In this episode, we look at participatory budgeting: a way of democratizing government spending so that investments reflect community priorities. We learn from Shari of the emancipatory power of a democratic funding process. We talk with Angelica from the Seattle coalition who fought with groups like Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now to use participatory budgeting processes to figure out what communities actually need: what programs will help them feel safe? What programs will meet their needs? For Angelica and Seattle, participatory budgeting meant defunding the Seattle Police Department to scale up the city’s investment in its people and non-police safety programs. And finally, PG tells us all about how participatory budget processes are happening right now, right here, in Detroit.
CASEY: A recurring lesson of this show…and our work in general…is the idea that Freedom dreaming is so profoundly important. But along with that dreaming, we need planning. We need time. Sometimes it’s wonky. Sometimes it’s slow-going.
AMANDA: We need the space to dream and imagine…and then we need to craft strategies to bring about the change that our communities need. It takes dreaming and then working hard with each other to make those dreams real.
CASEY: I’m Casey Rocheteau, communications manager at the Detroit Justice Center.
AMANDA: And I’m Amanda Alexander, the executive director of DJC. Today on Freedom Dreams. Wait, before I tell you just know that though it might not sound sexy it is! Participatory budgeting. A city or town or organizations’ budget is a moral document. It reflects our values. What we value, who we value…it’s all reflected in our budgets.
CASEY: And from where we sit, it seems that if defunding the police is gonna work, it has to start with a people’s budget. The reason for that is overall the whole fight to defund the police is really about re-prioritizing how we spend our tax dollars in any given jurisdiction. Our priority can’t be people who are causing more harm than good. We need to actually get at the root causes. A way to do that is to dig into the budget.
AMANDA: Today we’re gonna get micro. We’re gonna get macro. We’re gonna go to Seattle to hear about that city’s evolution towards a people’s budget.
AMANDA: Participatory budgeting was first developed in Brazil in the 1980s by the Brazilian Workers’ Party. It was an experiment in more radical, participatory democracy. It’s a process where people decide how to spend part of a public budget. It’s deeply democratic in that people can vote in this process regardless of their age, or immigration status, or criminal record, for instance. In order to participate, all you need to be is a resident of that community. It’s now used in over 7,000 cities across the world.
CASEY: In practice, it usually involves five steps: first, you come together and design a process for engaging the community, the community then brainstorms ideas, from there you develop these ideas into proposals that could be funded. Then you’ll vote! Once the vote happens, you’ll find the winning project.
SHARI: To speak a little bit about how we know each other…it’s through this work we’re doing on the Participatory Budgeting Project.
CASEY: This is Shari Davis, Co-Executive Director of the Participatory Budgeting Project.
SHARI: My introduction to PB was when the mayor that I was working for. And yes, I worked in government for 15 years and I oversaw youth initiatives in a major city: the city of Boston, Massachusetts. And in that role, the mayor asked me to come down to his office and I started with a summer job. So we had known each other for a very long time. And he had asked me to run a participatory budgeting process where young people directly decided how a portion of city government funds would be spent. And I said, yes, sir, that sounds great. I marched right to my desk and Googled what participatory budgeting was. And what I found out was that it was a democratic process in which community members directly decided how government dollars were spent. And I was like, wow, that makes so much sense. And then what I learned was that The Participatory Budgeting Project helped agencies, government, community do that and center equity while they did it. So, I reached out. We started to build a relationship. They taught us in Boston how to do participatory budgeting. And it was the first instance in the country where it was young people that decided a portion of government funds… a million dollars of government funds! And it was 12-25 year olds that wrote the rules for the process, ran the process, voted on what was going to happen and then saw those things implemented and they still run it now. I don’t work in the city of Boston anymore because I fell in love with the transformative power of participatory budgeting. My goal from the beginning was how do I get, this was the question that I had as a 16 year old. How do I get the same feeling, when I walk into my neighborhood grocery store—and I had a good neighborhood grocery store—how do I get the same feeling of welcome here, when I walk into city hall? How do I have an experience where my community is present is in, is in power, is flourishing, is showing up for each other in a government building. And what I found in the 15 years that I worked there was I saw a little bit of things happening, but when we started doing participatory budgeting and folks had the opportunity to understand the budget, understand their role in shaping change, understand that, wow, not only is this a moral document, but it needs to live and breathe with us, and I have an opportunity to do that. That’s when I started seeing the butts in the seats change in government. That’s when I started seeing that grocery store feeling grow. And that’s when I said, I need to be a part of this. That’s what I fell in love with. And that’s now why I lead The Participatory Budgeting Project with an amazing team of people that are so committed to this work.
