AUSTIN, Tex. — The following is a joint statement from Grassroots Leadership and Communities of Color United regarding today’s Austin City Council vote for the 2020-2021 city budget:
The community uprising led by and in support of Black lives and the call for divestment from the system of violent policing has been powerful to witness.
We are grateful to everyone who for years have poured their energy into bringing about a more equitable city; and everyone who in the last several months have put their bodies on the line, waited hours on the phone to speak at public testimony, participated in mutual aid, and followed the lead of abolitionist communities of color in demanding that we defund the monster of policing, defend the lives of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Austinites, and invest in the resources and systems of support that truly make us safe.
But the budget passed today does not meet this moment.
In the midst of a pandemic that has claimed the lives of 313 people in Travis County and an uprising that has placed a spotlight on police violence, we called for a 50%, or $220 million divestment from policing and reallocation to R.E.A.L. solutions that would address the long-standing inequities and violence faced by BIPOC in our city—namely displacement, underfunding of public health, denial of basic needs, police violence, and anti-immigrant policies. Grassroots Leadership followed CCU’s lead in demanding the full $220 Million be reallocated into R.E.A.L. solutions: $91M for the RISE Fund, $4M for the Equity Office, $10M for Austin Public Health, and $115M for low-income housing, specifically for a “public strike fund” to purchase land and apartment buildings and to support families with homes in flood plains.
What we got instead was a meer $21.5 million in immediate cuts and reallocations. While there are worthy things that were cut and funded today, there were no significant investments in the priorities that abolitionist BIPOC have identified towards creating a foundation of safety without policing. The remaining $129 Million of the proposal is divided into a "Decouple Fund" and "Reimagine Public Safety Fund”. This is an accounting change that shifts the money into independent accounts outside of APD. However, Council clarified during deliberations that this money can still be accessed by APD while the City Council and City Manager are engaging in the "reimagining" process. So, this $129 Million will not in practice remove money immediately from APD to perform the listed functions.
We will continue calling not only for funds to be removed from APD, but to defund policing, with its currently associated functions, so that we can transfer money to what actually keeps our community safe. We must divest from the violence policing is enacting on BIPOC community members by removing money and power from all forms of policing and invest in resources and systems of care and support. It’s about investing in what is life-giving. Having civilians currently under the APD community partnerships office be transferred to other city departments to still introduce youth to an antiquated, harmful policing mentality is not what we need. Turning APD park and lake patrol into civilian Rangers is not what we need. Continuing to endlessly pour money into training and oversight in a futile attempt to make our current structure of policing less violent is not what we need.
“Reimagining public safety” does not mean simply reorganizing departments or taking the same functions that APD currently performs and moving them, complete with their current staff and culture, to a civilian department. It does not mean delaying things we could defund now because our city council has yet to gather the political courage to lay-off sworn officers.
When we say “reimagine public safety”, it’s a step beyond defunding the police. It means imagining a world where we don’t rely on cops, cages, and other punitive approaches to keep us safe; it’s about imagining a world where our basic needs are met, create new ways to care for each other, and collectively unlearn unhealthy ways that we have been socialized to interact with each other and deal with our trauma that leads to further violence.
We must consciously guard against the infiltration of a policing mentality into mental health, treatment, and crisis response alternatives that are created. These need to come from a place of care and support that respects people's agency and journey instead of punitive interventions such as involuntary commitment or responses where mental health practitioners respond alongside police. Any policies that seek further collaboration between alternative crisis response and police such as the proposal of a combined downtown headquarters for police, fire, and EMS are antithetical to this goal.
Moving forward, we need an infrastructure for robust input and vision of directly impacted community members—not just nonprofits and “experts”—in the reimagining process that provides sufficient time and space for them to influence and propose alternatives. We remain firm in our demand to phase out the Austin Police Department in the next 4 years.
To achieve this, we must see more significant cuts to policing come from the “Decouple Fund” and “Reimagine Public Safety Fund”, and that money should still be reallocated, this year, to R.E.A.L. solutions and other resources such as legal defense for communities who have been harmed by policing. Immediately, we can cut particularly harmful and unnecessary programs such as surveillance contracts, the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, the Riverside Togetherness Project, community partnerships, overtime, explorers, mounted patrol, parks and lake patrol, and the k-9 unit from the budget. We must also recognize that much of the daily violence police exercise on BIPOC is not an aberration arising from a few bad officers or programs - but the norm that is carried out through daily policing. To address this, significant additional patrol funding should also be cut.
Austin City Council and Mayor Adler had the power to use this moment to make bold change that departed from the City of Austin's legacy of using incremental reform to rebuff true transformative solutions that abolitionist BIPOC have long called for. Unfortunately, their efforts fell short. This current proposal is a minuscule step towards that vision, but it’s not bold change, and it does not rectify long-standing inequities experienced by BIPOC.
As Grassroots Leadership and Communities of Color United, we are committed to continuing this fight to reallocate resources in our life-long fight for equity and dignity – we keep each other safe.