by Claire Gosselin
Nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism remained strong over the summer, fueled by new instances of police violence and a widespread recognition that the time for the country’s reckoning with its legacy of slavery and Jim Crow has come due. The right-wing backlash has been vicious; Trump has both fanned the flames and attempted to use the social discord to his advantage. The movement remains undeterred, however, and is now engaged in a host of concrete, practical struggles across the country to implement its vision, ranging from radical reformation of policing to passage of laws to address deep-seated persistent inequality to active engagement in the electoral arena.
We in Mass. Peace Action have participated in racial justice demonstrations, standouts, press conferences, and actions on the State House steps over the past few months. Many were organized by youth of color and drew crowds of all ages in the hundreds and thousands, composed of black, brown, indigenous, and white people.
Learning from Grassroots Leaders and Authors
To deepen our knowledge and build constructive relationships with other organizers, MAPA’s Racial Justice & Decolonization Working Group sponsored a set of Zoom meetings & webinars under the series title AntiRacism and Peace.* These events featured activists, authors, community leaders and elected officials, who addressed one or more of the following movement demands and MAPA goals:
- Defund the Police / Invest in Our Communities
- Demilitarize the Police
- Repeal Qualified Immunity, End Chokeholds and Excessive Force
- End Use of Military Within US Territory
- Restorative Justice, Not Mass Incarceration
The discussions shed light on these demands and proposed reforms or legislation at all levels of government. In Boston, activists demanded a 10% cut to the entire oversized Boston Police Dept (BPD) budget of $414 million, and the redirecting of that $41 million to public schools and youth programs in communities of color. [To see how oversized the BPD allocation is, go to Unpacking the Boston Police Budget, ACLU of Massachusetts.] Mayor Walsh’s response was to revise only the BPD overtime budget by 20% ($12 million). He stated with great fanfare that “Racism is a Public Health Crisis,” as he allocated only $12 million to the Boston Public Health Commission, trauma teams and counseling services, mental health support, and other areas. ($2 million was subsequently returned to the BPD for mental health training.) In protest, 5 City Councilors of color voted against the budget. (Boston’s charter does not empower the City Council to change the budget directly.) To learn more from activists and Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, view the recording of the Defund BosCops: What do we want for Boston? webinar.
From their origins in slave patrols to current day practices, police forces have been infused with racism, economic injustice and militarism. Alex Vitale, in The End of Policing webinar on August 10, shared the history of the Pennsylvania State Police. Military personnel and practices from the brutal occupation of the Philippines during the Spanish American war were instrumental in forming this domestic police force, whose purpose was suppressing mine workers organizing for their rights. In the Militarization of the Police and the 1033 Program webinar Sept 14, we learned of the current day use of war equipment and tactics of punitive policing against communities of color and protesters.
Until recently, the extent to which women have been targets of police harassment and violence has been largely overlooked. The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls is one of the organizations responsible for exposing this violence, which is disproportionately directed against women of color. Andrea James is the founder of that group, which evolved out of Families for Justice as Healing (FJAH), the Roxbury-based organization that emerged out of James’s incarceration in the Danbury, CT women’s federal prison. She shared her story and the work of the groups in our webinar Transformative Justice: Ending Incarceration of Women and the Case for Reparations on August 17. Mallory Hanora, who is the current executive director of FJAH, presented more information about their work in the Defund BosCops Zoom meeting noted above. James and Hanora call on us to tell Governor Baker “NO to building a new women’s prison!”
Common themes emerged from the webinars in the series:
- Directing all public safety matters to the police endangers and sets back rather than solves problems: mental health emergencies, domestic abuse, petty theft, and police in schools (SRA’s). Instead we need mental health and trauma counselors, social workers trained to de-escalate, drug treatment and counseling instead of sending in armed police officers.
- Community safety would be better served by funding stable housing, jobs and other programs for young people as well as adults in need of training and support.
- There is a link between how this country funds and carries out wars against peoples of color abroad and disinvests in communities of color and indigenous peoples in the US.
There is no question that the protesters’ demands are making an impact and that activists are determined to keep up the good fight. Some of our best representatives at the state and federal level have developed legislation to address key demands from the communities bearing the brunt of inequitable, punitive policing. This legislation has been opposed by massive lobbying on the part of police interests and their supporters at the state and federal level.
Throughout these sessions, activists have inspired us with their work on reimagining thriving, participatory communities. FJAH has engaged underserved communities in developing their ideas for a People’s Budget, and has organized Clemency and other community-driven safety groups, among other initiatives.
Demilitarizing Police Departments
Within the overall movement against police violence, it makes sense for MAPA to focus our efforts on demilitarization of police forces by opposing the 1033 program, which provides police departments with military-grade equipment—including tanks, armored cars, and weaponry—designed for war, not for keeping the public safe. Though legislation at the federal level to abolish this program was derailed by police lobbying pressure, Yasmine Taeb of Demand Progress asks us to sign their petition to end the 1033 program at: https://act.demandprogress.org/sign/police-weapons/ and to tell our US senators and representatives that we want to demilitarize our communities by abolishing the program. As Bryan Stevenson, civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has said, “When the government equips police departments like they’re equipping the military, we undermine healthy relationships between the police and the community…We view the police as an occupying military force. That kind of culture gives rise to the violence that we see.”
More generally, the Massachusetts House and Senate each passed a version of a police reform bill over the summer and they are in conference committee at the time of this writing. We can urge members of the committee to negotiate for a strong bill that includes the provision to end qualified immunity. The committee members are Senators William Brownsberger (D), Sonia Chang-Diaz (D) and Bruce Tarr and Representatives Claire Cronin (D), Carlos Gonzalez (D) and Timothy Whelan (R). The ACLU of Massachusetts has been playing a key role in pushing for the legislation; pending its passage, consider sending their Take Action letter, directed to Governor Baker, and use some of the details from the letter when you call conference committee members.
The Electoral Struggle
In another important development in the racial justice struggle, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) Electoral Justice Project has teamed up with the Working Families Party to form The Frontline project, which aims to merge the energy of the street protests with an electoral campaign to defeat Trump in a landslide, push Biden and Harris to the left, and keep up the pressure after the election. Movement leaders recognize that, without a defeat of Trump, they will be in a much weaker position to fight in the coming period. As Ash Lee Woodard Henderson of M4BL said, “We are committed not to fighting for a savior on Pennsylvania Avenue, but to fighting for our next target.” Brittany Ramos DeBarros of About Face: Veterans Against the War, added, “How do we relate to an election where this is the choice that is offered us? I encourage us to side with our people. It is not about the person [we are voting for]; it is about choosing the terrain that we will be fighting on.” For more detail, see the The Frontline’s Sept. 21 launch video posted on Organizing Upgrade or The Frontline’s new website.
*All the recordings for the Antiracism and Peace series are available on YouTube at the Massachusetts Peace Action Channel playlist for Racial Justice. Note that other recordings pertaining to racial justice beyond our current series are also included.
—Claire Gosselin is co-chair of Mass. Peace Action’s Racial Justice and Decolonization Working Group.