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Defund the Police: Linda Sarsour & Mychal Denzel Smith on What Meaningful Change Would Look Like

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Amid growing calls in New York City for police accountability, Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to shift some of the city’s funding for police and reallocate it to social services. We get response from Linda Sarsour, longtime Palestinian American Muslim organizer and co-founder of Until Freedom, which along with others has led the push to institute meaningful change. We also speak with author Mychal Denzel Smith, who notes that “one thing that’s come of this global pandemic of COVID-19 is an understanding of what constitutes essential, what do we actually need. And police have shown that they are inessential.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. After nearly two weeks of massive demonstrations here in New York City calling for police accountability, Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to shift some of New York funding for police and reallocate it to social services. He made the announcement in a press conference on Sunday.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: We will be moving funding from the NYPD to youth initiatives and social services. The details will be worked out in the budget process in the weeks ahead. But I want people to understand that we are committed to shifting resources to ensure that the focus is on our young people.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York City Police Department has an annual budget of about $6 billion. That’s nearly 7% of Mayor de Blasio’s proposed $90 billion budget for 2021. This comes as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti agreed last week to slash between $100 million to $150 million from proposed funding for police, and members of the Minneapolis City Council have vowed to dismantle the city’s police department.

For more, we’re joined by Linda Sarsour, Palestinian American Muslim organizer; author of We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders; co-founder of Until Freedom, which along with Communities United for Police Reform and Until Freedom has been pressuring New York City’s mayor to institute meaningful change around police accountability; a well-known activist, New Yorker.

Linda, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you respond to what the mayor announced yesterday? This is like a day or two after he was — activists turned their backs on him, after they booed him when he came out to speak at one of the memorial services for George Floyd that was run by George Floyd’s brother, who lives here in New York.

LINDA SARSOUR: Let’s make sure that the credit goes where it’s due, Amy. The credit is to Communities United for Police Reform, the Justice Committee, the New York Justice League, the Gathering for Justice, Until Freedom, the many groups in New York City who have been doing police reform work for decades, and in the last for years have continued to pressure Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ran on a police reform platform, to actually make transformative change.

On Saturday, Amy, we marched from 110th and Central Park West, which was Frederick Douglass Monument, all the way to Washington Square Park. Over 50,000 people came out with us, and we had a set of demands. And one of the demands was defund the police and reappropriate funding to youth and communities. We also called on him — when the anti-chokehold bill gets to his desk, I don’t want to see him, I don’t want to hear his voice. I want him to put ink to paper and to sign that anti-chokehold bill.

We need his leadership right now. So, he can tell me that he’s going to defund the police or reappropriate funding, but we have to see that. We have to see him implement that. He has lied over and over to Black and Brown communities in New York City. So we want to see the actual tangible things that he’s going to be doing for us.

AMY GOODMAN: And Mayor de Blasio was long considered a progressive mayor. Your thoughts on this and what has happened since? And also, Governor Cuomo’s attacks on him, and his approach to law enforcement, Linda?

LINDA SARSOUR: If Mayor Bill de Blasio is a progressive, Amy, please don’t ever use that term to describe someone like me. Bill de Blasio is not a progressive. He ran as a progressive, but when he became the mayor, the NYPD started running him. I always wondered who was the actual mayor of New York City. Was it the mayor himself, or was it the NYPD?

And so, for me, what we’re looking for from Mayor Bill de Blasio — he only has a little time left right now, and he could really go out here with a legacy of really transforming the New York City budget, of defunding the police department, of actually listening and implementing the visions of Black and Brown communities. We protest, Amy, all the time in New York City, Black-led organizing, Brown people-led organizing. We know how to keep our communities safe. We are trained in deescalation. We are trained in bystander intervention.

And we have seen the brutality of the New York Police Department not just against innocent, unarmed people in our communities, but also against protesters. And in one of the largest democracies in the world, we watched the largest police force — who, you remember, Mayor Bloomberg said that if they were an army, the NYPD, they would be the seventh-largest army in the world. And they have been brutalizing protesters across New York City. The mayor has not asked NYPD to stand down. And we’re tired of it. And I’m looking forward to seeing the New York City Council also hold the mayor accountable and not doing any handshakes with the budget unless we defund the New York Police Department.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Linda Sarsour, this call to defund the police, that is echoing throughout the country, explain exactly what it means. And would you say that it goes along the lines of what the Minneapolis City Council says they’re going to do within the next year, and that is dismantle the police department? Is it to completely cut off the $6 billion to the New York Police Department or reallocate a lot of money?

