[ Artwork by Ry Faraola. ]
The police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and too many more, have mobilized unprecedented numbers of people to take to the streets and declare that Black Lives Matter. Black people are 300% more likely to be killed at the hands of police than white people. Black people have been “28% of those killed by police since 2013 despite being only 13% of the population,” as reported by the organization Mapping Police Violence. A central feature of the current uprisings is the demand to defund police departments, a demand which is also taking root in Santa Cruz. The Movement for Black Lives is leading the call to defund as the only viable step towards ending police violence and murder of Black people.
In contrast, the Santa Cruz City Council recently approved a new budget which includes an increase in police funding. The budget includes $31,098,835 for police, an increase of almost 1.5% from last year, and 27.8% of the city’s general fund budget. Ironically, in a prior meeting, the council declared July as Black Lives Matter month. They voted to display the Black Lives Matter and Pan-African flags outside of council chambers every July. The newly approved police budget begs the question of how serious the city council is about making Black lives matter. Are their recent July gestures just superficial? That said, the council also voted to ban predictive policing and facial recognition software, which are positive developments.
But what exactly does “defund” entail, and what is the broader vision undergirding these efforts? Those leading the defund movement are continuing a long tradition of prison industrial complex abolition organizing. In line with this vision, the Movement for Black Lives is calling for a “shift from massive spending on police that don’t keep us safe to a massive investment in a shared vision of community safety that actually works.” To begin to make Black lives matter is to simultaneously defund the police and fund life-affirming projects and services. Police must stop being used as the solution to address, what are really at the core, social and economic issues.
Efforts to co-opt or redefine the meaning of the movement into something more palatable are already underway by politicians, organizations and media outlets. Campaigns like #8cantwait, Joe Biden’s justice platform on community policing, and the U.S. Congress’s Justice In Policing Act are just some examples. Unless we have a framework to help us understand the function and impact of policing, we will end up accepting policy concessions like those mentioned above. This will have the effect of deescalating us, and before we know it we’ll be wondering why we haven’t made any real progress.
NOT ALL REFORMS ARE CREATED EQUAL
The movement to defund the police is based on the fundamental notion that police can’t be reformed into a “nicer” version of itself. And that “the only way to diminish police violence is to reduce contact between the public and the police” says educator and organizer Mariame Kaba.
The public has become familiar with police reforms like anti-bias and crisis intervention training, a ban on chokeholds, body cameras, civilian review boards, and several others. These reforms were concessions made to the public ostensibly to create solutions to unaccountable and unjust police behavior. But, when Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner to death, New York City already had a ban on chokeholds. Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four who had experienced a mental illness crisis, was killed by cops who were already trained in crisis intervention. Police reforms have failed to protect Black life in part because they are based on the false assumption that police are law-abiding, and that laws are just to begin with. Legislating the behavior of the police through reforms is futile because violence is baked into the core of the institution. Since its earliest manifestations as slave patrols and strike smashers, it has functioned as an anti-Black, anti-worker enterprise bent on protecting private property and maintaining the status quo. Violence has been, and always will be the modus operandi of police. In a recent webinar co-sponsored by Critical Resistance, a volunteer-based abolitionist organization, Kaba remarked that “police cannot be reformed because the essence of their power is the discretion to use violence, the ability to decide whether or not to use violence in any conceivable situation.” This is a power that courts will not limit, claiming that “you can never tell police ahead of time what is “reasonable” or “necessary” since all situations are always and forever unpredictable.” Following this logic, the only way to decrease police violence is to reduce their scope and power via defunding the institution.
