12 07 2020

The national uprising over police violence, and the consequent calls to “defund the police,” aka shifting the money spent on police into programs that don’t require a heavily armed person with a heavily armed vehicle to carry them out, programs that address difficult situations and individuals in a community before those situations and individuals get to the point where it seems as if a heavily armed person, in a heavily armed vehicle, is the best way to deal with whatever, or whoever, is the source of the disrupted civic peace.

I think this is a much more reasonable approach to public safety than the armed alternative. As Abraham Maslow said,  “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” If  your primary, tool is a firearm, then you end up, um, “nailing” people a lot more often that is really necessary. After all, the anti-police uprising was about the fact that the vast majority of African-Americans killed by police officers were unarmed, and otherwise posed no serious threat to the officer who murdered them.

I think an urban legend of yore will serve us well here. When I was a kid, there was a kind of meme around about calling the fire department to get your cat out of a tree. You don’t really need the fire department for that, especially if they sometimes take out their high-pressure hoses and blow the cat out of the tree so he falls to his death, and then use the stream from the hoses to break out a few neighborhood windows  and soak down the inside of some people’s houses just for good measure, instead of just climbing up a ladder to rescue the cat.

Unfortunately for defunding advocates here in Nashville, defunding became a national issue just as Nashville’s new budget, a year in the making, was coming up for final approval, a point at which it’s kind of late for radical changes in it. Despite heroic efforts by organizers and several council members, The Nashville People’s Budget Coalition‘s demands were not met, not in the slightest. The police will be adding 38 officers to the, as they say, “force,” as well as getting two new helicopters and some kind of armored vehicle. Thirty-eight entry-level police salaries of $46K/ year comes to about $1.75M.  Those new officers will probably need a nearly equivalent number of new police cars, at about $100K each–that’s $1.2 M a dozen. Nashville will be spending $12M on new police helicopters, which cost $400/hr or more to fly, and an “armored vehicle”? $200K or more, depending on how fancy you want to get.

The mayor’s budget passed.

The Nashville People’s Budget Coalition points out that

The two new MNPD helicopters approved in the Capital Spending Plan will ultimately cost the city $12 million, which taxpayers will help pay over time through debt service expenditures. With only $10 million, the Barnes Affordable Housing Trust Fund could leverage funds to provide affordable housing for more than 750 Nashvillians. Access to affordable housing is a foundation of healthy and safe communities. Helicopters are not.

Meanwhile, Gideon’s Army, which is already running a highly successful violence reduction program here in Nashville with volunteers and private money, failed to get one penny of the $2.6M that Council member Ginny Welsch (who, in full disclosure, is the manager of WRFN, but does not know I am writing this) proposed The Nashville Peoples’ Budget movement‘s budget as an amendment that would have cut $111M from the police and court budget and redirected it to a wide variety of underfunded public services. Here’s the list:

•MNPS General Purpose Fund by $20,159,088

•Barnes Affordable Housing Trust by $9,999,848

•Metro Social Services – Homeless Impact Division by $10,065,546

•Health Department by $9,617,624

•Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) subsidy by $8,321,341

•Metro Action Commission by $6,760,911

•Parks and Recreation by $6,384,255

•Hospital Authority by $7,190,698

•Arts Commission by $4,043,949

•Public Library by $4,373,795

•Property Tax Relief Program by $4,319,987

•Social Services by $10,442,202

•Misc. Community Agencies/Services by $2,702,965

•Adding an allocation for Gideon’s Army Violence Interrupters Program in the amount of $2,490,718

•Adding an allocation for Pedestrian Infrastructure in the amount of $4,271,071

The Welsch amendment didn’t pass. It didn’t even garner a lot of support, at least in terms of votes, though several key people who did not vote for it spoke favorably of it–most notably Council Members Sharon Hurt and Freddie O’Connell. But then, it was a radical, last-minute surprise this year. I think that, given some time to look at the facts of the matter and make an unpressured decision, this proposal, or one close to it, could garner majority support next year, although there are those who, for what you might call “philosophical reasons,”  may have a very hard time getting behind the notion of de-escalating the importance and presence of the police as we have always known them. I’ll talk about that a little later.