AMANDA: So in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd last summer and the killings of Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade and so many others, people took to the streets across the country and the demand across so many cities was defund the police. And we know this is not a new demand. Movements for a very long time have been talking about divest, invest, community reinvestment but it rang out with more force than it ever had before, last summer. And while so many pundits and people were obsessed with trying to decide, you know, “Is this the right slogan? Is this what organizers should be saying? Is it counterproductive? Is it hurting democrats in the elections?” Meanwhile organizers were busy doing the work of organizing, they were supporting families who were impacted by police violence, they were looking at city budgets figuring out how much is being spent on the police and asking communities what we could spend money on instead. Those demands have been incredibly successful! In the first ten months of organizing, organizers in more than 20 cities won over 840 million dollars in direct cuts from US police departments. And they won investments of at least 160 million dollars in community services. Over 25 cities cancelled contracts with local police departments operating in schools, saving an additional 35 million dollars. Organizers also won bans on military grade equipment in six cities and on the use of facial recognition software in four cities. It’s been an incredibly powerful year of organizing and yet at the same time, we need to be clear that this is a very small percentage of the amount of money that we spend on police in the US. We are gonna dig deep today into one of the most successful campaigns out there and that is the work in Seattle. And so today we are talking with Angelica Chazaro with Decriminalize Seattle. And OMG, she is brilliant.
CASEY: For a lot of organizers who are abolitionists, last summer we saw this huge uptick in people calling for abolition and defunding police. And I’m curious: what did you notice about that shift in Seattle specifically? And what do you think it might mean going forward for this work?
ANGELICA: Yeah sure, so last summer, we had a moment where there were so many people hitting the streets but there weren’t yet demands out about what it is people wanted to see, right? And so we saw the demands coming out in the movement for black lives particularly around defund and so a group of us came together and crafted the three demands that we ended up pushing out to the city, and they were widely embraced. These were: defund the Seattle police department by 50%, reinvest in black and brown communities, and free all protesters because of course there was massive suppression of protesters happening at the time. What I noticed was different from other times was actually the speed by which those demands were taken up.
Protester: “Who keeps us safe?”
Protesters respond: “We keep us safe!”
Journalist: Demands to defund Seattle police moved to the lobby of city hall last night when council member Kshama Sawant let activists in.
Activist: Our first time in this building and we’re making history, guys!
Journalist: Today, people in this crowd were among those who called in to the first city council meeting scrutinizing SPD’s budget.
ANGELICA: Other fights we’ve had here, like the fight to stop the building of a new youth jail…it took us literally years with some groups and organizations and individuals to get them to sign on to the idea that we didn’t need a new jail. So literally like years of meetings and being told “no” over and over again. But with last summer, what we saw was that within hours of our demands going live we had literally hundreds of organizations signing off on those and tens of thousands of individuals. So I think that people were ready you know to imagine something radically different and part of it was being primed by years of abolitionist fighting that had already happened and part of it was the extreme pressure on the streets and sort of that space for imagining something new that had opened up.
AMANDA: And where did things go from there in terms of actually shifting allocations or positions?
ANGELICA: We said, “Move this funding to communities primarily through participatory budgeting” because part of the way that we have gotten into this problem of police budgets endlessly growing is the fact that you all are deciding in ways that are not accountable to community every year and your decision is always “Grow the budget.” And we think that if we called this question in community, what we would see is budget going to things that would make policing obsolete altogether. Third, we said, “We want black community in particular to lead this participatory budgeting process” and in order to do that we need to have a research process where we’re asking people in the next few months what it is that would help them be safe, what it is that would help them thrive. And so we need an immediate investment of 3 million dollars in the black led participatory research process. We also said, “We know that harm happens in the community, we know that people’s basic needs need to be met and that will go a really long way towards reducing the need for SPD, but we also need non-police responses to harm and so we want to see you scaling up your investments in the community organizations and groups and the groups that could exist if they were funded at the level of that the police is funded, that are responding to harm.” And then finally, we said, “We know that when people’s basic needs are met, the need for police goes down, and so we need to see more funding in housing immediately.” So that was a summer fight, right? And so out of that we got a 13 million dollar investment in immediately scaling up non-police responses to harm, which of course meant that the money went out literally last week. So it took a year. We got the money for the 3 million dollar research process and that did begin immediately and wrapped up at the end of February and we got some initial defunding. We saw SPD’s budget go down for the rest of the year and council said things like, “We don’t want to see the horse cops funded, anymore,” because who needs, you know, cops on horseback? We don’t want to see so much money going into training because we’ve made the case that you know endless trainings on bias are really not going to get us to the world we want. So council went for it! And they did some small initial cuts and THEN the mayor vetoed that entire budget because of those cuts and those investments in community. So we spent all of August fighting to override the veto because council was starting to waver, particularly because they got a lot of national pushback because we had a black chief of police who, as part of the cut, her salary was cut down. All of the management in SPD saw some cuts to their salary in that summer funding and in part that’s because almost all of SPD’s money is in salaries and the salaries of the non-union members, which include management, could be cut and so council took some cuts there. The chief of police quit and said “The defund police movement is forcing me to leave,” and council did not know what to do with a black chief of police leaving and the backlash that ensued. And so we fought to override the veto and up until literally the last vote was taken, I didn’t know if we had it but we were able to override that veto. So that was wonderful except we had literally one week before the Fall budget process started for the next year’s budget.
