Despite a reputation for being one of the country’s most progressive counties, this year in Montgomery County, Maryland, the police killing of Finan Berhe forced residents to reckon with racism and police violence on their own doorstep. Sgt. David Cohen responded to a call on May 7 to find 30-year-old Berhe with a large kitchen knife in his possession. According to body camera footage, Cohen spoke calmly to Berhe and attempted to de-escalate the situation, but when Berhe approached him, Cohen discharged his service weapon repeatedly and killed Berhe while neighbors watched and wept. The trauma experienced firsthand by Berhe’s family and neighbors has been experienced and re-experienced by every Black and brown person in America at the hands of a system initially designed to pursue formerly enslaved individuals. It is the type of trauma a militarized police force is not equipped to handle, despite bloated police budgets. Now activists, especially student activists, are leading calls to defund the police in their cities and within their schools.
While some members of law enforcement insist that calls to defund their bloated budgets make them feel unappreciated, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, police budgets in the United States have more than quadrupled: Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) alone pays school resource officers $3 million dollars, despite only 20% of students who were surveyed in 2018 stating they wanted more law enforcement in their buildings. Despite the pressures of navigating school in a pandemic, students in Montgomery County organized to make their voices heard, such as high school senior and student-turned-organizer Avery Smedley. Smedley, an unassuming and humble 18-year-old student, has spent this public health crisis juggling senior year, managing the expectations of virtual learning, fueling organizing and advocacy efforts around local elections, and now mobilizing students to march on county government steps while creating Students Towards Equitable Public Schools (aptly named STEPS).
STEPS’s mission is to create space for students to work collaboratively toward actual policy change, with a strict focus on these policy changes being equitable towards Black and brown students. When asked why Smedley and STEPS have focused on the removal of school resource officers, Smedley cited the 2018 survey and said that she could “personally understand the duality and complexity to the issue of police officers in schools.
“I like the police officer in my school. He’s a good guy, but I’ve always felt uneasy seeing his cop car and gun. I don’t feel like he’s there to protect me,” Smedley said. “I’m in my last year of high school, and in all my time here we’ve only had one incident that merited police—someone called in a bomb threat. Even then, our officer had to call back up, he couldn’t do anything on his own.”
Danielle Blocker, an organizer for Youth People for Progress (YPP), stated that STEPS and other student-led organizations are “much more concise in their demands” than many of their elders.
“They very clearly understand what they want and why they want it and my work has been around finding opportunities for them to hone that message while getting them in front of the people who can actually make change,” Blocker said.
Blocker has been working with Smedley and 28 other organizations around two very specific questions: Should we defund the police, and what do we do with the financial resources if we do?
The first question has been answered by students through traditional means, like protests, sustained action, and policy demands. They’ve met with city councilmembers virtually, advising them on proposed policies while centering student voices, and they have endorsed candidates in non-partisan races. It has also been answered through 21st century mediums: Over the summer, STEPS partnered with numerous student groups to utilize social media to share their own experiences with racism in MCPS and their own traumatic experiences with sexual assault within the same walls tasked with keeping them safe.
As the pandemic continued to ravage communities of color, Black and brown students came together while social distancing to shine a light on injustices that existed long before a failed response by the federal government. Similar to how President Barack Obama’s campaign caught fire in kitchens in Des Moines or in libraries in Chicago, so too did this movement to defund the police in a progressive bastion like Montgomery County have humble beginnings. From this humility, in the midst of difficult conversations held with threats from adults who should know better in the backdrop, students loudly came the answer to the second question.
In crafting what the post-defund school would look like, students settled on an investment in counselors, nurses, and culturally competent resources they felt were lacking in their schools. They believed investing in the whole student would reduce the risk of students being criminalized by those with guns and badges. In forums and videos, students passionately argued that it should not be a radical thing to save Black and brown lives. This came to a head this year on Oct. 17 when Montgomery County Councilmembers Will Jawando and Hans Riemer announced they would introduce bills to simultaneously remove school resource officers from MCPS and utilize the $3 million savings to fund the services students demanded. Montgomery County Police and residents who want more investment in law enforcement have utilized social media to brand Jawando and Reimer as being out of touch with what Montgomery County wants, even as this legislation appears to be on the fast track with a possible introduction of it coming before the holidays.
When Jawando asked students if they thought this was the right thing to do during a recent Defund The Police rally, a whisper was heard from Smedley’s mouth that said: “yes.”