Abolitionist Mariame Kaba famously stated, “Let this radicalize you rather than lead you to despair.” Following her words, I can only comprehend what we have endured in 2020 as a calling to radicalize, to rethink ineffective public safety policy and to revitalize our communities by defunding the police.
2020 was a year that felt like a decade, a time of deep stress and distress, challenges beyond measure, and enormous personal tragedy. I saw my home, New York City, fall into a series of crises, I lost friends and relatives to the pandemic, and I, along with millions of Americans, watched black men murdered on video.
Beginning in June, after months of lockdown, I was in the streets fighting for Black lives and for the end of the carceral state. I organized with the Free Black Radicals and members of VOCAL-NY at the Occupy City Hall encampment to defund the NYPD. Months later, and only days after a white supremacist insurrection in the capitol, the NYPD brutalized peaceful protestors on MLK Day in that exact same location.
But when I feel despair, as I did during almost the entirety of 2020 and already many times since the start of 2021, I know it is time to turn to action. Whenever asked why I’m running for City Council, I speak about my experiences fighting against over-policing and the carceral state. I tell voters that I’m running to defund, and to abolish, the NYPD. Having the experiences of an organizer on the streets and as an analyst in the NYC Office of Management and Budget and City Council Finance means that I know it is possible to do these things and to radically re-envision public safety.
So how do we do it? Defunding the NYPD requires being bold and standing up in the budget process and also, critically, to articulate a vision of community safety that is not carceral. We have to do both, and the latter is harder than most people think. We are so used to treating the police and policing as the solutions that they most clearly are not. Even conversations with progressives and leftists, it’s hard to shake the language and framework around incarceration. But I know we can do it if we are intentional and clear about how we want to do this work.
First, there is a lot we can cut in the next budget. It’s pretty easy to make reasonable cuts and hit $2 billion. There is no reason we couldn’t hit at least $1 billion last year. It’s a shame the outgoing council didn’t. Communities United for Police Reform put out a well-researched report last summer showing just how easy it is to slash NYPD’s budget by over $1 billion. This includes over $200 million in a hiring freeze and cutting the cadet class, $100 million in removing NYPD from schools and social service-related roles, almost $300 million in for police misconduct settlements/judgments and not firing abusive officers, at least $219 million by reducing the NYPD uniform headcount to FY2014 level, and almost $400 million in cutting bloat like surveillance technology and overtime. Not to mention that if you include all the fringe benefits associated with these positions, it adds up considerably. Critically, it doesn’t mean we abandon workers like school safety officers or traffic officers, who are often BIPOC folks. We can and will engage in a just transition as we decarcerate jobs that should never have fallen under NYPD’s purview. Police do not keep people safe, but community services and economic stability does.
Creating an Alternative
The other part of this work is creating the vision for the alternative. Many people I talk to cite victims of violence as a rationale for the brutal incarceration of those who engage in forms of violence. But deterrence is just punishment, our basest instinct, and it doesn’t work. Incarcerating people—destroying people’s lives—results in only devastated communities, not safe communities.
No single person can design a perfect system to eliminate violence in all aspects of life in New York tomorrow. But many have done this work for years and we must empower them to begin to build this alternative. In December 2020, Brownsville engaged in a pilot program where the community removed beat cops and instead had community members present in the streets, including non-profits and city agencies setting up booths to offer city resources for folks. There wasn’t a single 911 call during that stretch of time. This pilot was just that: a pilot; it was a bubble within the world of a carceral state, with the normal over-policed stretch of the city a few blocks away. But it was a start, and seemingly a success, and we need to engage and fund programs like these and see to it that they are successful.
If we are not laser-focused on Defund and making it the goal of the next class of councilmembers and the next budget, we will not get there. We absolutely can to build on the work that was already done to get to this vision. I have often remarked that if 2020 didn’t radicalize you, then you cannot be radicalized. It is for my fellow radicals that I run for City Council in District 39 and why I run to defund the police.
Brandon West is running for City Council in District 39 which encompasses Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and parts of Sunset Park. He is a member of the 6-candidate DSA for the City slate.