AMANDA: Incredible. Yeah. So, in terms of that 3 million dollar allocation for participatory research, can you talk about what that looked like and what were some of the things people were saying were the types of investments they wanted in their communities?
ANGELICA: Yeah, of course. So this was a partnership. The blueprint was co-written by two coalitions: Decriminalize Seattle, which I am a part of, and King County Equity Now, which was coalitioned, as well. And so King County Equity Now, two of the folks who were organizing with them at that point took the lead on that and created something called the Black Brilliance research project. They hired over 100 community members from orgs, people who had never considered themselves researchers to begin with, many of them formerly incarcerated to answer questions about what is it that will help you thrive? And the answers were not surprising but were great to see. People talked about not just the lack of mental health care but the lack of mental health care that spoke to them and their community. People talked about the barriers to housing that people faced. People talked about the need for youth programming, particularly in the height of COVID when there was nothing happening for youth in the summertime. Very few people talked about “You know, we just need to see more community policing,” or “We just need to see more cops of color in policing,” you know, it just wouldn’t come up. So it was an amazing process that ended up with a 1000 page report that went to council and that also spelled out the ways that people wanted to see participatory budgeting happen, right? Because the point of this was to say, “When the city invests much of the 2021 budget, which was our demand, in participatory budgeting, this research should set the priorities.” So that even though Seattle is a majority white city, we will see black folks priorities reflected in the kinds of projects that are even eligible to be funded in this process.
AMANDA: Awesome. And so the participatory budgeting process, that’s being rolled out? Or where does that stand?
ANGELICA: Right, so, one of the many lessons learned this year is the possibilities of working with council but also their limits because if you have a mayor, as we do right now, who will be leaving office at the end of this year, who does not support the community coalition for defunding the police and re-investing those funds in black and brown communities, they can put a lot of stop to it and really slow things down. And so you know I mentioned before that we got that 13 million dollar investment in scaling up community-based alternatives…there’s a reason it took us one year to finally get that money out and it was because the mayor dragged her feet at every moment. So not only would we win these things, and we would have to run campaigns to like free the funds from the city agencies that were holding them, and pushing back on the mayor. And not only that, we would have to get involved in making sure that the request for proposals that went out did not say “We’re funding co-responses with the police. Come work with the police!” No no no, that’s not what the blueprint said! And so similarly for participatory budgeting, the mayor decided to form a competing task force and she said you know “I’m inviting 15-20 people to sit on this task force and I’m announcing that I’m going to be giving money to BIPOC communities.” First she said black communities and within a week it was BIPOC communities so already like less money for black folks directly and basically, “We don’t need PB because we have a task force.” And then we spend a lot of time organizing community members to NOT sit on that task force because we knew it was a way for the mayor to pull control over this process. And we were particularly opposed to this process because the mayor refused to see those investments as at all connected to divesting from police. She said “We can have investments over here. And over here, I’ll think about re-imagining policing but those two shall never meet.” Whereas we were saying “No, we want money going directly from SPD into community hands and we don’t want you to have anything to do with it or people who feel beholden to you because of the invites you made.” So yes, we pushed for a year and finally participatory budgeting is sitting with the city agency, the office of civil rights, who is running the PB process. But it has taken a full year and we still are working on rolling that out. So moving into this Fall budget, our demand is basically to double that pot of PB because when it finally gets off the ground we want this struggle to put so many funds in it to have been worth it. That really shows the need for not only getting the wins but tracking implementation doggedly because the city specializes in sort of like advancement by press release so the announcement of the task force IS the thing, you know, there will never be any follow up. That’s it, that was your victory. When we were pushing back on the task force we looked back at the years of task forces that this mayor and all the previous mayors had done and what change came from them and there was so little! Literally, the press conference announcing the task force was the end of it in terms of getting some change. So it just seems like such a disorganizing tactic that we constantly see as a solution to our radical demands.