LINDA SARSOUR: I just want to make it clear that the movement to end police brutality, the movement for the sanctity of Black life, is being led by Black women and Black people, and they have been calling for the abolition of police, many for decades, and some longer than that. So I just want to make it clear that the long-term goal for many in the movement is the abolition of police, is the abolition of prisons.

But when we say “defund the police today,” we do not mean that tomorrow you’re going to wake up and not find a single police officer around. That is not what defunding the police means right now at this moment. What it really means, Amy — and it’s very rational, and it’s very reasonable — is that we need to take cops out of our schools, cops out of addressing mental health crises, cops out of addressing homelessness, and reallocate those resources to services, to adequate housing, to case management, to economic opportunities in our community, to reinstate programs like the Summer Youth Employment Program, to make sure that we have, for example, protective equipment for healthcare workers, making sure that we have clinics and hospitals and access to healthcare for Black and Brown people, for undocumented people in our communities, better buses and better infrastructure and better transportation.

So what we’re saying is, let the cops do what the cops are supposed to do: keep people safe. They are not social workers. They are not mental health professionals. They are not educators. So they are actually engaging in activity that does not match the qualifications nor the criteria of a police officer. That is not what they are trained to do in the police academy, so why are we sending them to address things that have nothing to do with them?

So, what we’re saying is, in New York City, the police department has one of the largest budgets of any agency, in fact maybe the largest of all agencies in New York City. All we’re saying is, decrease their budget, take that money and reappropriate it into youth, seniors, community development, and with a focus on those who have been the most directly impacted, focused on communities of color, poor working-class people.

And when you have this conversation, Amy, with people who do not understand what defund the police is — I have not had one conversation with a white ally or a neighbor in a place like Bay Ridge, which has a lot of pro-law-enforcement people — people say to me, “You make sense. This is absolutely rational. It is absolutely reasonable.”

So we’re not saying, you know, delete the police officers off the face of the Earth tomorrow. But what we’re saying is, reappropriate the funding, and let’s put it back in the services that our community needs, so we can be healthy, we can be safe, and we can be secure, and we can have communities that thrive and not only survive in New York City.

AMY GOODMAN: In a little bit of time, I want to ask you about a man who died in captivity — right? — in the Metropolitan Detention Center, who was pepper-sprayed, Linda. But I first want to go to Mychal Denzel Smith, fellow at Type Media Center, author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education. His forthcoming book is Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream.

I wanted to ask you about this whole call to defund the police, Mychal, and also Governor Cuomo’s discussion of what he’s calling the “Say Their Name” bill. This is at the New York state level. He says the next wave of reform will be shift funding from NYPD to youth and social services, reform 50-A, transparency — well, that was what the mayor is calling for. But the governor, in their “Say Their Name” bill, is calling for a number of different demands. And I want to get your sense of what exactly that “Say Their Name” bill means, when he says more transparency, the New York attorney general will be in charge of prosecution of police, there should be no chokeholds, and other issues, Mychal.

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Well, those are things that are on the back end of this issue, right? Like, the defund the police demand is an abolitionist demand, one. We have to understand and to recognize it as such. The shifting of funds from the police department — currently, as you stated, the New York City Police Department’s budget nearly $6 billion, almost $2 billion in Los Angeles, constituting almost 18% of their city budget. It’s similar numbers in Chicago and other large cities. Those are funds that could go toward building the type of institutions and infrastructure for the health and safety of people, like Linda was just saying. You can invest that money in things that people actually need.

I mean, the one thing that’s come of this global pandemic of COVID-19 is an understanding of what constitutes essential, what do we actually need. And police have shown that they are inessential. They not there to do what people imagine them to do. They don’t protect, and they don’t serve, unless you are rich and white. And so, in that instance, if you continue to fund the police at the rates that you do, and you are denying other services those funds, what you set up is an untenable situation in which you always need the police, or “need” the police, because a system of inequality requires that violent enforcer when there are uprisings, as we’ve seen the police enact in the suppression of these uprisings in the past couple weeks.