Critical Resistance created an easy to use tool to help assess the efficacy of a given police reform. The tool distinguishes between “reformist reforms” – those that expand the power and legitimacy of police, and “abolitionist reforms” – those that diminish the power and impact of police. To determine whether a given reform is “reformist” or “abolitionist”, we can ask four questions: 1) does the reform reduce funding to police? 2) does the reform challenge the notion that police increase public safety? 3) does the reform reduce tools, tactics and technology that police have at their disposal? 4) does the reform reduce the scale of policing? When the answers to these questions is no, as is the case with body cameras, additional police training, oversight boards, etc., we are dealing with superficial “solutions” that will not move us toward ending police violence. Often, reformist reforms require an increase to police funding, resulting in the public ultimately funding their own harm. When the answers to these questions is yes, then we are moving towards reducing harm and reimagining what safety looks and feels like. The tool also provides examples of abolitionist reforms, including an end to paid administrative leave for cops under investigation, withholding pensions from cops who use excessive force, banning the rehiring of cops who use excessive force, requiring cops to be liable for their own settlements around misconduct, and ending police participation in military exercises. By defunding the police we can implement these types of reforms and redirect those resources into community-determined and community-led projects that support the needs of Santa Cruz residents.
DEFUND, BUILD, REPEAT…
Everyday new models are popping up of what community-based strategies for health and safety can look like. Take the Oakland Power Projects for example. This project seeks to train and educate community members about various health related issues with the ultimate goal of reducing contact with law enforcement. The project offers “Know Your Options” workshops, which focus on behavioral health, chronic health, and acute emergencies. In these workshops participants are educated on the connections between policing, prisons and health inequities, and are capacitated with relevant skill sets to respond to community health needs.
Funding that currently goes to the Santa Cruz Police Department could instead be used to support already existing or newly formed community-based projects that support local needs. There is no one-size-fits-all model to follow, and Santa Cruz will need to determine its own path. Priorities could be determined via a participatory budgeting process, where shared values would guide what kind of infrastructure would be funded. Communities around the country are making locale-specific proposals, and projects that already exist are garnering more attention. Focus areas have included things like safe and affordable housing, community-based violence reduction and responses to sexual abuse, healthcare, after-school programs, eco-friendly transportation systems, universal childcare, school counselors, nurses, and restorative justice facilitators, community hotlines for emergency and crisis response, and more.
Some of the successful efforts to defund the police are as follows: In Minneapolis, the city council has pledged to disband the Minneapolis Police Department after long-term organizing and sustained public protest pressured them to do so. The University of Minnesota is ending contracts with the Minneapolis Police Department. Organizers and activists in Watsonville succeeded in getting the Pajaro Valley Unified School District to cancel their Student Resource Officer program at the district’s three high schools. That money will be reallocated to social and emotional health counselors for students. The Oakland School Board has voted to eliminate police from their campuses. In Seattle, coalition activism resulted in a majority of city council members pledging to cut police spending in half and direct those funds to alternatives to 911, affordable housing, and other community services. Berkeley city council has also pledged to cut their police budget by 50%. Examples of nationwide defund proposals are being tracked by a database called the Database for Police Abolition.
As the movement to defund the police spreads, it is pushing us to dig deep into our societal assumptions and fears around criminality and safety. We’ve been socially conditioned to believe that violent, malicious people will take over our neighborhoods if police are not there to protect us. From the War on Crime to the Clinton crime bill, we’ve been brainwashed by fearmongers with agendas that we need police to keep us safe. But if we look at the data, the fact of the matter is that police “spend most of their time responding to noise complaints, issuing parking and traffic citations, and dealing with other noncriminal issues,” Kaba states. Preventing crime does not start with the police, but rather with addressing the basic needs of communities in a dignified way.
OUR COLLECTIVE HORIZON
Defunding the police is an exciting opportunity for Santa Cruz to envision and realize a community that thrives. I asked community members to describe what makes them feel safe, and what resources they’d like to see developed here in Santa Cruz:
“As a person of color in Santa Cruz, I have to be a certain way. I have to portray a person I don’t always feel is my true self, precisely because it’s my way having control over if I feel safe or not. Seeing police makes me anxious. Seeing police that are predominately white makes me even more anxious. What does safety in Santa Cruz look like to me? I think it looks like less police. It also looks like just being a more welcoming environment for Black, brown and indigenous folks. Safety looks like investing in educational opportunities, especially for our children, and providing resources for the houseless and those suffering from housing insecurity. If Santa Cruz could defund the police and fund things like housing and education, our community would be so much better for it. For me safety looks like taking care of the vulnerable populations in Santa Cruz. There’s always this idea that we can’t do that because there’s not enough money, or there’s not enough space, but I think we as a community could come up with solutions to these problems.