CASEY: That feels familiar to me. I was curious about…I was reading about how at a certain point last year, 911 calls got cut in half because essentially police stopped calling in suspicious activities and during that period of time, there was also this delayed response time to 911 calls. Can you talk about what you either know or suspect happened during that time and sort of like the ways police have played a role in stalling some of this change?
ANGELICA: Sure, yes, so I think especially moving into the Fall budget cycle, which we haven’t talked about but that was a whole different fight, we saw a lot of police being deployed to the protests because there were still protests. There were the Capital Hill and occupying protests, Capital Hill autonomous zone, happening and so there was a huge amount of police resources being deployed on protests. That combined with, and we were hearing this directly from community members who were saying “I want to support you but I own this business in the International District or Chinatown and I called the police the other day and they said ‘Oh, we can’t help you because we’ve been defunded.’” The vote hadn’t even been taken yet! And that is the message we continue to hear today is the police are responding to any requests for community help, “Well, we wish we could show up, but we’ve been defunded so we can’t.” To me, it seemed like a labor slowdown: workers who have decided they will slow down as a form of protest to what they see as an impending slash in their ability to keep raking in millions every year from the city budget. At the same time, our priority was to see less contact between the police and the community, so in some ways this was a success! Right? Like if the cops had come back and said “We’re only able to focus on Priority 1 and Priority 2 calls,” …Priority 3 gets into stuff like “somebody threw a snowball at me!” that’s literally one of the examples. So we were like great, that’s actually a success! You’re crying about that and saying you need more funding, we’re saying that’s a success because you’re actually focusing on what you should have been focusing on this whole time, which is like the most dire situations where at this point we might possibly want an armed response but I think even that is questionable, right? So, we’ve been trying to flip it by saying “no no no, this is moving in the right direction!” We’re seeing cops leave the force at unprecedented rates and retiring, which is the best way to shrink the force without getting into many of the labor fights. And we’re seeing cops actually focusing on Priority 1 and 2 calls, when we know even those they don’t do well and Priority 3 and 4 should have never been on their list to begin with.
CASEY: We will be back after a quick break.
OLUBUNMI FADASE PARKS: Hello! I’m Bunmi and I’m the director of HR and Operations at The Detroit Justice Center. People might have certain ideas about what it means to run operations for a nonprofit organization. But a huge part of my job is to ensure that our work behind the scenes is just as innovative and responsive to our team’s needs as our public facing work. Over the last year and a half, we began working from home, which meant ensuring our staff had adequate resources in terms of equipment and capacity. We moved to a four day work week, implemented recharge weeks, implemented expansive policies around COVID, and did all that we could to ensure our staff members felt cared for during these unprecedented times. One way to join me in supporting our staff is to donate to DJC to sustain our work. Learn more at DetroitJustice.org/donate
CASEY: What are some of the orgs or institutions that are sort of replacing or looking to replace the police?
ANGELICA: Right, I think I split them in to two categories. One is like the fight for meeting people’s basic needs. One of the things we saw during this time was a lot of people moving from congregate shelter to non-congregate shelter. When we saw populations of houseless folks living in non-congregate shelter the calls to 911 went down tremendously. Right? Because when people have some place to store their stuff, they don’t have to move every day, a bathroom that’s their own, you just see less of the kinds of situations that lead people to call 911. So that’s one, and there’s a lot of orgs in the city that have been pushing really hard for an increase in progressive revenue and actually had a big win last year that finally taxed the payroll of some of our companies in town, including Amazon. You know, one thing that I always think about is Amazon in one day makes 8 billion dollars and the entire fund for the city of Seattle for the year is 6 billion dollars. Sometimes, I’m like are we even fighting the right fight? Here we are fighting over maybe tens or hundreds of millions from police where we could be and should be expanding the sort of progressive revenue that’s coming in to meet people’s basic needs that would transform any need for policing at all. So that’s one, right? There’s a strong coalition of folks who have been pushing and winning progressive revenue to meet people’s basic needs, particularly during COVID. That was one win. On the other side we see the orgs who have been doing that sort of work of like violence interruption. We have orgs like API CHAYA here who have been doing the work of developing transformative justice models for domestic violence. We have orgs like CHOOSE 180 that have been doing diversion work, creative justice with young people to keep them out of the criminal punishment system. And then we have all these small orgs! the 13 million dollars we want to go out to community orgs, over 70 different community organizations applied for those funds and the folks at the city told us “We don’t usually get that kind of response,” which to me, showed me there’s actually a lot of folks who are ready to do this work if they had support. And of course it’s complicated to then become a city grantee and what does that mean for all of these small orgs that have been all volunteer you know until this moment and a lot of pitfalls there. But there are groups like Sacred Community Connections , there are a lot of small and in many cases black led orgs that have been trying to move into this space and for the first time are getting funding and recognition for that work.
