We are in the midst of the largest mass uprising in half a century. It is a response to the killing of an unarmed Black man named George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. But it challenges a pattern of Black oppression that goes far beyond one cop killing one Black person, indeed, far beyond the issues of police abuse of the Black community.
Racial inequality reaches every dimension of American life. Median household income is 70 percent higher for whites than for Blacks. White families have five times the liquid assets of Blacks. Inequality in health, housing, education, and longevity is comparably extreme. This deadly inequality has been compounded in the COVID-19 era. Black people are dying at nearly twice the American average. As of April more than half of the adult Black population was unemployed.
Systematic discrimination against African Americans goes back to slavery. The abolition of slavery did not free African Americans, or other Black Americans, from systemic domination and exploitation – it continued as subjugation to racial terrorism, lynch law, poverty, and discrimination in jobs, education, housing, and every other sphere of life. And it was not ended by the civil rights legislation of the 1960s – indeed, even those gains have been rolled back in the Trump era.
Racial inequality is part of the broader picture of inequality in America. The richest four hundred Americans own more of the country’s wealth than the bottom 60% of the population, and their share has tripled over the past forty years. Fighting racial inequality benefits everyone in the 99%. The uprising against racial domination provides an opportunity to challenge the broader domination of all working people by the tiny minority we are all forced directly to work for.
How can a movement that starts with street protests against a police killing become the means to dismantle systematic racial inequality and injustice? That is a question that will have to be answered by the evolving action of millions of people. To probe that question, let’s look at an example of a pathway that might lead from today’s uprising to the replacement of today’s system of racial domination with a society of equals.
On May 24, 2020 more than three thousand Los Angeles residents took part in an on-line “participatory budgeting process” organized by the People’s Budget Coalition convened by Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles. Based on previous research and surveys, they developed an alternative budget that radically reversed the city’s priorities. It allocated 44% of the city’s budget to Universal Aid and Crisis Management; 26% to the Built Environment; and 24% to Reimagined Community Safety. It allocated 6% to Law Enforcement and Police — about one-tenth of the 54% in the city’s proposed budget. It happened to be the day before George Floyd was murdered.
The uprising in the days that followed Floyd’s killing was massive. An estimated 3,000 people were arrested in Los Angeles County. The People’s Budget proposal to reallocate funds from the police to community needs was a widespread demand. Actions included rallies outside the mayor’s home calling for such a change. Although he had previously added $600 million to the police budget, the Mayor unexpectedly announced he would now cut the department by more than $100 million dollars.
There is more to the People’s Budget LA than just “defunding” the police. It lays out detailed plans to transform life in the city. Its top priority is “Universal Aid and Crisis Management.” In the short term that means meeting basic needs like housing, food, healthcare, economic assistance and emergency relief. Longer term it involves “long-term housing, renter support and emergency housing, food assistance, support for those seeking work, support for small businesses, providing public health care, offering youth development programs and supporting youth centers, fighting the impacts of climate change and ensuring our city’s environment is protected.” It also invests in physical infrastructure like “public transportation, libraries, parks, public works and the fire department.”
The People’s Budget LA aims for “reimagining community safety” without law enforcement intervention. Communities would determine what they need to be safe, such as family counseling, restorative justice programs, reparations to victims and their families, community-led crisis response programs, gang prevention/intervention/recovery without police involvement, and domestic violence prevention/intervention/recovery without police involvement.
A Platform for Black Lives
Defunding the police and using the money to fund community needs has rapidly emerged as a core demand of the Black Lives Matter uprising that has spread over the last two weeks to hundreds of cities in every state in America. A petition circulated by the Movement for Black Lives and more than 100 other black rights organizations asks local officials to
- Vote no on all increases to police budgets
- Vote yes to decrease police spending and budgets
- Vote yes to increase spending on health care, education and community programs that keep us safe.
In New York City, 48 city council candidates are calling for a $1 billion cut to the NYPD’s $6 billion budget over four years to help fund programs like summer employment for youth. Minneapolis, Dallas, Philadelphia, Nashville, and are witnessing similar campaigns—and the number is growing every day. Most dramatically, following calls from activists to ‘defund the police,’ the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband its police department and invest in community-based public safety.
Transforming the position of Black Americans in American society requires systemic changes in the American economy.
The call to “defund the police” is only one piece of a far wider comprehensive program advocated by the Movement for Black Lives. The Movement for Black Lives had its origin in 2016, when fifty organizations that had been involved with the Black Lives Matter uprising issued a Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform that included scores of concrete proposals to reverse structural inequality. Its “Economic Justice” program, for example, calls for:
- A progressive restructuring of tax codes at the local, state, and federal levels to ensure a radical and sustainable redistribution of wealth.
- Federal and state job programs that specifically target the most economically marginalized Black people. Job programs must provide a living wage and encourage support for local workers centers, unions, and Black-owned businesses which are accountable to the community.
- A right to restored land, clean air, clean water and housing and an end to the exploitative privatization of natural resources — including land and water. We seek democratic control over how resources are preserved, used and distributed and do so while honoring and respecting the rights of our Indigenous family.
- The right for workers to organize in public and private sectors.
- Financial support of Black alternative institutions including policy that subsidizes and offers low-interest, interest-free or federally guaranteed low-interest loans to promote the development of cooperatives (food, residential, etc.), land trusts and culturally responsive health infrastructures that serve the collective needs of our communities.
And its “Invest-Divest” program calls for:
- A reallocation of funds at the federal, state and local level from policing and incarceration (JAG, COPS, VOCA) to long-term safety strategies such as education, local restorative justice services, and employment programs.
- Real, meaningful, and equitable universal health care that guarantees: proximity to nearby comprehensive health centers, culturally competent services for all people, specific services for queer, gender nonconforming, and trans people, full bodily autonomy, full reproductive services, mental health services, paid parental leave, and comprehensive quality child and elder care.
- A constitutional right at the state and federal level to a fully-funded education which includes a clear articulation of the right to: a free education for all, special protections for queer and trans students, wrap around services, social workers, free health services (including reproductive body autonomy), a curriculum that acknowledges and addresses students’ material and cultural needs, physical activity and recreation, high quality food, free daycare, and freedom from unwarranted search, seizure or arrest.
- A divestment from industrial multinational use of fossil fuels and investment in community-based sustainable energy solutions.
- A cut in military expenditures and a reallocation of those funds to invest in domestic infrastructure and community well-being.
Transforming the position of Black Americans in American society requires systemic changes in the American economy. These programs spell out the kinds of changes that must happen if we are to truly ensure that Black lives matter.
Black Lives and the Green New Deal
The Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform is strikingly similar to the goals laid out in the Green New Deal resolution submitted last year by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey. That relationship is made explicit in a recent statement by the Movement for Black Lives which demanded
A Green New Deal that advances comprehensive structural reform toward national climate resiliency and preparedness; ensures public control of key industries, utilities, and natural resources; and catalyzes people-oriented public spending that transforms the national economy to one that is just, equitable, and sustainable.
The Green New Deal Resolution lists five goals to be accomplished through a 10-year national mobilization:
- Achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers;
- Create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all;
- invest in the infrastructure and industry to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century;
- secure clean air and water, climate and community resiliency, healthy food, access to nature, and a sustainable environment for all for generations to come; and
- promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”
The People’s Budget transfer of funds from policing to community needs might be a starting point for realizing the broader goals of the Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform and the Green New Deal. And the Green New Deal may be a vehicle for building the broad movement for structural change necessary to truly make Black lives matter.