So, the call for defunding the police really is sort of the first thing, right? It is one of the first demands. It goes along with decriminalization. It goes along with the building of new institutions that are actually community-oriented safety measures, and also getting rid of white supremacists, heteropatriarchal capitalism, taking a shot right at the heart of what that means and how that is undergirding every institution in the United States. Defunding the police is one step toward that. And it’s a crucial step because it gets people to understand that they have prioritized the police in ways that are unhealthy for so many of us, that are dangerous, that threaten our lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about Campaign Zero, efforts at reform. They released an 8 Can’t Wait campaign with eight reforms they claim would reduce police killings by almost three-quarters. Abolitionists are responding with an 8 to Abolition platform. Explain all of that.

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Yeah, so, in the midst of this Campaign Zero, which is an organization of sorts that came out of the Ferguson uprisings and has been at the forefront of activists organizing around police violence, they’ve delivered to us stats on policing and police violence and use of force that have been crucial, and they’ve been uncovering things about police union contracts. And those things are really essential.

But their program, the 8 Can’t Wait, the policy reforms that they issued, and came along with this nice graphic, and it was shared on social media, they’re really milquetoast reforms, right? And what they do is sort of change the rules of engagement for police, right? Like, they say, you know, you have to issue a warning before shooting, or you can’t use chokeholds, or you can’t shoot at a moving vehicle, and these sorts of things. And while those things could do something in terms of the reduction of police violence, by Campaign Zero’s own admission on their website, the 72% number, the reduction of police violence by 72%, would only happen if you go from having zero of these reforms to having all eight at one time. Then you would reduce police violence by 72%. But already across the country, a number of police departments have these reforms in place.

What that means, though, is that you’re not getting at what the actual issue is, and that is the broader issue of policing, as a structure, being meant to and always having been, in its historical roots, a measure of suppression, a measure of violent law enforcement, of white supremacy and capitalism.

And so, the 8 to Abolition response, which has been led by Black feminist abolitionists, it’s to say these are actual forms that are also actionable items right now that you can do, that actually strike at the heart of policing. It reduces points of contact with police so that we don’t have — we remove police from schools. We’re decriminalizing so that we have fewer interactions with police. We’re setting up community-led conflict resolution, so that people don’t call the police for these minor conflicts, such as like noise complaints or parking violations and stuff like that, that could be held — that could be handled if we were talking to one another. These are things that are actionable right now and that you can do to divest from the idea of policing, carceral logic that has seeped into all of our thinking, that the police are somehow a necessity in safety, when they have proven over and over that they’re not.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’re going to be speaking with Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, but I wanted to ask you, Linda, about the 35-year-old African American man in Jamel Floyd — another Mr. Floyd — who died after being pepper-sprayed by guards inside the Metropolitan Detention Center. Floyd had been held at the Brooklyn jail since October 2019. His family said he was asthmatic. On Thursday, protesters gathered outside the MDC to demand justice for Floyd. Inside, prisoners knocked on their walls in solidarity. This is Floyd’s father, James Floyd, speaking at the protest.

JAMES FLOYD: They claim he had a heart attack. They lied. They all lie. The truth will come out! The truth will show!

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us, Linda — I mean, you have been marching, from Minneapolis to Louisville, now here in New York. You’ve been involved with this, protesting this case. We just have 30 seconds, but if you can tell us what happened to Jamel Floyd?

LINDA SARSOUR: I have been in touch with the family and working with them. This is a 35-year-old man who was about to be released from prison very soon. MDC is for people who are pretrial or about to be released, so they are not a threat. They are about to go home. He was pepper-sprayed in his cell, where he was not a threat to any other inmate. And so, we are outraged at MDC.

And I want people to remember, as we say, “End police brutality,” as we talk about Black Lives Matter, that also incarcerated Black lives matter. And that means that we fight also the systems of incarceration that also kill our brothers and sisters inside.

So, this case is ongoing. We’re demanding investigations, and we’re demanding the firing of the corrections officers who pepper-sprayed Mr. Floyd. He left behind a wife, a mother, a father, siblings, a 14-year-old daughter, who was actually about to celebrate her 14th birthday with her father upon his release. So it is a very sad case, and it should never have happened. And we need New York City to also focus not only on our brother George Floyd, but also on justice for Jamel Floyd.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Linda Sarsour, co-founder of Until Freedom; Mychal Denzel Smith, author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education.

When we come back, we’ll speak with professor Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing. We’ll be back in 30 seconds.

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The End of Policing: Alex Vitale on How Cops & Their Unions Cover Up Inequality, Exploitation

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