AMANDA: I just want to kind of close in on the budget fight because there was the Fall cycle…
ANGELICA: That loop never closes! If only.
AMANDA: In terms of, what was actually, the commitment was to shed 100 officers and it actually ended up being closer to 200, can you break that down?
ANGELICA: Sure, yes, so in the Fall, you know, so we’ve wrapped up our fight, overturned the veto, and a week later the Fall process begins. In that process we have vastly expanded our coalition, you know a lot of the orgs who had signed on to the call to defund SPD by 50%, some of those orgs were involved in that progressive revenue fight I had spoken about. And so we formed a coalition called Solidarity Budget to say “Our calls for defund SPD and for a Green New Deal for Seattle and for Housing for All and for Free Transit, all of these are overlapping. Our calls for indigenous sovereignty, all of these things are connected. So we are not going to let you play us against each other as you usually do, city council and mayor, to fight for these budget dollars. We know the money should come from SPD’s budget and we’d like you to fund this whole group of things. That coalition came together and we fought together. So every time someone had a meeting with council say to lobby for the Green New Deal, they would also be saying “By the way, we also support Defund SPD, that’s where the money for these new positions should come from,” right? So we had each other’s backs through the Fall process. And we ended up…so SPD’s 2020 budget was 409 million, and their 2021 budget was 362 million. That doesn’t fully capture the cuts because we have 35 million dollars in cuts so that included 35 layoffs that were planned…that hasn’t happened yet, we’re working on that…defunding all the vacant positions, cuts to overtime, cuts to training. And then, separately, 40 million dollars in transfers, and that involved moving SPD functions out of the department, which was part of our blueprint, right? Part of our demand was civilianize 911 dispatch because we knew as long as dispatch stayed in SPD, the response would likely be very police-focused right? And so 911 dispatch got fully moved out of SPD, parking enforcement got moved out of SPD which was another demand we had, domestic violence advocates got moved out of SPD so all of the administration that goes along with them. So all of that was 40 million in transfers, and we counted that as part of the defund because it’s no longer part of SPD’s budget. And then we also eliminated position authority which is something that I wouldn’t know about if not for Andrea Ritchie and thank goodness for her, because she was saying it’s not enough to cut the money, you also have to cut the position authority so that if we get the backlash that we are all expecting and already getting they don’t immediately just refund those positions. So, we cut position authority. In 2020 it was 1497 officers, in 2021 it 1357, right? So that was 150 positions that they can no longer hire for, that they have to go back and make the case for. Those positions you know have really shrunk the force but even then, that means that for this year they’re fully funded for 1300 officers, but the force is so much smaller than that because so many people have been leaving and the fight we lost was we said “We don’t want you to have any funding in this budget for filling those positions back up to the 1300 number because no new cops ever again.” And that’s not a fight we’ve won yet because council is still, at least some people on council are still, saying “No, because these new cops we’re hiring, they speak many languages, they’re people of color, they’re women, isn’t that better than these old white cops that are retiring?” And so that’s still a cultural battle under the political battle we’re fighting. But they can’t go over the 1300 and they won’t be able to because more cops are leaving than are being hired.
CASEY: Oh, oh noooooo.
ANGELICA: Well, when we got 30 million dollars towards participatory budgeting so that’s the money that will be given out.
AMANDA: So I’m curious about any lessons learned in terms of moving a coalition in this way?
