In Houston, there is a major disconnect between the mayor, the city council, and their constituents when it comes to the matter of policing. After months of collective protesting, public hearings, and advocacy work from Houstonians organizing around divesting from the police and reinvesting back into our communities, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that $4.1 million from CARES Act funding will be allocated toward an overtime initiative for the Houston Police Department.
The outrage was immediate. Houstonians took to Twitter to express their disapproval for such a major investment in the HPD. Once again, our calls for defunding the police were blatantly ignored. Turner maintains his narrative that Houston prefers good policing as opposed to abolition even as many Houston organizations have supported the movement toward the latter.
The difference between public action and electoral action in Houston is striking. We have seen a surge in teach-ins, book clubs, university panels, and other workshops surrounding the movement toward abolition, but when it comes to our elected officials, not only are they falling short, they seem to be moving backwards.
From the early beginnings of the George Floyd protests, Turner rejected the option of defunding the police and advocated for more police officers, asserting “most people in our community claim we need more.”
However, following the arrests of over 600 demonstrators last June, many constituents from the community in question protested against the raising of the police budget, chanting for councilmembers to delay the vote right outside of city hall. Still, the council unanimously voted for the budget increase and even halted Councilwoman Letitia Plummer’s amendments for fund allocation toward a program designated for mental health crises that would not require law enforcement.
Weeks after the budget was raised, Houstonians called into a Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee meeting and demanded the defunding, dismantling, and abolishing of the HPD. What started as a two-hour presentation from the committee with time for public comments turned into a seven-hour petition for abolition; callers used their time to critique the Independent Police Oversight Board, to challenge Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo about his department’s transparency, and to interrogate members of the council who accepted donations from the Houston Police Officers’ Union.
Turner’s COVID-19 Related Crime Reduction Program comes as a slap in the face, not only to the efforts of organizers and community members advocating for community resources and police divestment, but to families, communities, and members of Houston struggling as a result of the pandemic.
The CARES Act is a stimulus bill intended to provide emergency economic support during this current health crisis, yet Turner chooses to allocate funds toward a department that already received a $20 million increase for the 2021 fiscal year.
Turner claims the program serves to combat crime that has increased as a result of the coronavirus. In a press release, he asserts, “There is no denying the virus has contributed to anxiety and stress as people cope with job losses, feelings of isolation, illness or death of loved ones, children learning at home virtually and fear of the unknown.”
We as abolitionists, however, believe that these issues are combated, not by more policing, but by addressing the actual needs of the individuals and families affected. In Houston, COVID-19 numbers are skyrocketing, evictions have continued daily throughout the pandemic, and the unemployment rate is still higher than the long-term average.
While Turner has allocated rental assistance to reduce financial obligations for Houstonians who receive it, he has not placed a ban to prevent landlords from filing evictions, nor halted evictions from occurring in court.
Local protesters have organized around the eviction crisis through blocking court entrances and raising awareness around the CDC moratorium in the city. HTX Community Fridges has committed to providing free food for folks in need at locations across Houston. Mutual Aid Houston has offered Direct Aid Days to raise and redistribute funds to the community throughout the pandemic and other major disasters. The Houseless Organizing Coalition fundraised to purchase tents for folks in the city without housing. The Houston Abolitionist Collective even curated a zine around reimagining a safer Houston that advocates against calling the police and supporting more community-led initiatives.
When Houstonians adopted the phrase “Defund the Police,” coined out of movements from Black activists and critical thinkers, it was not merely a slogan for the sake of a few chants. It is to speak life into a future in which our power is returned to us. Unlike our infamous “Be someone” and “clutch city” slogans, “Defund the Police” is a demand—one that Houstonians expect their elected officials to uphold.
It is to trust that the constituents know which departments do and do not serve them. It is to acknowledge the harm that the HPD has enacted against the Houston community and to advocate for its funding to be reallocated. It is to recognize the programs and departments that are severely under resourced and to invest in them instead. It is to offer additional community-driven, community-led organizations that address needs directly as a model for neighborhoods across the city.
I will not insult Turner by assuming he simply misunderstands the phrase “Defund the Police.” It is apparent he does not agree with the future that many Houstonians want. As the movement towards abolition continues, elected officials will not be able to ignore their constituents’ demands, especially when the fate of our city depends on it.