One of the hopeful signs on the horizon is Metro’s “37208 Special Committee,” which was formed, according to its mission statement, to study what it would take to

Reduce recidivism and prevent incarceration by addressing the root causes of poverty and violence in the 37208 zip code, providing resources both fiscal and material to community-based organizations and MNPS schools, and enlisting the support of both the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County and local private organizations.

Gideon’s Army’s violence interrupters: part of the future of “policing” Thanks to Eric England of The Nashville Scene for the photo

There were several council members as well as a number community leaders involved with this effort, including Council members Brandon Taylor (Chair), Sharon Hurt, Freddie O’Connell, Kyonzte Toombs, and Tanaka Vercher, plus a cross section of community activists, including representation from Gideon’s Army. For those of you not familiar with Nashville politics, “37208” is the zip code in Nashville that, again quoting the City’s official report,

has the highest percentage of incarceration in the country, according to reports.

I would like to take this opportunity to remind us all that our county has the highest percentage of incarceration in a country that has the highest percentage of incarceration in the world–with 5% of the population, the USA holds 25% of the prisoners, making the US’s self-characterization as “the land of the free” a complete mockery. This is one of the fundamental facts driving the movement to “defund the police.”

OK, back to the 37208 Committee. Vice Mayor Shulman, in setting up the Committee, charged them to answer the question,

“What needs to be done to correct that?”

Here’s the next paragraph from the official report:

During its first meeting, Deirdre Nicole of Gideon’s Army summarized the experience of residents living in 37208, stating, “You either die or go to jail.” The relationship between 37208 and the criminal legal system is a deadly cycle. The lack of access to resources necessary for thriving – affordable housing, healthcare, education, career pathways and opportunities for wealth building, and so much more – results in contact with the criminal legal system. Policing practices have historically – and continue to – focus on low-level offenses in impoverished communities and communities of color. Contact with the criminal legal system then further drains residents’ economic and social capital, thus resulting in an additional lack of resources. Residents cyclically face physical death and social or civil death.

Here’s their summary of what they came up with:

After examining the complex issues related to the high incarceration rates of 37208, the Committee is proposing the following recommendations, along with specific “Action Recommendations” that can be implemented immediately:

1.Support Reparations and Reentry .Improve Reentry Policies and Practices to Reduce Recidivism.

●Reduce, eliminate, and reform criminal justice fines and fees.

●Support programs and policies to increase opportunities for driver’s license reinstatement.

●Work with General Sessions and Criminal Court judges to reform and end money bail practices and reduce pre-trial detention.

●Increase opportunities for records expungement and voting rights restoration.

●Increase access to affordable housing and reduce discriminatory barriers for accessing housing after leaving incarceration.

●Expand restorative practices in the criminal legal system.

●Audit Metro’s privatization practices in the criminal legal system to identify opportunities for real cost savings and improved quality of life outcomes for 37208 residents

.2.Prevent Incarceration. Address the Root Causes of Poverty and Violence.

●Transform policing practices to increase public safety, reduce racial disparities in the criminal legal system, and prevent involvement in the criminal legal system.

●Increase accountability by supporting and enhancing the work of the Community Oversight Board.

●Embed trauma-informed practices into the criminal legal system, Metro Nashville Public Schools, other Metro departments, and across the community.

●Increase opportunities for and significantly increase investments in positive youth development.

●Increase opportunities for and significantly increase investments in economic mobility for residents in 37208.

●Encourage MNPS to provide resources to priority schools in the 37208 zip code and surrounding area

The report then goes into the details of all these proposals, which you can read here. By my reading, what it essentially does is fill in the details and reasons for taking bold steps towards implementing the “Nashville Peoples’ Budget” that Council Member Welsch proposed. I think it’s not a bad idea to implement it over a few years, working out the bugs and getting the city used to the changed priorities and methodologies, but–the sooner the better.

