Fueled by outrage and grief in response to the brutal police killing of George Floyd, hundreds of thousands of Americans have exploded into the streets across the nation—and they are demanding justice. One of the essential demands ringing out from Black activists and allies across the United States is the call to shift resources away from police and prisons and towards investments that genuinely increase the safety of Black people and Black communities. As the Movement for Black Lives asserts, “We demand investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people.”
...police budgets have ballooned as cities have increasingly relied on law enforcement as a solution to community problems that are rooted in poverty, joblessness, inequality and untreated mental illness and addiction.
Decades of efforts to reform how police operate—from mandating body cameras to implementing bias training to changing regulations around the use of force—have failed to produce an end to police violence and killing of Black people. Instead, police budgets have ballooned as cities have increasingly relied on law enforcement as a solution to community problems that are rooted in poverty, joblessness, inequality and untreated mental illness and addiction. Funds pour into the purchase of military equipment and sophisticated surveillance equipment for police forces. And the public pays for multimillion-dollar legal settlements to compensate victims of police violence rather than holding officers and departments themselves accountable. Policymakers must redirect funds to address real community needs.
The push to redirect funding is particularly urgent because of the catastrophic shortfalls in public budgets faced by cities and states struggling with the economic fallout from the coronavirus. In New York City, for example, Mayor Bill de Blasio had proposed billions of dollars in cuts to schools, parks, and summer youth employment in response to a severe drop in revenue, but recommended only minimal cuts to the police budget. It is only in response to overwhelming activist demands to shift $1 billion dollars of the city’s $6 billion police budget toward serving direct community needs that the mayor began to consider redirecting law enforcement funding.
The reality is that cutting social service budgets amounts to a different kind of violence perpetrated on Black communities: Decimating children’s futures through cuts to public education, curtailing access to medical care through cuts to Medicaid and changes in eligibility, eliminating access to jobs through public transit cuts, slashing other critical services that communities rely on. Harsh austerity measures like these can inflict harm on all Americans, but with fewer resources as a result of racist policies and practices, Black people are among the least likely to have funds to replace public goods with private alternatives. At the same time, cities facing budget crises are readying layoffs of public sector workers, a double blow because in addition to the loss of vital services, the public sector is the largest source of employment for Black workers. And cities unable to balance their budgets are threatening public pensions, a key source of retirement security for many Black workers.
Black communities know—and have long known—what they need to thrive
Black communities know—and have long known—what they need to thrive. In 2018, the Black Futures Lab and its grassroots and national partners (including Demos) conducted the largest survey of Black people in the United States since Reconstruction. The Black Census includes the views, political beliefs, concerns, and aspirations of more than 30,000 Black people across the country and reveals a strong consensus among Black people from all walks of life.
Among Black Census respondents:
The uprising in the streets of America today should be a wake-up call for policymakers to listen to the demands of Black people. Rather than cutting funds for public needs while allowing police budgets to swell, cities, states, and the federal government must shift funding to the real priorities of communities.