In the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, uprisings erupted across the country in what may be the largest civil rights movement in U.S. history. One major demand: that local governments redirect funding from police departments toward other public services that actually keep communities safe.
Last week, former President Barack Obama joined the slew of Democratic Party leaders blaming the party’s down-ballot losses on the defund movement. Their evidence is wanting. In fact, voter registration surged during the uprisings as organizers routinely energized protesters around the November election and registered them to vote. The only congressional candidate who actually ran on a defund platform, Cori Bush (MO-1), easily defeated her Republican opponent.
And, of course, historically Black cities with major uprisings like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta delivered key swing votes for Biden. Helping Democrats win office was not always the goal of uprisings—but the political momentum created by millions in the streets undoubtedly carried the Democratic ticket.
In this piece, we share six local dispatches covering ongoing efforts to defund the police—and where this fall’s elections, both national and local, fit in. The piece is part of Prism’s collaboration with Just Media, a new hub supporting grassroots coverage of policing, prison, and justice issues.
Madison, Wisconsin: Turning up for justice, turning out to vote
In Dane County, Wisconsin, the percentage of registered voters who submitted their ballots rose from 82% in 2016 to 89% in 2020. In the second largest region in the state, this increase proved to be consequential in the presidential election—where Biden only won by 20,000 votes.
Leading up to November, Freedom, Inc., a justice organization based in the county, reached nearly 45,000 voters through calls and texts. The organization also held weekly events centered in Black and Southeast Asian communities to encourage voter registration and placed volunteers at a number of polling sites to protect against intimidation and suppression. The result was an increase in voter turnout in the city overall, but especially in the city’s most diverse neighborhoods.
“The people have shown that they are dedicated to defunding the police, investing back into the community, and addressing the root causes of harm, violence, and homelessness in the city,” says Sheesenphooyw Moua, a Freedom, Inc., organizer. “We turned up and turned out this past summer and we are not going to let y’all forget that.”
Following the election, the group’s focus has shifted toward the 2021 Madison city budget, which currently allocates $87 million to the city police department. On Nov. 12, the Madison Common Council passed a 3% increase to the city’s police operating budget, while all other city departments took a 5% cut and municipal employees were forced to take mandatory furloughs due to the pandemic.
Freedom, Inc., is focused on educating the community on the budget, the budgeting process, and how to make their voice heard. “The uprising happened all throughout the summer until now and boosted community empowerment,” Moua said. “We want to remind the council members about the large population here that cares about defunding the police.”
Austin, Texas: A new district attorney
Following weeks of protest in Austin over high-profile cases of police murder, including that of local resident Michael Ramos, organizers set their sights on the Austin Police Department’s budget. In August, the police budget was ostensibly cut by $100 million and touted by elected officials as a huge win. Still, organizers note, the majority of the funds remain accessible to APD.
In November, the movement paved the way for José Garza to be elected as Travis County’s new district attorney. Garza ran on a platform centered on increased police accountability, such as cutting off testimony from police officers that engage in misconduct. Garza will be taking over for Margaret Moore, a self-described progressive who caught criticism for failing to prosecute sexual assault and police brutality cases during her term.
Grassroots organizers harnessed the energy from the summer protests to help drive turnout. Communities of Color United, a coalition of community members founded in 2014 to fight for racial justice and police divestment, sought to increase conversations around abolition and reimagining safety during election season.
CCU is part of the city’s Reimagining Public Safety task force and will continue to monitor the city’s progress in achieving the goals they set in the summer—including divesting from systems of surveillance and investing in social services that make communities safer. Additionally, they’ll continue pushing for a more significant police budget cut—and will organize to hold newly elected officials accountable, Garza included.
UPDATE: A previous version of this article stated that Austin “won big” with a cut to the police budget of one-third. While this is termed a “big win” by many local leaders and elected officials, Communities of Color United reached out to Just Media and Prism to clarify that because the majority of funds remain accessible to the Austin Police Department in some form, the group does not consider the win “big” and argues that the city must go further in divesting from policing and surveillance and invest in social services, like the RISE fund and Austin Public Health, to make communities of color safer. The net cut to the police budget was $23 million or approximately 5% of the existing budget.
Miami, Florida: A new county mayor
While cities like Minneapolis have made plans to dismantle their local police departments and others have voted to reduce law enforcement budgets, Miami has fallen short.
Over the past year, the Miami Dream Defender Squad (Miami SquaDD) has been organizing to “Free the Block” by ending cash bail and pretrial detention, which they view as steps toward police abolition. They’ve also held “People’s Miami-Dade budget forums” to educate residents on divesting from the police and how they can use their voices at budget hearings. Despite these efforts, the county commission approved a $5.24 million expenditure to hire more police officers. Moreover, Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed a bill that would criminalize protest and strip local governments of state money if they defund law enforcement.
“If that bill passes, and we hope it won’t, it will be an extremely slippery slope. We don’t need our communities to have more money taken away from them,” said Vanny V of the Miami SquaDD. “With a majority of right-wing reactionaries in our landscape, it’s been hard to get much progress made.
However, the movement did help catapult Daniella Levine Cava into the county mayor’s office. Cava is the first woman to become mayor—and the first registered Democrat to get this far in a mayoral race in decades. Though the race is nonpartisan, Cava ran on a slate of progressive issues, including police accountability.