"I think we should defund the police. Though, I’m not quite an abolitionist. There’s an organization in Oakland called Project WHAT! and they facilitate police trainings to highlight the experiences of children who have to come into contact with law enforcement and how law enforcement can lessen the trauma – their work is important and I could see Santa Cruz benefiting from a program like this. I feel very conflicted about my own safety when calling the police. If there was somewhere I could call without my own safety being jeopardized, I would seek help more often than not when I needed it in emergency situations. Providing resources for people who might need police help but don’t feel safe asking for it is important. In my wildest imagination, there would be a community of safe people of color to hold each other accountable and provide alternative to policing as a diversion effort from getting entangled in the system.
"I have been forced to have conversations with my son about what to do if he is stopped by a police officer because at a young age, it’s already happened to him. He’s barely 9. We talked about where he needs to put his hands, what he should say and not say to them, and in general how to behave. I shouldn’t have to have these conversations with my child. I think if Santa Cruz and other cities put more effort into seeing the reality of the lives of people of color when it comes to the police, it would show that our experiences and lives matter.”
“My definition of safety has nothing to do with the police. Even in the moments of most trouble for me the last person I can think of is the police. I had somebody trying to break into my home once in Soquel, and I called everybody but the police. I think it’s intrinsic in our culture that we should stay as far away from the police as we can. Even though we have a lot of open-minded white people here, we as people of color have a big job in educating them. I know a lot of them want to learn. They are surprised when they see the police beating a homeless person or an African-American person, they don’t want to see, but they have never been exposed to that. The people from the hood have been exposed to that on an almost everyday basis.
"When we started creating sanctuary in Santa Cruz, the amount of calls that we got from immigrant residents complaining about the neighbors or being harassed was high. One of them was having trash thrown into their yard because they were Latino. Another woman who liked to put her radio on when she did chores had the neighbor threaten to call ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) on her. Some organizations like SCCCCOR [Santa Cruz County Community Coalition to Overcome Racism] are working to fight racism in the county, and I’ve been to those meetings. But that’s not a mainstream group, they are still very isolated. We need more educational programs at all levels, starting in elementary school. Also YARR [Your Allied Rapid Response] would be one of the good groups to work on navigating conflicts within the neighborhoods. Mutual-aid also. Something we need in the community is changing the curriculums of the schools. None of this is already in place.
"Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) is a really good example of white supremacy - I don’t want these people here because they are poor so send them somewhere else. This type of thing is what created the Beach Flats community, or the Live Oak community, because when people were not able to find something on the West Side or those more affluent places, we started living one by one in one area. And that area started being over policed. Because there was a lot of needs there. When I moved to that neighborhood, I counted how many times the Sheriff drove by my street, and it was nine times during the day. I have seen four police cars with a single homeless person. Why is that? I have seen the school resource officer stopping students for I don’t know what. As people of color we need to start making the connection that our children are our future and your child is my child. I need to see in your child my children. It’s not only educating the white community, it’s a lot of education within ourselves.”
“To me safety looks like security. People who have security have the resources that they need to survive, support services, they have a roof over their head, they have all the necessities. To me that’s what safety really means. And I don’t think police are a solution to any of that. Police aren’t a solution to people who are starving, or to people who are barely making ends meet. Therefore, police in my opinion aren’t necessarily keeping us safe because they are policing a problem that they don’t really have any ability to fix. I think there’s a lot that our city can do. First of all, alternative responses. I think the CAHOOTS [Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets] program is a really awesome example of a successful program that can be used as an alternative to policing. You don’t need to call the police to do a wellness check for people who are having mental breakdowns. We need to be having a compassionate and restorative response to those issues. Also, homelessness is a big part of the police calls, and clearly we are not doing anything to solve the issue, all we’re doing is sending police over there to move them aside. And we have our very own police chief saying they don’t want to do this, so why don’t we take that money and build more homeless shelters, or transitional encampments, or affordable housing projects? What I really see as a long-term solution is a world without police. And a world without police does not mean a world rampant with crime. It’s a world where all the issues we are having are actually being addressed, and virtually those issues don’t exist anymore. A complete end to homelessness, poverty, inequality, racism, abolishing our prisons, and having restorative compassionate systems. And obviously a world without capitalism. All of that is kind of the grander vision of things. I think that defunding the police is a short-term solution. But really if we want a world completely without policing then we have to dig deeper and look at every single system in our country and ask ourselves, does this system even work for working people? Does it actually solve the issue, or does it perpetuate the issue?