I’m particularly happy to see such a strong movement around this issue because it’s one I ran on when I was a candidate for Metro Council a few years ago, and an embodiment of the Green Party’s commitment to community empowerment/sovereignty. As I’ve often said, it’s not so important whether it’s “The Green Party” that does these things, as it is that they get done.

So, the good news is, not only has a program for the kind of radical change we need been put on Metro Council’s table, but it also has the backing of a number of council members, who now have the rest of the year to convince more council members of the wisdom of what they are proposing. Here’s one thing they have to work with: the city can only raise so much money, and so, for one area–social services–to receive more funding, another area–criminal justice–has to receive less. The numbers are $362.5 million for police, courts, and jails, and $292.9 million for social services. The bet is that increasing social service funding will decrease the need for criminal justice funding. As the People’s Budget’s website puts it,

the mayor’s budget proposes spending more on the institutions that comprise the local criminal legal system – police, jails, and courts – than all of public health,social services, affordable housing, transit, infrastructure,libraries, parks, community centers, and rental and tax relief services combined. Moreover, in the midst of a budget crisis, after a tornado, and during a global pandemic, the mayor proposes to spend 6 million new dollars on police, jails, and courts, while cutting millions in spending for the public goods and services that we depend upon for our individual and collective well-being.

Let’s take a music break, and when I come back I’m going to talk about the “clash of cultures” that is ensuing over these ideas, as well as other, related aspects of that clash. 17 min

I intended to play this, but couldn’t find a download.

Rhiannon Giddens,  “Cry No More” 3 min

so I played “At The Purchaser’s Option” instead…

the same thing happened with

Jay Z, “Spiritual” 4min 

so I played Jay-Z’s “Minority Report” instead…

So, there is a strong movement right here in Nashville to “defund” the police. At one level, calling it “defunding” is very concise shorthand, but what it is, is redefining, and restricting, the role that armed individuals play in keeping the peace in Nashville, and across the US, and using the “defunded” money to supply social services and generally improve communities so their inhabitants are less stressed and there is less of what our culture calls “crime.” After all, just as our overpriced healthcare system is unique among developed nations, so is the violence of America’s police forces unique among nations. England is a country where, like the US, cultures are clashing and there is incredible income disparity. English police famously do not carry weapons. The number of people killed by police in England last year was…three, in a country of about 70 million people. That’s the equivalent of 15 deaths for a country the size of the US. Instead, we had 1500 deaths at the hands of our police. Can you see how we might have a problem here?

There is, however, a sizeable body of opinion in this country that is just fine with that. Council Member Steve Glover spoke up for it, saying

“Not in my lifetime and don’t tell me that’s what people in Nashville want to do is defund our police. Given all the activity that’s happened over the weekend, given the fact that we couldn’t cover it anyway, we’re so short on police officers right now. We’re 108 police officers short and now we want to defund our police department? I don’t think so,” Glover said. “We don’t defund our police department, we don’t defund our fire department, we don’t defund our first responders. We have too few of them as it is right now.”

Metro Council Member Steve Glover

Here’s somebody else with a viewpoint not unlike Glover’s, answering the question, “what does a city with a defunded police department look like?”

“We have no idea,” Vanderbilt University Sociology Professor Laurie Woods said. “It would be, potentially be chaos, we just don’t have any idea.”

Laurie Woods is a Sociology Professor at Vanderbilt University who also has 21 years of former law enforcement experience. She says one of the main issues with this proposal is: who would handle the responsibilities that police hold every day?

“But what about the burglaries? What about the traffic accidents? all of those things that cops do on a day-to-day basis, handling domestic violence and neighbor disputes and all those kinds of things, I mean, we need the police for that,” Woods said.

Woods says defunding officers won’t address the bigger societal issues at hand.

“We have to turn to ourselves and look at what we’re doing,” Woods said. “We can’t just point the finger at cops. They may have the power, we’ve given them the power, and we can take that away, but we better look at ourselves and the way we treat human beings.”

