I feel very fortunate. I have a baby boy, I’m married to the love of my life, and I’ve been able to stay safe during this pandemic. My meaningful work with families who have lost loved ones to violence, and who have lost loved ones to incarceration, has moved mostly online. After a cold spring trying to entertain our child indoors, I should be looking forward to a (socially distant) summer.
But at this time of extraordinary change, the protests of this weekend have woken a fear in me. Not of property destruction: the value of black lives and dignity is much higher than that of Foot Locker or Starbucks. The protests have woken in me the fear of how cities respond to crisis and uprising: with a generation of economic devastation for communities of color.
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I know what happens when cities respond to crises with policing and prison instead of community investments that sustain black and brown neighborhoods. I grew up in a Brooklyn scarred by the divestment and police brutality of the ’70s and ’80s. When I was 15, at the rise of the crack cocaine crisis, I made the awful decision to leave my loving Brooklyn home to sell drugs in Philadelphia. I committed a horrific act and took the life of another teen and spent 30 years in prison for it, only having the chance to come home when the Supreme Court ruled that children couldn’t be sentenced to die in prison. As I saw in prison, violence is caused by divestment from schools, youth programs, jobs, and generational disrespect for young black men by the police.
Soon, our City Council will review the proposed budget for our police department and programs meant to stave off violence. It isn’t a pretty picture. The budget that Mayor Jim Kenney has put before City Council in this time of the coronavirus and rage for black lives is a recipe for putting a new generation of young people, mostly of color, into a life of unimaginable loss and incarceration. It is a recipe for filling our jails, and filling the prison halls I used to walk, with young people full of extraordinary potential.
At a time when our Department of Public Health is slated for an over $8 million cut, when projects that put leaders of color on the street to stop violence are defunded, when Parks and Rec programs that save lives every summer are shuttered and face a $13 million cut, the police are getting raises and a budget increase of $14 million. That is unacceptable.
More police in black neighborhoods with nothing for our young people will lead to despair and death — like that of George Floyd, struggling for breath under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. They will lead to young black and brown people — a mother’s son, a grandmother’s pride — turning from their future to the streets, where they will be targeted by predictive policing and named as violent, punished for mistakes that a white child would be forgiven for.
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw started this coronavirus crisis by forgoing arrests for drugs, thefts, and charges that would have filled our infected jails and put thousands of city workers, including police, at risk. Organizing pressure on the courts, the mayor, and the district attorney meant that over 1,000 people came home from jail — with no increase in recidivism. What that showed us is we don’t need more police in our neighborhoods, or to refill our jails that have dropped to under 4,000 locked inside — the first time that has happened in over 20 years. More police won’t quiet the rage we saw in the streets this weekend. It will stoke it and scar our city for years.
As organizers always say, a budget is a political document, and it’s a chance for the mayor and Council to show that their politics lie with us, and not with police oppression.