For as long as I can remember, words have fascinated me. The way we compose them in both written and spoken forms.

Just as fascinating is how we humans interpret and process particular arrangements of words. Take “defund the police,” for instance. That phrase hit the headlines in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the knee of a police officer. Activists used it as a rallying cry. Politicians ran from it. The words triggered those comfortable with U.S.-style policing. What they heard in “defund the police” was a call for disorder, a threat to how public safety served them. They feared what they heard in those words — a departure from business as usual.

The words, not the intent, became the issue. But words are what we use to get across an idea, advance what we believe. Think of “I have a dream.” “Women’s rights are human rights.” “Medicare for all.” And think of who first said them — and what you hear in them now. 

Could instead people hear in the words “defund the police” the possibility of offsets in taxes? Or a portion of the village police budget being reallocated for retraining or reassigning officers to different positions without losing their jobs? 

In her recent op-ed, village president candidate Vicki Scaman said what I believe an enlightened leader should say at this time: “There is no reason to fear the words ‘defund the police.’ We have a responsibility to listen so that we can understand what ‘defund the police’ means as a call to rethink public safety.”

But because of fear and a refusal to seek understanding, four elected officials decided Oak Park voters will be asked in the April 6 elections, “Shall we defund the police?” 

Putting this question on the ballot “was a failure as civil servants to demonstrate the willingness to hear from residents,” Scaman wrote. 

Absolutely.

What will be telling about our collective understanding of this particular arrangement of words is how Oak Parkers ultimately answer the ballot question. A Yes vote could mean Oak Parkers are willing to hear the equitable possibilities being sought in that arrangement of words and reject the fear and cynicism embedded in the question before them.

Are we brave enough to re-imagine what policing can be without the words getting in the way? It’s your call now, Oak Park.

Cassandra West is an Oak Park resident.

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