What Glover and Woods seem to have in common is that they want armed police because they are scared of what might happen without them, and they want the rest of us to be scared of that too. Woods raises a number of bugaboos that it is all too easy to see through–why do we need people with weapons dealing with traffic accidents? Or domestic and neighbor disputes? Burglaries? Unless you’ve catch an an armed and threatening individual in flagrante delecto, there’s no need for those who investigate burglaries after the fact to be packing heat. As I pointed out earlier, England, which has plenty of burglaries, no doubt, has unarmed police–but then, they have much stricter gun control than we do, as do most countries. However, as I’ve pointed out, the problem isn’t guns so much as it’s people who are so frightened that they think they need guns. Again, the bet is that ramping up social services and dialing back government guns will dial down societal violence–but some people, represented here by Steve and Laurie, are not buying that.

I think this disagreement is emotional, not logical, and I don’t think it’s solvable at the rational level. I think that where people fall on this issue–whether we need to make a constant societal show of force in order to  ensure that some people behave themselves–is deeply wrapped up in peoples’ basic childhood conditioning–the way we were raised. Some of us are raised in very hierarchical families, in which Dad is the unquestioned authority, and it’s Mommy’s job to make sure Daddy is well fed, well dressed, and well respected by their offspring. This is a very “undemocratic” mindset, but it’s the one that dominates a significant number of families, is our predominant business model–do what the boss says, or else!–and spills over into our politics, as it does in this case.

This is the same attitude that “supports our troops,” failing to recognize, in the local case, that heavily armed, aggressive police and insufficient social spending combine to create the kind of violent incidents that seem to call for heavily armed, aggressive police, and, in the international realm, that deploying heavily-armed, obviously well-off troops to poorer countries to make sure their inhabitants do things our way helps make those inhabitants not want to do things our way, especially when, as is often the case, “doing things our way” means exploiting their country’s wealth for our benefit.  Then Americans wonder “Why do they hate our freedom?” as a US soldier located in Nevada drone-bombs another Afghan wedding.

Just as there is a parallel between armed police creating the need for armed police and a big, aggressive military creating the need for a big, aggressive military, the spending priorities are similarly skewed. We can’t have a national health service because: the military budget. We can’t forgive student loans and make college free because: the military budget. We can’t afford to make sure everybody receives a living wage, or a living stipend if they are unable to work, because: the military budget.  We can’t afford a Green New Deal because: the military budget. We can’t afford peaceful, appropriate foreign aid because: the military budget. The list goes on….Hmm.maybe the military budget is the problem.

So, how do we deal with this split between those of us who are tired of being controlled and those of us who feel unsafe without strict control?

Mostly, I think, by making it clear that these ideas are not some kind of otherworldly vision, but realistic strategies for dealing with situations that everybody of any ideology  or emotional state will agree have gotten out of hand. Utah, not exactly a radical bastion, found that it was just plain cheaper to house the homeless than it was to leave them on the streets and sic the police on them. That’s a step that will have demonstrable benefits if taken, and so are all the rest of these ideas, almost all of which are already being implemented somewhere. For example, for over thirty years, Portland, Oregon has been served by an unarmed organization called “CAHOOTS,” Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, that handles about 20% of what would otherwise be police calls.

But I think we need to keep firmly in mind that this is not a rational, dollars-and-sense issue for some people. It threatens the foundation of their world view, and they are inclined to do whatever it takes to keep the world looking like they think it should, all neat and hierarchical, with clearly defined punishments for clearly, and tightly, defined infractions. It’s difficult for such people to see that they are locked in a self-destructive, and world-destructive, mindset. I think, however, that support for a more open, egalitarian world view is growing, and will be the wave of the future, gradually pulling more and more of the doubters into its zeitgeist–if climate change doesn’t wipe us out sooner rather than later. But that’s a topic for another time. 12 min

Lauryn Hill, “Black Rage” 4 min

couldn’t find that, either…played “A Change Is Gonna Come

and I couldn’t find John Legend–“Glory,” featuring Common  3 min

Lyrics video here

so I settled for “Ghetto Rich

John Coltrane, “My Favorite Things”  14 min

62 min






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: