By Gillian Ganesan, ACLU National Campaign Strategist
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, we are seeing a massive popular political realignment around the role and scope of policing in the United States, led by Black organizers and Black-led movement groups. More than ever before, this movement is calling for divestment from police departments and reinvestment into the life-affirming services that help communities thrive. Further still, these protests are not confined to cities and towns across America — they have crossed our borders and are taking place globally.
These calls are being heard, and the power of the people has already led to momentum for meaningful local change, where the vast majority of policing policy decisions take place. As Black people continue to be murdered by law enforcement in communities across the country, local change is not just necessary, but vital.
George Floyd’s tragic murder has galvanized progress in the city he called home, Minneapolis. Officials heard and have begun to act on calls from grassroots organizations to divest from police and reinvest in communities that have been over-policed, criminalized, and deprived of the basic ability to go about their daily lives unharassed; deprived of their ability to thrive.
The Minneapolis City Council has begun the process of going even further than divestment — they are not only diving into police funding and malfeasance, they are actively looking into disbanding the police department in favor of a new set of services and first responders, moves informed by community-led public safety. In Minneapolis, there is a veto-proof majority of the city council in favor. This bold action is promising, and it is not isolated.
In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged to cut between $100 and $150 million from the city’s policing budget, and declared that those funds can and should be reinvested into Black communities across the sprawling city. This is one of the first localities where a concrete number has been articulated and lifted up. This goes beyond rhetoric and reaction, and is key to beginning programmatic change; much more will be needed for actual change.
Advocates are all too familiar with the empty promises and attending inaction of the past, making this an important step toward divestment and reinvestment. Still, activists have been critical of Garcetti’s pledge, and rightly so — the proposed budget cut only amounts to 6 percent of the nearly $2 billion discretionary budget.
Meanwhile on the East Coast, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has agreed to propose budget cuts as well. Yet unlike the progress seen in Los Angeles, specific numbers have not yet been made public. De Blasio’s initial reluctance gave way after weeks of persistent pressure from protesters and Black-led organizations demanding significant cuts to the budget. A proposal has since been floated by the city’s comptroller and by activists for a budget cut of $1.1 billion, but de Blasio has not commented.
Other municipalities nationwide are also acting: Hartford, Connecticut; Baltimore; Washington D.C.; Chicago; St. Louis; Durham, North Carolina; Philadelphia; Dallas; Austin, Texas; San Diego; San Francisco; Seattle; and Portland, Oregon have all rolled out proposals to cut police budgets and reinvest those funds into the community.
These plans vary in scope and specificity, but make no mistake: This is a movement. This is a national recognition of the scourge of police violence, the money that funds it, and the obligation of cities to do better by their residents by reinvesting those funds. Cities can choose to promote health and opportunity, not the canard of “public safety” that too often takes the form of criminalizing the daily lives of Black and Brown people. Cities can choose to not fund a corrupt system that enables brutality and death, protects no one, and perpetuates the traumas of racial injustice and underdevelopment.
Elected officials can pledge right now to start on the path toward meaningful change. Now is the time for those who were elected to be our nation’s leaders to show political courage and a commitment to championing the way forward. All elected officials, especially mayors and county executives, can take the first step right now by committing:
- Not to accept any political contributions or donations from organizations or unions directly representing police officers if the organization or union opposes reducing the size, power, or budgets of police forces;
- To decrease current policing budgets, and reinvest funds from policing into community services and programs, guided by community input
- To limit or eliminate the role of police in situations where social interventions are safer and more effective.
These commitments are just a start. We still have far to go — we must push ALL municipal governments, even those who have begun to make progress, and demand that they do better. Divestment and reinvestment is long-term work, centered in rooting out the violence at the core of oppression and replacing it with support that is as deserved as it is needed. This work will help realize the equity so often preached to Black and Brown communities, and so infrequently delivered.
It’s not enough for local governments to make small cuts, to invest in yet another inadequate training program, or to paint the streets with slogans. Cities must reckon with the political power of law enforcement organizations; the amount of money that has been stripped away from necessary and life-affirming public services in favor of militarized weaponry and surveillance technology; and the racist, invasive, and abusive police practices that enable violence by law enforcement.
Black communities, LGBTQ communities, people with disabilities, and so many other impacted groups have experienced the daily harm and long-term damage of underfunded and overtaxed public services. Educational infrastructure has crumbled. Public health services have been stripped away. Housing and family care resources have dwindled. Disability services have vanished. Libraries have closed down. And all the while, police budgets have grown massively.
Police departments across the country use the vast resources they have to terrorize the Black and Brown communities they were sworn to serve, often doling out physical and mental harm, fear, and death. They fatten their coffers even as municipalities make budget cuts that further inequality. Meanwhile, their unions throw their financial weight behind elected officials to ensure that any questioning of their agenda is silenced, and stays silent. This is not new. But now, this systemic oppression is being met by a swelling tide of resistance.
For years, Black activists and organizations like the Movement for Black Lives have been calling for the reckoning we now see in the streets, and we have a responsibility as a nation to meet their call. Elected officials and organizations who work in the policing space cannot change their past inaction or tepid reform efforts. But we can dig in and put in the work now to fight; to ensure we never see the death of another Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, or George Floyd. To center the work of the communities who asked over and over again for their governments to invest in their communities and the services they need. To stand with them and fight for their rights — for their very lives.