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73 Stanford Law Review Online 120 (2021)


Much public debate circles around grassroots activists’ demand to “defund the police,” raised in public consciousness in the summer of 2020. Yet confusion about the demand is pervasive. This Essay adopts a literal interpretation of “defund” to clarify and distinguish four alternative, substantive policy positions that legal reforms related to police funding can validate. It argues that the policy debates between these positions exist on top of the ideological critique launched by grassroots activists, who use the term “defund the police” as a discursive tactic to make visible deeper transformations in government practices that normalize the structural marginalization of black people enforced through criminal law. By recognizing this socially contextualized meaning to the call to defund the police, this Essay offers two important insights for the public in this current moment. First, it urges the public to confront the structural marginalization of black people when evaluating legal reforms that may impact police budgets. Second, the Essay encourages the public to embrace the state of confusion produced by the demand to “defund the police” when considering social reforms going forward.