Since the visceral video of George Floyd pinned beneath a police officer’s knee sparked massive uprisings in US cities last summer, movements to defund police departments have grown from siloed local campaigns into a national movement. But in multiple cities, this work is being done amid a disturbing rise in gun violence that is affecting the same Black and Latino communities most affected by police misconduct.
While some crime survivors support shifting resources from police and into prevention and healing services, others who have lost loved ones to shootings and live in high-crime areas worry that depleting police budgets without proven alternatives to fill any gaps will make Black and brown communities less safe.
And the further localities dive into the logistics of transforming public safety and lessening reliance on police, the more questions abound. Who are people to call after a shooting? How do we get the most-affected communities to trust new alternatives? How can we go beyond typical reforms into real, radical transformation?
“It’s a scary moment. The anxiety is in not knowing what the outcome of all of this is gonna be,” said Keisha Henderson, a resident of East Oakland, California.
Henderson, 28, said she has had to deal with bullets flying past her windows and the frustration of slow and sometimes nonexistent police responses to gunfire and other problems. Oakland is experiencing a 314% increase in homicides compared with the same time last year, and a 113% increase in firearms assaults.
Henderson protested alongside thousands of others last summer but said she didn’t want to see total abolition of police – at least until there are “stress-tested” alternatives in place. She is one of 17 members on Oakland’s Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce, an official board established last year which is currently parsing through dozens of recommendations to decide which ones they will present to the city council for adoption in the upcoming budget. Oakland’s goal is to cut police spending by 50%, or $150m a year.
“We can do all these pilot programs but there has to be a balance between holding police accountable to Black residents, while also making sure we are protected some way,” Henderson said. “We need to reallocate and rebuild our communities but we do not need to completely abolish the police so that everything goes haywire.”
At its purest, defunding police is a goal made up of many steps that organizers hope will lead to the complete abolition of police departments, prisons and other carceral systems. But while the proposals put forth in cities like Oakland to reduce police spending – like shifting drug and mental health calls to non-police responders – align with the core principles of police abolitionists, the word “defund” is rarely used by city officials. Most cities have opted for terms like “reimagine” and “reinvest” to describe the work.
“The contradictions and dilemmas are the starting point: you have to meet folks where they are and there has to be space for conversation, critique and pushback that is rooted in a love of one’s community,” said Nikki Jones, a professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley.
Cities including Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles, have also launched campaigns similar to Oakland’s to “reimagine public safety”. But like Oakland, they are also struggling with increases in gun violence.
Officials in Austin recently cut $20m from its police budget by cancelling cadet programs and certain contracts after homicides hit a 20-year high last year. The money shaved from Austin’s police is going toward violence prevention, victims’ services and substance abuse programs. In Los Angeles, where homicides topped 300 for the first time in a decade, the Los Angeles unified school district divested $25m from the school police program and shifted it toward Black student achievement.
Supporters of defunding the police don’t see a contradiction in these new investments and hope non-police prevention programs will better address the root causes of violence.
“When we talk about defunding police we have to be very sensitive to victims of crime and we need to hold space for healing,” said Saabir Lockett, director of the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy and member of the Defund OPD coalition in Oakland, California. “I think it’s both and, not either or: how do we defund the police and reinvest in our communities?”
“Gun violence is often used to shut down the conversations it takes to reimagine public safety. It’s exploitative and treats folks’ experiences in a superficial way,” said Jones. “There’s a suggestion that even talking about defunding police makes gun violence more likely to happen even when there’s little evidence to show that that’s true.”
In Oakland, Defund OPD, a five-year-old campaign housed within the Anti-Police Terror Project (APTP), is a leading voice in the city’s efforts to reduce police spending and invest in areas such as housing, unarmed mental health responses and violence prevention programs.
The campaign began in 2015, a year that the APTP co-founder Cat Brooks refers to as a “bloody” one. The city’s police department killed 11 people and the following year was embroiled in scandal after officers sexually exploited and trafficked a teenager. Since their defunding effort launched, APTP has kept sustained pressure on city officials to cut the department’s budget by at least half.
“The goal is to interrupt and respond to state violence,” said Brooks, a longtime Bay Area social justice organizer and outspoken advocate for families who have lost loved ones to police violence. “We’re good at responding but the only way you get to interruption is to reduce the number of interactions with police.”