"I think people are realizing that we’ve tried reforming and that reforming doesn’t do anything at this point. It’s really unfortunate, but also not surprising that we have a city council that has disregarded this movement as a movement being led by white radicals. The first problem with that is that it’s actually not true, because it’s a national movement being led by people of color. The second part is that it’s erasing the voices of color in the community who are actually calling for this. It’s very frustrating to hear. I think members of the community have made it very clear how they want that money to be used. The city council is ignoring voices of communities of color.”
Lindsey Tavares-Sabido, age 26, founder of BIPOC Liberation Collective:
"Safety is a deep and oftentimes, complicated question. On the one hand, we have the reality of domestic violence, hate crimes, and other explicit violence that occurs on a regular basis. On the other hand, we have institutions that we’ve been taught to rely on perpetuating violence and terror that disproportionately affects black and brown communities. As an Afro-latinx woman in Santa Cruz, I can tell you that police make me feel anything but safe. Having my basic needs met makes me feel safe. Knowing my neighbors and who I can count on for help makes me feel safe. But in a predominantly white and affluent place like Santa Cruz, I’m constantly forced into a position of struggle and survival along with other black and brown folks. Fundamentally, our community should determine how safe we are. Safety is connected to our schooling, housing, and socioeconomic status. At the same time, because of capitalism and racism, we see which communities end up being heavily surveilled, targeted and incriminated because of their position in society and what color skin they have. We see the inequity of so many empty vacation homes in Santa Cruz, yet such a high rate of homelessness. It is so disturbing to me.
“Defunding the police with abolition in mind allows us to begin redistributing funds to more social services, housing, community programs, and other basic needs that actually help people and make us feel safe. We need an abolitionist approach, because the roots of policing are totally rotten. There’s no room for reform when the system was designed to preserve white supremacy— to “protect and serve” white people vested in capitalist interests. That’s the issue. It doesn’t matter how many diversity hires are made or how much implicit bias training is done, because we even see how black and brown cops participate in the same cycle of violence and terror. Ultimately, we need to think beyond prisons and policing in Santa Cruz and take an abolitionist approach to societal safety, healing, and transformation. By drawing upon systems of social welfare rather than punishment, we would ideally be building up communities, rather than tearing away at them, and ensure that no one falls through the cracks.
“I want people in Santa Cruz to start thinking about what it looks like to give up their wealth and inherited land and property. There’s a radical act. That’s when a real commitment to safety, equity, and healing can be established. I believe in the power of BIPOC coming together and dreaming of new futures. We can begin to reconcile wrongdoings by incorporating methods rooted in the Native Hawaiian way of peacemaking: Ho’oponopono and Mediation. This alternative offers a powerful restorative justice model that deals with problems holistically. In doing so, healing may intersect with community building and education by looking to Indigenous knowledge and aiding in another’s well-being without subjecting individuals to civic exile and violence. That way, we can restore harmony while maintaining integrity. I want to invite people to hold onto any creativity and imagination when it comes to thinking about the possibilities of our future. I think we all need to work together as BIPOC to maintain a sense of control over the fate of our collective destiny because we can’t count the current models of justice and safety.”
“We know this won’t happen overnight. We’re tired of quick fixes and piecemeal reforms. Ending police violence will require a thoughtful, deliberate, and participatory approach that has already begun.” -Movement for Black Lives