It's the American South.
But they do show up when you need help. And I've always been damned glad to see them.
(Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com.)