Last summer, as protest filled Oakland’s streets and calls to defund OPD reached city hall, the number of murder victims continued to rise, with homicides reaching 107 by the end of the year compared with 75 the year before.
At the end of July, the Oakland city council established its reimagining taskforce and filled its ranks with residents with varying and sometimes opposing views on the best ways to serve local communities.
On Wednesday the city’s Reimagine Public Safety taskforce finished approving dozens of recommendations to take to city council. Upping investments in proven community violence prevention strategies and creating a program to respond to mental health crises without police present are included in the panoply of alternatives.
Even with these lofty goals and efforts to acknowledge the heavy toll of gun violence, several members of Oakland’s taskforce remain uneasy about measures that would significantly cut police presence, especially as the city loses ground in its years-long struggle to reduce gun violence.
“We’re supposed to address it all: the nonsense in policing and the nonsense in the community that is hurting us all. But it feels like the community issue is something that no one wants to touch,” echoed Antoine Towers, chair of the Oakland Violence Prevention Coalition, a non-law enforcement collective striving to interrupt cycles of violence.
Once California’s shelter-in-place order began, gun violence in the San Francisco Bay Area began to creep upward, and by the end of 2020 homicides – mostly by firearm –were up 35% compared with the year before. The increase was exceptionally painful in Oakland where gun deaths had been on a steady decline since 2012 and were on track to reach record lows in 2020.
So far this year, 29 people have been murdered in the city, 22 more deaths than last year in the same time period, according to the police department.
This period of gun violence led five Black members of Oakland’s Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce to write a letter to the group’s 12 other members expressing their concern that “even more lives will be lost if police are removed without an alternative response being put in place that is guaranteed to work as good as or better than the current system”.
“I support the goal of defunding. It’s necessary and we can’t keep spending half of our general fund on police. But the reality is that people are dying,” said John Jones III, taskforce member and one of the letter’s signatories. Jones represents East Oakland, a neighborhood that has long struggled with gun violence and safety issues. He worries that divestment from police is outpacing the creation of surefire alternatives that have the capacity to deal with the city’s gun violence, homelessness and other quality of life issues.
“I’m not building a case for policing, I just want people to understand the gravity,” Jones continued. “We have to demonstrate why police aren’t the best option but we have to approach it like methadone: by weaning people off of police.”
Back in 2019, APTP had launched Mental Health First (MH First), an independent mental health response program. The first branch launched in Sacramento in early 2020 and another in Oakland was born later in the year. Through the program, a paramedic, mental health professional and security personnel are dispatched to the scenes of crises ranging from domestic violence to psychiatric emergencies in lieu of police.
Brooks hopes that this program and similar models will be scaled up and implemented at the scenes of shootings and available in the aftermath.
“Marginalized folks are dealing with heavy amounts of trauma from living in communities where violence happens but when a shooting happens we send 8,000 cops but no trauma counselors,” Brooks said.
Now elements of this abolitionist ideal are being codified in city government. Earlier this week, Oakland’s city council voted to create the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland program, known as Macro, a civilian first responder team housed within the city’s fire department. Trained in medicine and mental health, the team will respond to 911 calls where there isn’t a threat of violence, many of which could involve helping people experiencing mental health crises. The Macro program is being funded with $1.8m that could have otherwise gone to policing.
*** Conservative news media, officials and police unions have seized on the losses of life and injuries in cities like Oakland to place blame on the shoulders of those calling for and taking steps to defund police. Clinicians and gun violence interrupters, however, point to the disruption of in-person violence intervention work and closures of safe havens like schools and community centers as more likely culprits for a portion of the deadly incidents.
But dissent around defunding police based on gun violence is not limited to those who use it as a means to undermine efforts to reallocate money from police departments.
Sylvia Bennett-Stone’s daughter was shot and killed in Alabama in 2004 and since then she has worked to connect other crime victims with healing services. She is also the executive director of Voices of Black Mothers United (VBMU), a group that advocates for women who have lost children to gun violence.
“It’s been disheartening to see the numbers increase, especially among innocent children and it would be devastating to any community to defund or weaken the police force,” she said.
The group, which began in January this year, has also been outspoken with their opposition to any moves to take money out of police departments. Instead they want more funding for police training and to improve response times.
“We don’t support reallocating policing funds even to our organization,” Bennett-Stone continued. “We’re hoping that some of the police funds that are already available can and should go toward programs within the department for better training and learning how to respond to the community.”
Organizers in cities like Oakland insist that these difficult conversations do not represent an impasse that leaves the most vulnerable with abysmal options: either keep police in neighborhoods at the current or higher levels or defund and be subject to shootings and violent crime.
“Defunding was a national campaign but it’s a local process,” Jones, the Berkeley professor, added. “Even with the outright dismissal of Defund the work is continuing, and we’re beginning to see the kind of policy changes that we wouldn’t have seen had the summer of 2020 not been what it was.”
The UN may have put hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees at risk of persecution or involuntary repatriation back to Myanmar after improperly collecting and sharing refugees’ personal information with Bangladesh, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is urging an investigation.
But the refugees were largely uninformed that their personal data, which included photographs, fingerprints and biographical information, would be passed by the Bangladeshi government on to authorities in Myanmar with a view to possible repatriation, said Lama Fakih, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch.
“The UN refugee agency’s data collection practices with Rohingya in Bangladesh were contrary to the agency’s own policies and exposed refugees to further risk,” said Fakih.
“[A] refugee has the right to control their data, who has access to it, and for what purposes, and UNHCR and other agencies should be accountable to those whose data they hold.”
The UN denied any wrongdoing or policy violations, stating that it had explained all purposes of the data-gathering exercise and obtained consent, according to UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic.
Each Rohingya refugee family was “asked to consent to their data being shared with partners on the ground for the purpose of receiving assistance … [and] separately and expressly asked whether they gave their consent to have their data shared with the government of Myanmar by the government of Bangladesh” to establish right of return, said Mahecic.
But 24 Rohingya refugees interviewed by HRW between September 2020 and March 2021 about their experience registering with UNHCR tell a different story. Of the 24 refugees, 23 said they were never informed the data would be used for anything beyond establishing aid access.
They were given a receipt, in English, with a box ticked stating they had agreed to the data being shared with Myanmar, but only three of the 24 refugees could read English.
One of the three interviewees who could read English said he only realised what had happened after his interview.
“After they took my data, they printed out a receipt. I walked back to my tent, and then I looked at the paper, and noticed that on the top there was a tick box that the person at the centre had marked as ‘yes’ without ever asking me, that my data would be shared with Myanmar,” he said.
“I was so angry when I saw that, but I had already given my data, and I needed services, so I didn’t know what I could do about it.”
Although the sample size of HRW’s research is small, it is likely that their findings are echoed throughout the Rohingya refugee population, said senior HRW researcher Belkis Wille.
“Bangladesh shared the names and details of 830,000 Rohingya with Myanmar, which broadly speaking is the entire Rohingya refugee population that came to Bangladesh. So that would suggest that nobody had any objection to having their data shared with Myanmar, at least in terms of the checkbox on the form,” said Wille.
“It is hard to imagine that not a single person had a concern and said no [to giving consent]. And that is one of the key reasons why we think what we saw in our individual interviews may be what you would see across the broader Rohingya population, which is that they weren’t being asked this question or, if they were, it wasn’t in a way that they understood or in a way that they felt comfortable saying no to.”
Of the 830,000 Rohingya whose data Bangladesh submitted to Myanmar, about 42,000 have been given right to return to their home country. They include 21 of the refugees interviewed by HRW, who said they only knew their data had been shared when they were informed they could return to Myanmar. All 21 have since gone into hiding out of fear of forced repatriation, HRW said.
UNHCR said that “any return to Myanmar must be based on the individual and voluntary choice of refugees” and that the UN would assist returns when conditions are conducive to safe and sustainable return, “which is not currently the case”.
China has joined Russia as an explicit danger to Western allies after a Nato summit in Brussels on Monday (14 June).
“China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security,” the 30 Nato leaders said in a joint communiqué.
“China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal with more warheads and a larger number of sophisticated delivery systems,” the statement added.
“It is also cooperating militarily with Russia, including through participation in Russian exercises in the Euro-Atlantic area,” it said.
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg highlighted the novelty of the text in his post-summit press conference.
“The first time [ever] we mentioned China in a communiqué and a document in a decision from Nato leaders was 18 months ago,” he noted, when Nato spoke of China-linked “opportunities and challenges” back in 2019.
“China’s not an adversary,” Stoltenberg noted.
But he also expanded on the list of its threatening activities.
“They [the Chinese] already have the … second biggest defence budget, and already the biggest navy, and they are investing heavily in new modern capabilities, including by investing in new disruptive technologies such as autonomous systems, facial recognition and artificial intelligence, and putting them into different weapon systems,” he said.
“They are really in the process of changing the nature of warfare,” Stoltenberg said.
He rejected the idea that Nato, whose core task was to defend the North-Atlantic region, was overstepping its treaty boundaries.
“To respond to the challenges we see that China poses to our security, is not about moving Nato to Asia … because we see that China is coming closer to us,” he said.
“We see China coming closer to us in cyber, controlling infrastructure in Africa and the Arctic, training together with Russia in North Atlantic waters,” he added.
The Nato pivot to China did not mean it had abandoned concern on Russia, whose malign activities, from waging war in Ukraine to blowing up warehouses in the Czech Republic, still dominated the communiqué, however.
“Until Russia demonstrates compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities, there can be no return to ‘business as usual’,” the statement said.
China was named 10 times and Russia 62 times.
Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel also voiced a more China-friendly tone.
“Nato is a military organisation, the issue of our relationship with China isn’t just a military issue. It is economic. It is strategic. It is about values. It is technological,” Macron told press after the summit.
China was a “major power with which we are working on global issues to move forward together” as well as a “competitor”, he noted.
“It’s very important that we don’t … bias our relationship with China,” he said.
“China is not in the North Atlantic,” Macron added, going against Stoltenberg’s line.
“Russia, above all, is a major challenge,” Merkel also said, while noting the Nato communiqué reflected the fact the US was a Pacific-Ocean as well as an Atlantic power.
“If you look at the cyber threats, the hybrid threats, if you look at the cooperation between Russia and China, then you cannot simply negate China … [but] I do not think that we should overestimate the importance of this [Chinese threat],” she added.
For its part, China had not yet responded as of Tuesday morning.
The Nato summit came ahead of US president Joe Biden’s meeting with top EU officials in Brussels on Tuesday and with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday.
It signalled a return to normal after four years in which former US president Donald Trump had questioned the value of Nato and insulted Macron, Merkel, and others, while cozying up to Putin.
Back to normal
Nato’s mutual defence pact was “rock solid” and a “sacred obligation” for the US, Biden said.
“I want all Europe to know that … Nato is critically important to us,” he added.
“With Joe Biden … there is a clear understanding of the necessity of Nato,” Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said.
“I was able to work with Trump. Of course, it was a bit more awkward … but with Joe Biden, it’s more natural again,” he added.
Meanwhile, Biden gave away little on what he might say to Putin.
But he sounded more dovish than hawkish by excluding the idea of a Nato membership action plan for Ukraine, on grounds “they [Ukraine] still have to clean up corruption”.
He also said Putin was a “bright” and “tough” adversary.
“I will make clear to president Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses,” Biden said.
The West needed a “robust dialogue” with Russia to “build a security framework for the European continent”, Macron also said.
The Tigray region in Ethiopia faces the grim prospect of a man-made famine. What can be done to end this slide into tribal conflict?
Alexander Mercouris, editor-in-chief at The Duran, and writer on international affairs with a special interest in Russia and law, and Dr. Kenneth Surin, Professor Emeritus of literature and professor of religion and critical theory at Duke University, join us in a conversation about the main takeaways from the G7 summit over the weekend, the proposal of a global minimum global tax rate of 15%, what impact this could have on multinational corporations, and whether we should be hopeful or skeptical about this considering how low the bar has been set for these corporations. We also talk about how many of the conversations were framed within the context of a confrontation with China, by proposing a plan to counter the Belt and Road initiative, and focusing on the issues in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Teodrose Fikremariam, cofounder of Ghion Journal, tells us about the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region in Ethiopia, including the involvement of Eritrean troops in the conflict and why they are there, claims that there is a risk of a man-made famine in Tigray and how there have been episodes of collective punishment. We also talk about how this conflict has brought a new tribalism into the forefront, how the portrayal of the Tigray authorities as victims in Western media is not completely accurate, taking into consideration that they began hostilities, and how international multilateral and regional organizations do not have the capacity or understanding of the situation to work as honest brokers in the conflict.
John Feffer, Director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, joins us to talk about the NATO summit taking place in Brussels this week, how the organization is yet again trying to redefine its mission and find its purpose, and whether they will be able maintain their membership as the justification for its existence seems to change every year. We also talk about the continued withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the establishment of permanent airbases in the region.