Defund the police and break the chain

The following is reposted with the author’s permission from a letter to the editor in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. If, after reading this, you are more disturbed by the use of the word “defunding” than of the consequences of “overfunding” a police state — then you are disturbed by the wrong thing.

Lois Ahrens: Defund the police and break the chain

I want to talk about one long chain. Starting in this tiny city and in every city where mayors and councilors decide on policing budgets. Here the amount for police is almost $7 million a year. A big chunk considering there is almost no crime. But like everywhere, it starts with mayors and city councils giving too much money and too much power to too many cops.

The money goes to cops in schools where Black children and Latinx children get disciplined, suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white children. It moves on to racial profiling with stops of drivers and people walking down the street.

And, sometimes policing and especially over-policing leads to arrests and then charges and then over-charging by district attorneys, including Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan. That means piling up so many charges that people have little choice but to take a plea bargain out of fear of a longer sentence if they risk going to trial.

From there, the chain goes to prisons and jails. In Massachusetts, we pay $1.2 billion to keep about 14,000 people caged in jails and prisons, overstaffed by guards with unions as powerful as the ones police have. Like police outside, they are trained in the same us versus them “warrior “mentality.

When you add this up — too many police, racial profiling, cops in schools, district attorneys and plea bargains — what we get is a state where more than half of the prison population is Black and Latinx, even although those groups account for 17% of Massachusetts’ population.

And, right now prisoners, that is people, in state prisons have been locked down for months. This is really a “lockdown,” not just being unable to eat in a restaurant or take a trip to California. This is being locked in a cell the size of a parking space. This is locked down where social distancing is impossible. This is locked down, where in the Framingham women’s prison, 85 of 180 women have COVID.

It starts here. In this city council and in every city council, which is why we need to defund the police and start breaking the chain.

Lois Ahrens
Northampton

The writer is founding director of The Real Cost of Prisons Project.

Choose a side, fix the world

These are interesting times. Suddenly many White people are looking at racism and capitalism with much more critical eyes. In a perverse sort of way, COVID-19 has opened avenues for change and given White people an unexpected opportunity to reflect on how our society fails all but a handful of us.

With the economy going down like the Titanic, suddenly many White Americans have noticed who’s being escorted into the First Class lifeboats, and it’s been an eye-opener to see how the whole system is rigged. Overnight, multiple crises have generated a little more understanding and sympathy for people who have been in coach or steerage their whole lives. Sitting at home during an enforced “time-out” White Liberals have had a chance to do some much-needed and long-postponed introspection. Everyone is learning more about the depths of depravity and dysfunction of a system built around White Supremacy.

But there is a certain tendency of White Liberals to start with introspection and stop there. Robert Kuttner, writing in the American Prospect (“Beyond White Navel-Gazing”) gives an example of dutiful but hollow Yom Kippur apologies a few of us offer, where the resolve to change and repair is absent from the apology.

Unless an apology is specific and accompanied by a specific plan to repair the injustice, injury, or insult, most Talmudic scholars don’t regard it as serious. The requirements for Jewish Tshuvah are very similar in the Muslim world. Depending on the offense, repentance often includes restitution or reparations.

Many of the anguished White tears we’ve been seeing lately are empty gestures unless accompanied by work for racial justice. Book groups and discussion groups are important, don’t get me wrong. Most of us have an incredible lack of understanding of structural racism, much of our own history, many of our own laws, and we know surprisingly little about the lives and cultures of a third of our American friends and neighbors. Discussion groups help provide understanding and strengthen resolve to join the fight.

But, above all, White people mostly need to just choose sides. We either choose justice and equality — or we continue, comfortably and complacently, failing to change a system that works better for some of us than others. This country really is going down like the Titanic. And, in a time of crisis, action ought to supersede navel-gazing.

I think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who described marching in Selma as “praying with his feet.” Though I completely lack any religious impulse, I admire the Jewish Prophetic tradition of challenging unjust kings and laws. Heschel literally wrote a book about it, and he was aware of the connections between the Jewish tradition and the African-American prophetic tradition. But at the end of the day it wasn’t history or scripture or even common cause that motivated Heschel. He was just a White guy who understood that what went on inside his own heart and head was much less important than fixing a broken world.

Cloudy with a chance of real change

I woke up strangely optimistic this morning. At times it seems like we are floating in a vast sea, no winds to return us home or to take us to another port. Just stuck, waiting either for rescue or for a change of weather.

This week almost felt like a change of weather.

Yes, our Führer-wannabe is still in the White House, but as an indication of his decreasing power and his increasing fear of his own subjects, he turned his executive complex into something resembling the Green Zone, surrounding himself with generals, lackeys, and his own Republican Guard. Orange Adolf even retreated to his bunker.

Here in Dartmouth, an overwhelmingly white town, a high school student organized a parade against racism and local businesses donated water to marchers. It was only last year that the Black Lives Matter movement was considered too extreme for much of White America. But now, here the locals were, marching and shouting “Black Lives Matter” and “No justice, no peace” as if they really meant it.

Now, if only they would get rid of the racist Dartmouth school mascot.

Sometimes White America hops on movements in the same spirit as attending a fiesta: many hashtags are consumed and a good time is had by all. Then everybody goes home — to process it with their support system or read about it in their book group, with an emphasis on personal growth (there’s got to be something in it for me).

Sometimes a hashtag movement gains longer traction and actually results in something. Let us hope that the fight against structural racism is more than a passing fancy and that the calls for police, criminal justice, and economic reform are daring, sweeping, and radical — in the sense of dealing with the root causes of all these problems. Otherwise, the usual half-hearted, half-baked reforms will be the usual lipstick on a pig.

I’ve been seeing White Americans buying up anti-racism books, scheduling Zoom coffee klatches, and having deep and abstract conversations with one another. There seems to be much discussion about reforming police training — but also a lot of push-back against progressive efforts to reduce funding for police departments; wrest control from police unions of disciplinary, hiring and policy matters; and using taxpayer money for social services for distressed, police-occupied communities — while “defunding” the police at local, state, and federal levels. The disappointing Democratic nominee is making all these disappointing noises.

Kaffee klatches for discussing racism may be no substitute for working for meaningful reform, but as one person noted: “To be charitable, they need to work out their feelings and that is important in its own way.” Ouch.

Yet, as anemic as White America’s response has been to-date, it is unprecedented and cause for cautious optimism. But if White sympathy is to result in anything meaningful, dear fellow white folks, we must do a lot better. We have to dedicate ourselves to eradicating the structural racism that has been the foundation of this country for going on 420 years now. And that is going to come with costs that, until now, only people of color have had to pay.