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In the fight for police reform and abolition, design plays a key role

The 8 Can’t Wait campaign took social media by storm with a catchy, shareable graphic—then the 8toAbolition campaign co-opted its look.

In the fight for police reform and abolition, design plays a key role

You’ve probably seen the 8 Can’t Wait campaign’s graphic while scrolling through your Instagram feed. It’s an eminently shareable image that uses succinct icons and a high-contrast color palette to push for eight specific police reforms, like de-escalating conflicts and banning chokeholds.

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What you may not have seen is this competing graphic from the activist group Critical Resistance. The matrix compares reformist ideas, such as those articulated by the 8 Can’t Wait campaign, with steps for abolishing the police outright. It makes a thorough, if not exactly legible, case for abolition. Imagine it at an even smaller scale.

Click here for a larger version. [Image: Critical Resistance]

The two images highlight a cold reality of coalition-building in the age of social media: The simpler and catchier a design, the farther its message spreads. This isn’t a new idea. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan penned the phrase “the medium is the message” to suggest that the form of communication is actually more important than the content itself, since the way messages are communicated affects how users receive them—and the type of vessel you choose can even convey a message of its own.

Of course, visuals aren’t everything. Celebs like Lupita Nyong’o, Taika Waititi, and Gigi Hadid all encouraged their followers to join #8CantWait, and the campaign quickly got a lot of buzz. The image, with its eight digestible icons and keywords, made the cause that much more irresistible: It’s the kind of at-a-glance visual that’s just dying for a RT.

Click here to learn more. [Screenshot: 8 Can’t Wait]

But many police and prison abolition groups found the campaign to be reductive and misguided. 8 Can’t Wait advocates for immediate police reform while working toward an end goal of abolition, whereas abolition groups prioritize dismantling the whole system over implementing changes to current policies. Critical Resistance called out 8 Can’t Wait and tweeted its own infographic, writing, “Many reforms & strategies to fight policing are circulating right now, some are AMAZING like #DefundPolice; others, like #8cantwait, want to improve policing’s war on us. When in doubt, ask our chart questions.” But their chart was a mess. Dense with text and a confusing layout, it made me lean toward my screen, squint, and ask, “Where do I begin?” The medium sure wasn’t selling the message.

Click here to learn more. [Screenshot: 8 to Abolition]
The story doesn’t stop there. More recently, an ad-hoc team in favor of police abolition launched a website called #8toAbolition. It looks remarkably similar to 8 Can’t Wait (besides the introduction of some graphics that use gradients) and reduces police abolition into eight actionable steps. This was clearly intentional—whether to replace Critical Resistance’s previously indiscernible infographic with a more effective visual or to troll 8 Can’t Wait by co-opting its look.

Intriguingly, since its near identical counter-site launched, 8 Can’t Wait has introduced three additional icons that nod to police abolition on its home page: immediate harm reduction, comprehensive community safety, and abolition. The icons are similar to the original eight in visual look, but use a different colored type. They also give those three icons more emphasis by placing them above the fold on the site—so you see those first, before any of the eight suggested reforms. (They also recently added a note to their home page, acknowledging the criticism from abolitionists over the past week.)

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The efforts of both sides are working. On June 8, the New York State Legislature passed a legislative package of five police reform bills. Big and small cities alike, including Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, have endorsed 8 Can’t Wait policies. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who has been lambasted for his response to protests in New York City, announced policy reforms to the NYPD that include reallocating part of its budget. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis City Council announced plans to completely disband its police force in line with policies that 8toAbolition advocates for.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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