ANGELICA: Yeah, I think part of it is starting the conversations as early as possible because I think people are very used to coming together and thinking about what are the demands for their particular sector for next year’s budget but not necessarily in conversation with each other. And maybe you’ll see a Human Services coalition or an Environmental Justice coalition but actually bringing those people together to talk to each other? And this is what last summer sort of did. I think all of these organizations that were wanting to put out these supportive statements about Black Lives Matter, we were like “Great! Those statements are nice. But, would you sign on to these demands to defund SPD by 50%?” So I think in part calling the questions and saying “Can we get you to see this fight as your fight? And here’s a reason for why we think it is your fight.” And so part of it is that, part of it, I mean, there are folks who are not part of our coalition right? And so being okay with that, like there are folks in Seattle who are still very invested in the idea that we could have community control of police and we could have some sort of perfect accountability mechanism that is better than the one we have invested 100 million dollars in for the past ten years and hasn’t worked to stop the police from being murderous and racist. Right? So, I think being willing to ask and meet with everyone but also knowing it’s okay if you can’t capture everyone. And being willing to go back and just ask again. So the folks who said no last year? We’re not giving up on them, we’re going to go back and say “Here’s where we are this year, what about now? Do you think you could join now?” And those are lessons we learned from previous fights like stopping to stop a youth jail. Don’t give up on people’s capacity to change their mind. People can and will change their points of view and that’s alright and also, right now we’re fight against the Consent Decree, which we’re still under, the Department of Justice consent decree is now being used as an obstacle to defund the police. The court, mayor, and city council are saying “we can’t take money away from the police because then how would we have money to train them to not be racist and kill people?” And we’re saying no, that’s completely backwards. Everything the police does could be done better in community. And so we’re trying to build a coalition of people and say the Consent Decree should not be used as a barrier to defund SPD. We’re having those hard conversations and a lot of the folks we’re talking to are going to be part of that coalition but they still believe the consent decree is a great idea, they just don’t think it be used to bar defunding. And some of the folks are like the Consent Decree is a terrible idea and have always felt that way and some folks are like I thought it was a good idea but now I think it’s a bad idea. You know, we have to find the language, which is “Consent decree should not be a barrier,” which will bring as many people under the umbrella as possible and know we’re going to have principle disagreements about the actual utility of the decree but that’s not what we’re fighting for. We’re fighting for don’t use it as a barrier. So some of it is, what is the language you can use to bring people together and still allow for principle disagreement and still have it be a non-conformist reform, right? Still have it be something that’s pointing us towards abolition. We could have decided to just cut out anyone who isn’t ready to give up on the consent decree and we haven’t! Because we still think we can bring folks to our side and they still think we can be brought to their side. But ultimately we all believe in defunding so I think that’s another lesson.
CASEY: I am sort of curious about…I guess it goes along those lines, right? I’m thinking about people who are gonna be outside of this coalition but maybe some of the people who are like storeowners who called the police and the police said “Well, we can’t help you because we’ve been defunded.” What do you say to those people to sort of convince them that this is the good fight? Do you try to win hearts and minds in that way? And I’m also thinking for people in other cities, the question we always come up against is “If we defund, is anarchy going to rule? Are we going to just have crime rampant in the streets?” So like what would you say to those people in other cities, talking about Seattle as an example, also.
ANGELICA: I think particularly, and we see this a lot with our downtown businesses, it’s a discussion. And last summer there was no one I said no to in terms of training. We were training the Seattle Seahawks, we were training all the owners of the stadiums, we were doing training for the Downtown Seattle Association, which is our chamber of commerce. I would meet with anyone to try and have this conversation. And I think a way into this conversation is like “How is policing working for you now? Do you feel safe? Do you feel taken care of? Do you think the police can actually prevent the things that are difficult for you in your business model right now?” And eventually once we get to that conversation, the answer is NO. So starting to talk to folks about what it would mean for you to have safety? What does safety mean for you? What would it mean if instead of having transit cops on all our buses we had a young person who is a concierge? Every bus had their own concierge and had a playlist and greeted people? What are the kinds of solutions we can imagine for creating community, creating safety that might look different from what’s happening right now? I think particularly in Seattle, because of the huge number of folks who are homeless, you know, we talked with folks about how if people were housed and had their basic needs met, many of the problems that you see as like outside your business would simply not be happening so how can we work together towards that? Because you’ve seen the investment double, SPD’s budget just grows by leaps and bounds every year, and that’s not working. We can at least be on the same page that what’s happening right now is not working and it’s time to invest in something different because doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is not going to get us to the world we want. But it’s really an uphill battle because what they’re doing which is just adding more things to the budget and throwing some new things in, like adding more training to reduce bias, is different. Like making police obsolete means that we have to end homelessness. We probably have to make transit free. We probably need to extend the eviction moratorium like permanently. We need more progressive revenue to do all of these things. We need to build out non-police ways of responding to harm. We need mental health responses that we do build not to replicate state violence, right? Like it’s so many different things that are required if you actually want to make police obsolete in the city. And the other side is just like more of the same, more guns, you know, more and more cages, more jails. And so I think that’s part of the problem is that you kind of have to get folks on board with this vision of, of full on transformation, not just, you know, let’s replace a cop with a civilian cop, you know, who’s friendly, but can still like, have you committed to a mental institution? Like, that’s not what we want to see.
