DC's defund effort - one year out

The outburst of rage and turmoil from last year’s wave of protests and uprisings created hope that the American public was finally ready to reckon with mass incarceration and over-policing. In cities across the country, tumult manifested most clearly into efforts to “defund” the police. Though the movement has been mischaracterized as dangerous and antagonistic, the actual demands vocalized by movement agents have always been quite reasonable: reduce police budgets to demilitarize police departments and reallocate spending towards social services and community reinvestment.

Recently, there’s been both local and national reflection on whether the movement's focus has produced results. Over the last year, many localities quietly reversed or watered down cuts and reforms. Meanwhile, cynical politicos and media talking heads have worked to spread rumors about a supposed American crime wave in a not-so-subtle attempt to revive a “law-and-order” response to urban violence.

In DC, the movement has been more resilient, bulwarked by the local Defund MPD Coalition — an alliance of 30+ local civil society, advocacy, political and labor organizations. Well benched and broadly popular across the District, the coalition may act as a good model for how to structure and embark on a successful and sustainable efforts that live up to the demands and aspirations of last year’s unrest.

In 2021, the DC Council voted on a budget that reduced the Metropolitan Police Department’s budget for 2022 by nearly 7% ($43.4 million), bringing that cost down to $516.8 million. The biggest chunk of these cuts came through redirection of a $23 million security contract away from MPD; the funding was turned over directly to DC Public Schools (which enabled them to hire a range of unarmed resource officers and other support services for students). The remaining $20 million were mostly cuts to MPD’s administrative and support programming. Although the budget for sworn officers increased, MPD is already struggling to fill their current ranks, so it’s questionable if these additional slots will really be filled.

The District also made notable investments into a range of non-violence intervention and community support programming. The budget for the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement — which oversees public safety initiatives such as a victim support fund and restorative justice programing — was tripled to $28.7 million. The budget for DC’s new violence interruption program Cure the Streets was increased by $4.1 million. The budget for Building Blocks DC, which runs many of the District’s gun violence prevention programs, was increased by nearly $59 million.

These programs were not financed through decreases in funding to MPD but through the heavy influx of federal funding provided to the city by the American Rescue Plan, which passed in 2021. Though this isn't the exact deal activists have demanded, it’s promising to see officials in DC follow up on the findings produced by the Council's own review of policing and public safety, which was released in April 2021 just as budget negotiations were kicking off in the city. The report echoed many of the ancillary demands activists had been calling for — most notably in calling for a reduction in the number of sworn MPD officers by at least the rate of attrition over five years.

If these budgetary wins seem limited, political events over the last year suggest that the broader philosophy powering the movement is shared by a majority of the public:

  • In 2020, DC overwhelmingly voted to decriminalize mushrooms, and the Council has begun the process of formally legalizing the sale and use of marijuana (following up on news of the Harris Rider’s repeal in the federal government’s appropriations bill).
  • The Council voted earlier this year to raise taxes on high-income residents to expand vouchers for homeless residents, raise wages to early childhood educators and begin production of a monthly basic income starting in 2023.
  • A proposal is being advanced in the Council to provide Metro stipends to all residents — a move away from criminalizing fare evasion.
  • Activists successfully fought an expansion of police on the Metro through a month's long protest and public outreach campaign.
  • Candidates running for public office — including popular at-large Councilmember Robert White, who is running a credible challenge against incumbent Muriel Bowser on a grassroots-centric platform— have adopted a public safety-based approach to recognizing and dealing with rising violence in the District.
  • Proposals of the newly launched Decriminalize Poverty campaign — which includes a diverse range of local political and social organizations — have assembled broad support among both the civil society organizations and the broader public, demonstrating that local sentiment is moving away from a criminalization-based approach to solving drug abuse, addiction, homelessness and mental illness.

These developments are good evidence of the Defund MPD Coalition’s year-long campaign to reshape local conversations around policing and public safety.

From the start, the coalition has focused on building a broad, city-wide and grassroots political network focused on applying pressure to elected officials and nurturing social change among the broader public. Over the last year, the Coalition initiated a wide range of activity designed to build trust and support for the Coalition’s platform:

  • Representatives have spoken at hyper-local Advisory Neighborhood Committee meetings and community forums across the city to inform, educate, and answer questions with residents and local officials.
  • Member organizations, including, of course, the DSA, coordinated legislative outreach with elected officials to negotiate and affirm popular support for the Coalition’s roadmap.
  • Written and live testimony was prepared to create official public records of resident demands for changes to policing.
  • Representatives set up tables at local festivals and markets to share information and build outreach to wider publics.
  • And — maybe most impressively — the Coalition developed a canvassing operation designed to engage in direct and intimate discussions about policing and public safety with District residents. Though the operations are on pause for the winter, these activities are set to restart in 2022 in preparation for budget season.

It’s difficult to assess the clear influence these efforts have had in changing and influencing public policy and popular opinion. But without these efforts, one suspects that DC would likely have succumbed to the same conservative pressures that stymied police reform and defund efforts in cities across the country. However limited small political and policy victories may seem, they are subtle signs of a successful strategy.

Revolutions — in both politics and culture — take years to nurture and negotiate. To the extent that ending systems of force and violence is possible in our flawed democracy, the dedication and commitment of average people will be the essential ingredients for change.

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