To Defund the Police, Activists Rewrote City Budgets

Hundreds of protesters gathered peacefully outside the home of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Tuesday as part of a national wave of uprisings against the death of George Floyd and other incidents of police brutality. But the LA demonstrators were assembled for a more procedural purpose as well.

“Defund the police!” the crowd chanted. Demonstrators and supporters on Twitter declared, “CARE NOT COPS.”

On Wednesday, it appeared that the people were heard: Garcetti announced that he intended to cut $100 million to $150 million from the LAPD’s budget and reinvest those dollars — plus another $100 million from other departments — into the black community. “We all have to step up and say, ‘What can we sacrifice?’” he told the L.A. Times.

But while activists were encouraged, they weren’t satisfied. Officials “need to know that we’re fighting for truly transformative change here and won’t be bought off with just this minimal amount of money,” Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and a leading organizer of Black Lives Matter LA, told a Times reporter.

Abdullah is part of a movement to ask for much more. Last month, organizers with Black Lives Matter, K-Town for All, and other activist groups solicited online feedback from more than 2,000 LA residents about how they’d like to see the city spend its money. At that point, Garcetti’s 2021 fiscal year plan called for a $120 million increase to the LA police department’s $1.86 billion annual budget, which meant spending more than 53% of the city’s total discretionary funds on law enforcement. Other city services, including affordable housing, “Vision Zero” traffic safety, and gang prevention programs, were set for cuts, due to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

In contrast, the proposal from the activists, which they dub the “People’s Budget,” would devote its largest share — 43% — to what it calls “universal aid and crisis management,” which would include affordable housing, homelessness services, and public health and emergency responders. “Law enforcement and policing” would be reduced to less than 6% of the total.

The national protests of the past week have been particularly loud and widespread in LA, which never fully healed from Rodney King’s brutal beating by LAPD officers in 1992 and the uprisings that followed. In recent days, here and around the country, law enforcement officers have unleashed batons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and their own vehicles to suppress demonstrators, in several cases apparently unprovoked. A 9 p.m. curfew expired on Thursday morning in Los Angeles. Many activists say that the mayor’s response to these events has been inadequate, including in terms of his spending priorities.

“This mayor, who pretends to be a progressive, has called in the National Guard, watches as the LAPD continues to brutalize people every night, and has put out one of the most stringent and repressive curfews in the country,” Abdullah said in an interview with CityLab. “When he writes his budget, he just decides what he’s going to spend without consulting the people of LA, and expects city council to push it through.”

The LA City Council can still vote on additional budget amendments until July, and has set up four hearings to receive additional comments; Abdullah’s group plans to keep up the pressure.

While #PeoplesBudgetL.A. was launched before the outrage over George Floyd’s death rocked the nation, the campaign has received a surge of attention and support as a result. So have other efforts like it. In Nashville, a People’s Budget campaign that started earlier this year has gained significant traction in the past week: On Tuesday evening, a city council hearing stretched until 4:30 a.m. as hundreds of residents expressed their disdain for the mayor’s plan to increase the police budget while cutting support for social services.

“I stand here in opposition to racism, anti-blackness and any budget that does not radically change how our city views public safety,” one North Nashville resident said at the city council dais.

“This budget fails to address the needs of black people and working class people in Nashville,” said another speaker. “Our people deserve better.”

Many citizens who dialed into the meeting referred to a budget alternative created by local Black Lives Matter leaders, transit rider unions, and other community groups. Their process mirrored the one in Los Angeles: On Sunday evening, more than 200 Nashville residents gathered online to express their hopes for the city’s future. That led to a budget proposal focused on reinvesting in schools, transit and housing, while dismantling police and judicial systems that many activists, academics and regular Americans believe perpetuate racism by disproportionately harming black people.

Similar campaigns have also been launched anew or refreshed in response to the events of the past week. Inspired by the efforts in LA, graduate student Rik Horoky set up a People’s Budget social media campaign for his own city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. While they don’t have a proposed budget yet, Horoky and his co-organizer Dom Damron dialed into the Grand Rapids city council hearing on Tuesday to announce its future existence to local officials. “We are here to ask city council to call an emergency meeting regarding the budget set to begin July 1 to discuss the People’s Budget, which advocates for reduced police funding and increased funding for services that improve quality of life for all, particular for those in the black community,” Horoky said.

Fight for NYCHA, an advocacy group for New York City public housing tenants and organizers, had already created a People’s Budget in February to show that more funding was possible for residents’ needs. On Wednesday, they revised it to include a $2 billion “Defund the NYPD” line item. Louis Flores, a lead organizer, said that his group had sent Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo their budget as of February but had not received a response.

“We are looking for a way to restore justice in New York City,” said Flores. “I think all the other groups are doing the same thing: Let’s take money away from institutions of racism like policing and give it to new policies that will address racism instead.”

On Thursday, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer called for a $1.1 billion budget cut to the NYPD over the next four years, and to shift those dollars “toward vulnerable communities most impacted by police violence and structural racism.”

Although many of these People’s Budgets campaigns are young, the philosophy behind them is not. The concept of participatory budgeting, where local residents discuss and vote on their city or state’s fiscal priorities, originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, following decades of military dictatorship. “They were trying to figure out what their new government would look like,” said Celina Su, a professor of urban planning at the City University of New York who studies community organizing and collaborative governance. “It was explicitly a pro-poor, social justice project.”

The democratic process set up by the newly elected Workers’ Party resulted in a vast expansion of sewer and water connections, as well as spending on schools and healthcare; the concept was so popular that it spread to hundreds of cities around Latin America. One 2014 study found that the consequent social improvements brought about a national reduction in Brazil’s infant mortality rate.

Today, participatory budgeting is a feature in more than 2,700 cities around the world, including in New York City, where each city council district receives a small amount of annual discretionary funding for citizen groups directly. That program came about in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when citizen frustration with bank bailouts was at a high point.

Yet as the concept has spread around the world and become incorporated into centralized government processes, it has often lost its emphasis on grassroots social justice goals. In Brazil, under current president Jair Bolsonaro, the process is being dismantled in many cities. And in New York, while citizen participation in budgeting has brought about some meaningful investments, it hasn’t led to the kind of transformative change that the residents of Puerto Alegre achieved, Su said.

But the recent campaigns by Black Lives Matter groups and other activists in U.S. cities are different: They use community-led processes to produce spending plans that their governments could still choose to ignore. Yet their motivation seems like a nod to participatory budgeting’s roots, Su said: “It feels like they’re going back to the spirit of the original participatory budgeting experiments, where it was linked to social movements and protest, rather than this new ‘good governance’ thing that is a state-led initiative.” Still, if their efforts succeed in getting cities to adopt their visions and incorporate participatory budgeting into their regular fiscal processes, Su recommends that activists work to set policies to maintain the anti-racist focus and grassroots nature of their efforts, lest they turn into “astroturf” politics instead.

That is Abdullah’s hope for Los Angeles. The People’s Budget campaign is not only a call to defund the police department, but a broader call for a refreshed local democracy. “I absolutely conceive of this idea where people have some say if it’s their money that is being spent,” she said. “We should not be spending people’s tax dollars without moving forward in partnership with them.”

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