AMANDA: Along those lines, so the last question that I have is, I’m wondering what you think of the power of Defund the Police as a demand. I think so often there’s been this national debate of the semantics of it, you know, is it right, is it wrong, and meanwhile folks like you in Seattle have just been organizing to get it done and not worrying about is this the right phrase. So I’m curious, as someone who’s been in the trenches this whole time, not necessarily caught up in arguments about semantics, what do you think is the power of the Defund the Police demand?
ANGELICA: I think a lot of it is it pushes back on this idea that like police budgets are inevitable, right? They’re just gonna be part of our landscape forever and they’re just gonna keep growing. And to me the power of abolition and abolitionists demands like Defund the Police are that questioning that there’s something natural about police budgets being huge. And I think a lot of pushback we hear is because people are like “Oh no no no, I thought that was common sense. More police=more safety, right?” It’s that interruption of the common sense that we’ve received and that some people are pushing back on and just flat out rejecting. And for the folks for whom it has been common sense but are now forced to question what they believed, you need to hear defund and not something softer because the softer thing might not actually lead to that rethinking that’s gonna push you into the action and like be the thing that tips you into calling for council for the first time and for testifying because you have this new idea and you believe in the possibilities that it paints.
CASEY: That was Angelica Chazaro with Decriminalize Seattle. We’ve linked to their campaign in our show notes. And so we wanted to connect Angelica and the fight in Seattle with another situation here in Detroit where a group of local advocates have engaged in a participatory budgeting project. Have created a coalition for people’s budget. But I think probably about 95% of listeners are gonna be in cities where the fight to defund or create a participatory budget is not as far along as Seattle is. We just wanna say if you are an organizer, don’t worry! Not everybody is where Seattle is right now. We wanted to give you a little insight into what’s been happening in Detroit with another genius organizer and comrade of ours, PG Watkins,
PG: I use they them pronouns. I’m an organizer, facilitator and trainer from Detroit, Michigan, I started organizing and have been organizing for the past several years around police and prison abolition and have kind of moved on to continuing to organize around black liberation, queer liberation, and also did some work last year organizing a coalition for the budget for the city.
AMANDA: And then how did the campaign unfold or what happened over the course of the summer and into the fall?
PG: Yeah, so we did a lot of preliminary research on the budgeting process. We talked to city council members about the process, like what, actually trying to understand the points of intervention, right? Like where actually can we intervene on this process? Where are the things kind of already in motion? So yeah, learning that we did a lot of research. We did several like community outreach moments, you know, different town halls, both virtual and kind of some street team stuff. Our partners like BYP 100, like Detroit action, like Detroit people’s platform did a lot of communication and like research and outreach with their members and just trying to understand like what demands resonate and what actually makes sense for us to be asking for. And then it got time to actually start mobilizing folks because it was like, okay, okay, they’re starting all this stuff. I can’t remember when I think in like December maybe is the earliest time where things start brewing around the budget. And so we were doing a lot of work trying to lead up to like mobilizing folks to be present in February and March for like the community dates and things like that, that we learned, and I think something that I just am learning in general about the lifecycle of a campaign or a coalition, is that we have to really be careful about how we’re expending energy, how are we sustaining energy? How are we able to be present with the same momentum and hype for the long haul? Um, and so, you know, we were organizing this campaign in the midst of an uprising. We were organizing this campaign with folks who were actively responding to the pandemic. Right. And we were organizing this campaign in a year of so much loss and grief. And just why, like, you know, there’s just a lot of like, why, why am I here? What is life here? You know? And so, yeah, there was a moment I think, in the fall, right, when we would have expected us to be at our most active right. And our timeline that we, we planned, you know, months before we had our timeline for the year. And we just knew that these months would be the ones that we are the most active you’re out in the community and da da da…People were exhausted! And burnt out! And just tired. And like, it’s hard. I think the thing, the contradiction and complexity around the coalition is that you know you want it to be a space that folks prioritize and that folks contribute to really consistently and all that. And also it’s not their organization! Their organization is a part of this thing, their organizations are doing a million other things, right? And responding in a million other ways to crises in their campaigns and all that. So, trying to organize a coalition, the whole thing around like leadership and direction, and consistency, I think coupled with just the general feeling of exhaustion and burnout and just slowness that we had to deal with. And I think for me it’s less about focusing year by year it’s can we think about the next five to ten years, what is the plan for kind of developing this over the long haul? Cause I think trying to do things with such a quick turnaround and expecting either a win or a loss after that feels kind of like what contributes to the lack of continuity and sustainability. So yeah, that’s kind of my ramble about how the coalition was and yeah how well we did.
AMANDA: PG, we have a final question that we ask of all of our guests on the podcast since it is called Freedom Dreams. Could you tell us, what are your freedom dreams for your work? The thinking 50, 100 years out, what would you hope would be the legacy of the work that you’re doing.
PG: lets out a huge sigh
CASEY: There’s that sigh.
PG: I hope that the work that I’m doing today makes room for all children and all young people to have a childhood, like to just be able to be children and worry about childish things and feel…it’s an insult to be called childish.
ANGELICA: Yeah, I hope that, you know, 50-100 years, what is that year? That we do have this city where where governance looks totally different, right? Where people are able to like self determine how we share and use resources.
PG: Can the work that we’re setting out for in a 50-100 years mean that there is such a a strong and coordinated network of radical and revolutionary people across the city and across sectors, who feel connected, who feel able to call on each other who feel that they have the tools and capacity to respond when they need to respond to the things that are happening. I mean and in 50-100 years, there’s gonna be different crises that we’re managing, different ways we’re gonna have to show up and respond. So, hopefully that will not mean that we’re organizing against the police because that we would have figured out.
ANGELICA: I want people to work less, you know, I would love to see the experiments with the four day work week move to like a three day work week. I want the work of raising children, of growing food, to be done collectively, you know that sort of labor is something that we all own together and there isn’t like a class of people for whom that is the work that they do, you know. I want the end of capitalism.
PG: Yeah, I mean, ultimately I have a dream that black Detroiters, all Detroiters, are housed, have their basic needs met, can be there for each other, are learning and are growing and are contributing to creating a city that we all want.
CASEY: Amanda, what makes participatory budgeting part of a freedom dream?
AMANDA: I think participatory budgeting as a really useful tool for getting to the type of society that we need. So much of what’s wrong in society is the misallocation of resources and power being concentrated, wealth being concentrated. So participatory budgeting is a step towards one modeling a world where people get to decide directly over key questions, you know, life or death questions about day to day well being and how resources are spent. And also it can result in enormous shifts in resources that are shifting away from policing and into things that communities actually decide that they need. So it’s not exactly a freedom dream realized but it’s an important step towards practicing a more radical type of democracy than the one that we have right now.
CASEY: Yeah, that’s kind of what it was for me to was this expansion of democracy cause I think that when we go vote, I mean I don’t know about you but I don’t think that there’s ever been a time for me where I have felt like inspired by a politician so much that I think that’s what going to bring about change. So we also get set up with these false priorities from the people who are politicians a lot of time where it’s like, alright, come to this community meeting and you get to vote on whether or not three new trees in this park or 50 new cops, right? And it’s this false equivalencies that happen all the time with the people who are creating our city budgets and so if we get in there and get to set the priorities and get to figure out what the dollar amount is to execute the vision of the actual community, that feels more democratic, it feels more, I mean obviously it’s harder work, but it is a process that I think people would actually be more excited to participate in than the sort of go to the polls and maybe you get what you want but you’re sort of choosing from what’s there.
AMANDA: Yes, and the fact that people come together to brainstorm ideas for what they already know is wrong in their community and they get to decide together how can we spend money differently in order to make things right. It’s much more correct which is really exciting!
CASEY: Well, how can people get involved in participatory budgeting?
AMANDA: Well, if this sounds exciting you can link up with people in your city to see how money is being spent. Many cities and towns across the country already have groups that are fighting for a people’s budget. So see what’s happening in your town and plug into existing efforts. You can also reach out to participatory budgets for training on how to read a city budget on how to set up a PB process.
CASEY: Freedom Dreams is a production of the Detroit Justice Center. Special thanks to our team: Zak Rosen our producer, as well as Lawrielle West and Elana Maloul for research and assistance.
AMANDA: The Freedom Dreams’ theme song is by Asante. Artwork is by Gunnar x Hobbes. If you want to learn more about today’s episode, head to FreedomDreamsPodcast.com. Email us a voice memo of your Freedom Dream at Freedom Dreams AT Detroit Justice DOT org.
CASEY: You can also write to us on social media. We’re FreedomDreamsPod on IG and FreedomDreamPod on Twitter.
AMANDA: If you feel compelled to donate to the work we do, you can find us at detroitjustice.org/donate.
CASEY: And lastly, if you love this show and want us to find a wider audience, please leave us a rating or review at Apple Podcasts.