When it comes to spending, the U.S. has made its priorities clear.

By Marisa Casciano
Jun 05, 2020 @ 11:34 am
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The novel coronavirus arrived in the United States in March, and it wasn’t long before hospitals began facing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE). Photographs surfaced of healthcare workers wearing trash bags over their medical-grade gowns on the frontline, and stories were swapped of others reusing masks that are typically single-use. Many of us looked on in disgrace as the president suggested that hospital staff was stealing their own supplies. We thought, “this can’t be our America.”

A few days ago, police officers stormed peaceful protests, silencing cries for justice with tear gas and rubber bullets, and forcefully beating down protestors, all of whom were within their rights to assemble and call for justice for the murder of George Floyd. Watching police use excessive force against these protestors, we thought again, this can’t be our America.

I’ve come to understand that my privilege as a white woman is to blame for my shock, and for my idealist view of reality. In America, racism is rampant. Police brutality is all too common — and is disproportionately common against Black Americans — and often deadly. To top it all off, reports from major cities show that police are receiving as much as 41 percent of the overall budgets for the city.

Caissie St. Onge wondered aloud (on Twitter): Why are police officers across the country outfitted in paramilitary-style gear to fend off mostly peaceful protestors, while nurses and doctors fighting a deadly virus are unable to access basic supplies?

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It’s this discrepancy that most clearly illustrates the twisted priorities at city, state, and federal levels of government. Instead of preparing for a possible pandemic and stockpiling PPE, elected officials decided our tax dollars are best spent preparing for war with their own citizens.

According to a recent article written by Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale in the New York Daily News, “New York City spends more on policing than it does on the Departments of Health, Homeless Services, Housing Preservation and Development, and Youth and Community Development combined.” (Emphasis ours.) Forbes reported in 2017 that the allotment for law enforcement steadily growing despite a decrease in crime.

This is our country in 2020.

When it comes to immediate action, like working to defund police, lifting up Black and brown communities, and landing resources for essential workers, Zohran Kwame Mamdani, a housing counselor and candidate for the New York State Assembly District 36, says you have to ask yourself, “Why hasn’t it happened yet?” Why are city budgets so stuck on giving billions (yes, billions) to policing? Why has nothing changed?

Budgets are a structural issue.

To quote the Call Your Girlfriend podcast: “The scam is structural.” Elected officials and council members may propose legislation and co-sign helpful, intentional bills, but those bills may never reach the floor, where they’re voted on and approved. When budget discussions take place near the start of each fiscal year — such as the ones going on in New York City this week for fiscal year 2021 which begins on July 1, 2020 — the new budget proposals can get lost or buried. Other council members or mayors can also write in protections for police to ensure their slice of the city’s overall budget remains untouched and their presence looms large, according to Mamdani.

Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) notes in a recent report on budget justice that New York City’s 2021 budget proposal has these special protections for police budgets despite “devastating cuts to core social services, programs and infrastructure that are crucial to communities of color.” In a recent press conference, Leo Ferguson, who’s a member of CPR and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, noted the NYPD is exempt from the hiring freeze that’s placed on other city agencies. With their budget protected, they could hire 2,300 new officers and put them through the cadet program — at a cost of $200 million. That’s $200 million that could otherwise be redirected to social workers, educators, and infrastructure that are desperately needed. CPR’s ultimate goal is to defund one billion dollars from the NYPD, which currently has a budget of $5 billion, and turn wasteful spending into resources for citizens in need.

New York isn’t the only major city where the scams are real, though. According to a recent article from GQ, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti currently plans to allocate $3.14 billion of the city’s $10.5 billion budget to police. He’s also proposing pay cuts for civilian city workers in reaction to the pandemic. All this while LAPD is outfitted in riot gear costing American tax payers at least $470 per officer, according to a 2017 invoice from Columbus, Georgia. (According to the New York Times, police departments also receive gear leftover from the military thanks to a 1990s program started during the war on drugs and amped up after 9/11. Whether it’s purchased at the federal or local level, however, it’s paid for by taxpayers.) For comparison, a nurse’s PPE (with the higher prices due to COVID-19 factored in) costs $15.

Budgets, obviously, have a huge impact on communities.

In 2020, nurses aren’t equipped with what they need to fight the coronavirus, yet cops have tear gas and Captain America-like shields readily available. It’s infuriating and exposes where local elected officials have failed their communities by not passing productive budget reform. “I think that in this year we can see when nurses have trash bags and officers have tanks … the money we put in one place is the money that we don’t put somewhere else,” says Mamdani.

The cost of riot gear for one police officer could fund PPE for 31 healthcare workers. In addition, services that could be provided would create more safety and stability for people around the country. Those services are desperately needed as Black communities face injustice on and off camera, are disproportionately affected by the public health crisis, and, like many Americans, rapidly file for unemployment. Defunding the police can free up resources needed to provide relief.

Defunding the police is about more than riot gear.

Defunding the police is ultimately about creating balance. As Mamdani puts it, it isn’t about eliminating “everything that creates harm in our society.” It’s also not an invitation for chaos. Rather, it’s much-needed space to respond to problems differently than we have, and to invest our money into services that have made a positive impact in our communities, such as youth programs (like the Summer Youth Employment Program) and affordable housing.

Mamdani, referencing a tweet shared by Alex Vitale, who seeks to abolish the police, encourages us to imagine what an anti-racist society with budgets that prioritize social service rather than unnecessary force would look like: “Some folks are sleeping on benches in the park. Imagine a city employee comes by and checks in to see if they need a place to sleep, food, water, or healthcare. An hour later, those who want a different place to sleep have one. Isn’t that public safety?”

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Here’s how you take action.

“Stay engaged on the streets,” says Mamdani, referring to the peaceful protests happening across the country. “I think that these protests have already accomplished a truly fantastic amount … This is a time of crisis, and it’s also a time of possibility.”

Contact information for your council members is typically organized by district on your city’s government page. You can send texts, emails, or letters to their office, voicing the positive effects of defunding your local police. You can also ask them to meet the moment by ending terrible practices like cash bail, which keeps those accused of minor crimes in jail for far too long, and repealing legislation like 50-A, which ensures the personnel records for members of law enforcement who have engaged in misconduct is kept private.

He adds, “And also ensure that you’re putting pressure both on the current elected class as well as the future elected class.” Of course, if they fail to meet your expectations, you can vote those officials out in an upcoming election or run yourself.

The most important thing is to act now and act often. “Workers of color find themselves on the frontlines of the new pandemic of coronavirus, and the long-time pandemic of racism,” says Candis Tolliver, Political Director of 32BJ SEIU, an organization representing essential workers.

“If we truly want to thank essential workers, we should make sure they are included in our budgets.”