After endorsing Cava, the Dream Defenders launched a social media campaign and weekly phone banking sessions, making 24 million calls and texts in total. “I think people wanted a change in the way Miami takes care of its most vulnerable populations,” V said. “Of course Cava isn’t our savior, but with a Democrat in office, we as activists can push for better.”
Atlanta, Georgia: Voting in defense of Black lives
“This whole year has been very taxing on our communities, and we want to make sure that people know that there is an alternative to policing and there is a reimagining,” Yamilex Rodriguez shared at a Count Every Vote rally in Atlanta. Rodriguez is an organizer with the Movement for Black Lives Atlanta (M4BLAtlanta), a coalition that has taken up the call to defund the police and invest in the community. As this year’s uprising for Black lives boiled over into election season, M4BLAtlanta helped anchor a citywide movement that treated taking the streets and getting out the vote as part of an overarching strategy.
Over the summer, the group helped develop and promote the Rayshard Brooks bill, aimed at divesting $73 million from the $273 million APD budget. The bill was named for the young man killed by police at a Wendy’s drive through in Atlanta on June 12. After getting presented and amended, the bill was ultimately “filed”—meaning that it would not be heard or voted on in future meetings, effectively killing it. Still, the work continues. Looking ahead to next year, M4BLAtlanta is working with councilmembers on a new version. “The next step looks like mobilizing people in the communities that we’re trying to protect and continuing to fight with our elected officials to make sure that they understand that this is what the people want,” Rodriguez shared.
M4BLAtlanta’s electoral justice organizing has, in many ways, been a continuation of their issue-based work this past summer. As November neared, M4BL worked to educate voters on the people and the issues that were on the ballot, encouraging them to vote “in defense of Black lives.” They also supported voters as election protection volunteers at the polls. “I believe the recent uprisings have helped significantly with voter mobilization,” Rodriguez said. “American citizens felt that was their chance to impact change during a time that it was imminent one was needed.”
—Deirdre Jonese Austin
Detroit, Michigan: Green light for what?
Addressing the underlying causes of violence is the focus of many social justice and criminal justice reform groups across Michigan. This fall, a number of groups targeted the Michigan Supreme Court election. Democrat and criminal justice reform advocate Elizabeth Welch won one of the two open seats on the court, flipping the balance to a 4-3 Democratic majority.
Michigan prosecutors have a history of punitive approaches to justice. The Supreme Court, where the buck stops on criminal cases, has been a focus for reform-minded groups. Detroit Action, a nonpartisan group representing low-income, housing insecure Black and brown Detroiters, mobilized voters around a message of reform. “The conversation is always around what motivates Black people to come vote,” said organizer Kenny Williams, Jr. “Statistics show that we’re always saving everyone’s asses.”
To celebrate Juneteenth, Detroit Action hosted a Zoom event where they discussed what Detroit would look like without police. The topic is also central to the work of Green Light Black Futures, a campaign to end the hyper-surveillance of Detroit’s “Project Green Light” through police divestment. “I think that the movement activates people, because we put a specific framing on why people ended up committing crimes or why it is that we don’t have funds for recreation in schools and parks, and affordable housing, but we do have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on police that terrorize our neighborhood,” said organizer Amanda Hill.
Moving into 2021, Hill emphasizes the need to continue building up mutual aid networks, transformative justice circles, and systems of community accountability outside policing. The group is pushing to move the $10.4 billion spent on policing into these networks. “We’re going to start small, building them very hyper locally, and continuing to build upon them,” Hill said.
—Aya Miller and Cheryn Hong
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Pivoting to 2021
On Nov. 7, thousands of Philadelphians took the streets to celebrate the defeat of President Donald Trump—and the city’s decisive role in it. One community organization, Reclaim Philadelphia, also celebrated the election of a slate of its own leaders to the state legislature, including criminal justice reform organizer Rick Krajewski.
“We see the murder of Walter Wallace and all police violence as deeply tied to our elections,” said Reclaim Philadelphia Founder and Political Director Amanda McIllmurray. “Trump is a symptom of racist systems, supported by police and white supremacy. We know that to enact real systematic change we need to win elections locally and nationally to make sure our leaders represent us. We also need to be in the streets protesting and demanding change.”
Reclaim Philadelphia is advocating state legislation that would curb the influence of police and push for investments in restorative justice and mental health services. They’re also targeting Philadelphia’s police union contract as a means of defunding and policy reform. “Right now, the way their contracts are set up, they are just sucking more and more money from the city of Philadelphia and taxes payers. They end up using it to murder our neighbors,” McIllmurray said.
Reclaim Philadelphia is part of a broad, citywide movement working toward criminal justice reform. The movement’s tactics range from local election work—in 2021, they’ll work to hold District Attorney Larry Krasner accountable to the sweeping promises he made in his pathbreaking election in 2017—to suing the Philadelphia Police Department for excessive force during this summer’s uprising.
“Our clients were protesters who went into the street to protest the very injustice that police are responsible for in this country,” said Saleem Holbrook from the Abolitionist Law Center. “We are using our tools of litigation to hold police accountable for their violence, while seeking to end state violence at large.”
—Nia Gordon and Kaila Morris