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This US city was working to cut its police budget in half – then violent crime started to rise | US policing

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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.

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What is the Overpoliced, underprotected series?

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Overpoliced, underprotected is a series focused on police violence in the US following one of the largest-scale uprisings in history. 

A year on from the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, there are demands both inside the government and from grassroots movements to end the systemic racism and lethal force that has been embedded in police culture for centuries. 

But with stark differences in approaches to reform and revolution, and the continued power of police unions, achieving sweeping change faces more obstacles than ever.

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.

Oakland police officers patrol a street in the Montclair shopping district of Oakland, California.
Oakland police officers patrol a street in the Montclair shopping district of Oakland, California. Photograph: Ray Chavez/AP

“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.

The Oakland skyline at sunset.
The Oakland skyline at sunset. Photograph: Jonathan Clark/Getty Images

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.”



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Macron promises strong EU borders

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Obligatory detentions, more security screening, and faster deportations – these are the French EU presidency’s migration priorities, in a right-wing home affairs agenda.

Immigration did not take centre stage in French president Emmanuel Macron’s speech in the EU Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday (19 January).

But what he did say emphasised keeping people out.

“We must protect our external borders, including by developing a rapid-intervention [military] force … to build partnerships with countries of origin and transit, to fight against [human-]smuggling networks, and make our return policy effective,” he told MEPs.

He voiced empathy for people “in great misery … and insecurity”, some of whom had walked from Africa or Asia to Europe, he said.

But Macron’s empathy had its limits. “It’s a horrendous humanitarian situation, but that’s reality,” he said.

And his speech was matched by his priorities on immigration for the next six months.

EU states should agree “common rules” on border “screening”, including “an obligation to ‘keep at the disposal of the authorities’ persons apprehended at the external borders, by increasing detention capacities,” France said in a memo to fellow EU states on 17 January.

Screening should include “health and safety checks” and fingerprinting, the memo said.

“The asylum procedure … would only be provided for in the later stages” of the security process, France noted.

And EU states should step up deportations, by concluding “more readmission agreements with priority third countries” and creating a new “EU Return Coordinator”, France added.

These were the “core” measures France believed EU states could agree on by July, following months of consultations.

France also discussed how EU states could show “solidarity” with front-line countries, such as Greece and Italy, without taking in asylum seekers.

They could pay each other off or send border guards instead, France proposed.

But there was as little in the French memo on protecting migrants’ lives or welfare as there was in Macron’s speech.

The EU should offer “dignified reception and better integration of people in need”, the memo said, in its only words on the issue.

Misery

Record numbers of people drowned last year trying to cross the Mediterranean, while others froze to death in the forests of Belarus and Poland.

At the same time, EU countries carried out thousands of illegal “pushbacks”.

Some built new walls and razor-wire fences, while conditions at many Greek migrant camps remained dismal.

But for all the human “misery” involved, EU migration has become a political weapon ahead of French elections in April, where Macron is running against three right-wing contenders, among others.

“We cannot have a sieve-like Europe,” the centre-right candidate, Valérie Pécresse, said while on a visit to Greece last week.

And one far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen’s party spoke out in Strasbourg.

“Your Europe [the EU] is 60 years old, but our Europe is 3,000 old,” one of Le Pen’s MEPs, Jordan Bardella, told Macron.

“Will Europe still be Europe if refugees are everywhere? Will it still be Europe if people swear allegiance to sultans in Turkey and Morocco?,” Bardella said.

Meanwhile, Macron’s migration agenda comes alongside other EU presidency projects on counterterrorism, antisemitism, and hate speech.

And some of these would also appeal to right-wing voters.

EU countries needed to tackle “the extremely sensitive nature of the notion of blasphemy, which rallies and mobilises all streams of the radical Islamist scene”, such as the lone knife-man who beheaded a French schoolteacher in 2020, France warned in a recent EU memo on terrorism.

It proposed a hawkish definition of antisemitism that was being used to demonise Israel’s opponents.

And for all the French concern on dialling down hatred, Macron’s vision of a secular Europe contained nothing on tackling Islamophobia.

Politics

For his part, French Green MEP Yannick Jadot took the French leader to task in heated, eyeball-to-eyeball comments in the Strasbourg chamber.

Jadot highlighted the death of a young Kurdish migrant in the English Channel.

“All that she wanted was to live and to love, Mr President … Why do you pull down the tents [in Calais migrant camps] every day?”, Jadot said.

But Jadot is also running in April and his intervention was just more French election fever for some MEPs, such as the Spanish leader of the socialist group, Iratxe García Pérez, who asked the Frenchman to cool his tone.

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By 2050, a quarter of the world’s people will be African – this will shape our future | Edward Paice

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In 2022 the world’s population will pass 8 billion. It has increased by a third in just two decades. By 2050, there will be about 9.5 billion of us on the planet, according to respected demographers. This makes recent comments by Elon Musk baffling. According to him, “the low birthrate and the rapidly declining birthrate” is “one of the biggest risks to civilisation”.

Fertility rates in Europe, North America and east Asia are generally below 2.1 births per woman, the level at which populations remain stable at constant mortality rates. The trajectory in some countries is particularly arresting. The birthrate in Italy is the lowest it has ever been in the country’s history. South Korea’s fertility rate has been stuck below one birth per woman for decades despite an estimated $120bn (£90bn) being spent on initiatives aimed at raising it. Japan started the century with 128 million citizens but is on course to have only 106 million by 2050. China’s population will peak at 1.45 billion in 2030, but if it proves unable to raise its fertility rate, the world’s most populous country could end the century with fewer than 600 million inhabitants. This is the “big risk” alluded to by Musk. The trouble is, his statement seems to imply that “civilisation” does not include Africa.

The populations of more than half of Africa’s 54 nations will double – or more – by 2050, the product of sustained high fertility and improving mortality rates. The continent will then be home to at least 25% of the world’s population, compared with less than 10% in 1950. Expansion on this scale is unprecedented: whereas the population of Asia will have multiplied by a factor of four in this timeframe, Africa’s will have risen tenfold. “Chronic youthfulness”, as demographer Richard Cincotta has termed it, is the result: 40% of all Africans are children under the age of 14 and in most African countries the median age is below 20.

African mothers will have about 450 million children in the 2020s. This is projected to rise to more than 550 million in the 2040s, about 40% of all children born worldwide in that decade. Overall, low or rapidly declining birthrates remain the exception rather than the rule in most of Africa. Globally, the number of births are at their highest level ever – 140 million a year – and are unlikely to fall by much in the course of the next two to three decades.

graphic

That is some bow wave underpinning future population growth, for good or ill (or both). With continuing high fertility in east, west and central Africa, the continent will contribute 1.3 billion of the 2 billion increase in the global population between 2019 and 2050. By then, the populations of east and west Africa will each exceed that of Europe. Thereafter, Africa’s varied demography will be one of the principal determinants of whether the global population will peak in the second half of the 21st century or continue growing, a vexed and contested issue with added significance in the age of the climate crisis.

Elon Musk’s population implosion narrative is not original. It echoes that of Dr HB McKlveen, warning of the “depopulation of civilised nations” in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1895; and that of many western economists in the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes among them. More than 50 years after the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s bestselling The Population Bomb, explosion narratives also burst forth at regular intervals. To date, human adaptability and resilience have overcome demographic crises (such as the Black Death in the 14th century), and periodic alarmism. This is not intended to sound complacent or Panglossian, merely to caution that alarmist narratives are invariably touted for ideological or some other specific reasons. Beyond two or three decades, demographic futurology is fraught with pitfalls, although not nearly as hazardous as medium- and long-term economic or weather forecasting.

The omission of African demography from Musk’s pronouncement is symptomatic of colossal shortcomings in the understanding of Africa and its constituent countries in the west. African delegations are bit-part players at global gatherings like Cop26, despite the ramifications of the climate crisis for the continent (and its potential for countering deleterious effects). Western governments have been slow to cooperate with African counterparts in the battle to contain Covid-19, and have done woefully little by way of assistance. Africa remains fundamentally marginalised, including in stereotypical depictions in most western media and the imaginations of most western citizens. This lamentable state of affairs cannot – will not – endure.

Sheer weight of numbers must bring about a reimagining of African countries and their populations. This alone will impact geopolitics, global trade, technological development, the future of the world’s dominant religions, patterns of migration – almost every aspect of life. More widespread familiarity with the continent’s diverse demographic characteristics and trajectories is a good entry point to this reimagining. Oh, and it might also help to be ever-cognisant of the fact that the landmasses of China, the US, Europe, India and Japan can all fit inside this continent that will loom ever-larger in the lives of its neighbours and the world.

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MEPs keen to speed up green-transition fund for poor

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The EU should start paying out its €72bn fund for helping poor households shift to green energy in 2024, instead of 2025 as previously planned, according to a European Parliament proposal seen by Reuters. “The green transition should be feasible for everyone,” Dutch centre-right MEP Esther de Lange said. “The fund should not be used to buy Teslas …. but rather small- and medium-sizes cars for everyday families,” she added.

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