The late evening of June 17 was a self-congratulatory one for Philadelphia City Council.
“This is a nontraditional hour for us to be taking care of the people’s business,” Council President Darrell L. Clarke began the meeting around 8 p.m., “but the people’s business we must take care of.”
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Council then agreed on several changes to Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed budget, including a rejection of the proposed $19 million increase to the police budget, and an additional diversion of $14 million away from the police to the mayor’s cabinet.
In light of the protests that have commanded the streets for weeks, and the Philadelphia police budget still totaling more than $725 million, this is devastatingly inadequate.
Across the country, millions of protesters are demanding the defunding of the police. This is not just in response to the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, not just because police budgets have grown incredibly bloated, and the departments increasingly militarized and violent. It’s because police budgets are guzzling away the public funds that pay for social services that communities need.
Kenney’s original budget was a disturbing and draconian example of this austerity. It called for a massive slash to social programs such as the Arts Department and the Free Library, which many working-class people, especially Black workers, depend on. The budget, which increased the police funding and left crumbs for city workers, was racist in itself and remains racist and anti-worker despite City Council’s recent action.
Black and working-class people will be the ones to bear the brunt of cuts to social services, and Philadelphians will remain at mercy of an antagonized and militarized Police Department, whose violent streak has been on full display over the past month of protests. The suffering of Black and brown Philadelphians is the responsibility of Mayor Kenney and City Council, who enable this systemic discrimination to continue.
City Council has failed to put forward any kind of police reform that goes beyond lip service, such as bans on crowd control weapons like tear gas that have been won in other cities. Council also seems to recognize its own inadequacy, given that these budget discussions happened late at night and allowed no space for public comment. City councilmembers who consider themselves to be progressive and who stand with Black Lives Matter should be decisively voting no on — and actively organizing against — any budget which so pitifully and cynically claims to “defund” the police while doing barely anything at all.
The still-massive Philadelphia police budget should be slashed by 50%. The over $360 million generated — 90 times the original $4 million cut that would have eliminated arts funding, which Council partly walked back — must be reallocated to affordable housing, public education, and coronavirus relief. These resources, not police, are the gateway to public safety.
Ultimately, the actions of Philadelphia City Council last week ring more than hollow — they are insulting to Black and working-class Philadelphians. But even this minor budget change suggests that City Hall is scrambling to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement’s concerns. We get credit for that and have the potential for much more. Progressives on City Council should vote no on the budget. Local labor unions must move into action — such as nine-minute work stoppages to represent the approximate time Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck — to support their Black workers and the movement at large. And we, the movement, must march on City Hall to fight for a city budget that funds our communities rather than victimizing them.