Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson (Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson)

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a new “violent crime reduction strategy” in response to a reported 30% uptick in homicides over the past year in 37 major U.S. cities. In addition to a targeted crackdown on gun trafficking and illegal sales of firearms, the announcement included what Biden touted as a “once in a generation investment plan.” The president encouraged states and cities to use funds from the The American Rescue Plan—a $350 billion COVID-19 relief package—toward the expansion of law enforcement through the hiring of additional police officers and the development of community policing programs. 

This response stands in stark contrast to the calls to defund the police that have animated protests and community organizing strategies since last summer. And contrary to claims that the recent rise in homicides are linked to police departments being defunded, more than half of the largest American cities have either maintained or increased their police budgets. Prism sat down with Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-director of the Highlander Center and an activist with the Movement for Black Lives, to dive into what the current narrative around this “crime surge” gets wrong, why equating increased police with crime reduction is so dangerous, and how policy interventions like the BREATHE Act can help reshape how we conceive of and create public safety. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tamar Sarai Davis: I’d love to start off by learning about your background. Can you share how and when you entered into the movement and what the work looks like now both at the Highlander Center and through the Movement for Black Lives?

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson: I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as my city was in righteous rage because a Black man named Wadie Suttles had been murdered by the captain of the police department. My mother was involved in the fight for justice for Suttles and my father actually was the first person in communications to mention the name of the police officers who had murdered Suttles. Both were fired from their jobs for their involvement in the fight. So I got involved in this work because I was born into it. 

We’re [still] having some of the same conversations about whether or not police keep our community safe and particularly about what over policing, police brutality, and inflated police budgets mean in Black communities in times of economic crises. I think the thing that has shifted between the ’80s and now is that there are even more intersecting crises impacting economically neglected communities—whether they’re Black, brown, Asian, LGBTQ, or poor white folks in rural or urban communities. Giving billions of dollars to the police is not stopping that harm from happening.

Davis: There’s a narrative that this recent uptick in homicides is a direct result of campaigns to defund the police, but in truth many police departments actually saw their budgets grow last year. What are we failing to understand about the root causes of this “crime surge” and how do we correct that narrative?

Henderson: I think there’s a few things we’ve got to understand. The root cause of crime isn’t the absence of police. In fact, typically police are only responding to a thing that’s already happened—they’re not preventing a thing from happening. But beyond that reality, the root cause of crime is poverty. Giving more money—particularly COVID-19 relief money—to boost officer pay, to fund a system that we know isn’t broken but is working exactly as it was designed, is literally taking money away from the very folks who put their own lives on the line to usher in this historic wave of elected officials who they thought would fix the material conditions of their communities. 

Continuing to put these platinum Band-Aids on what is a gaping wound in our country’s history is no longer serving millions of people. The people who said “defund the police” last year in the streets went to the ballot boxes by the millions, expecting that our elected officials would do better by our communities. Continuing to give billions of dollars to policing is not what we demanded. What we wanted was for that money to be spent on housing, food, mental health services, and education. We should be looking at the lack of those basic supports as reasons for the increase in crime.

The thing about abolitionist demands is what Andrea Ritchie said so eloquently: “The point of abolition is to get us 1,000 miles ahead of the harm.” We’ve been saying “divest-invest” [as] the framework—to take money from this system that is failing us, that is antiquated and not serving our people, and invest that resource into healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities. [We need to] make sure that our people have everything that they need when they’re always on the cusp of an eviction moratorium expiring or when they’re not able to work living wage jobs, when they are dealing with a pandemic like one we’ve never seen in my lifetime, or when they’re surviving manmade climate disasters—when the economic realities are pushing people to the brink. 

We’ve seen moments like in New York City a few years ago, [when] the police department protested and said they’re not going to work. On that day, there was less crime in New York. So not only have we seen that when we invest in our communities crime goes down, we’ve also seen that people are safer when cops are not over-policing. If we even think about 2020, the protests where there weren’t huge numbers of law enforcement agents, National Guardsmen, and white supremacist organizations doing a lot of really terrible things, we saw incredible joyous love-filled community building opportunities. The violence that we saw on the streets was [from] paramilitary forces driving into protesters, and National Guardsmen and law enforcement tasing and pepper spraying and shooting people with rubber bullets when they were out demanding justice in defense of Black lives. 

[To deny] reparations to reinvest in communities that have not only been neglected, but have been intentionally targeted, marginalized, and left out of the democratic processes that this country continues to boast, is the antithesis of what we are taught to be the American way. If what we really want is liberty and justice for all, then we have to recognize that we don’t get to a crime-free society by policing or by incarcerating our way through it. If that was the case there’d be no crime.

Davis: Biden’s crime response strategy combined both calls for increased law enforcement funding with the expansion of social services like summer youth job training, reentry services for the formerly incarcerated, mental health care, access to educational resources, and community violence interruption programming. In doing so, he seemed to suggest that community-based services can be invested in without divestment from the police. How did you feel about the inclusion of these tenets in his announcement? Did you feel like it was a meaningful inclusion or just an empty effort to placate folks on the left?

Henderson: The honest answer is that it kind of was an attempt to placate folks on the left. But I do want to shout out folks like Faith in Action, Pastor Michael McBride, Erica Ford, and so many others who have been doing work on the national level, and the tens of thousands of grassroots organizations on the ground that have been doing violence interruption work, creating harm-free zones in their neighborhoods, and doing the actual work that that very few folks will get credit for as this push for investment comes to fruition. 

Two things [are important]: The first thing is that the Biden administration and others are going to say that they’re doing community policing, which is not what we demanded. But even if we look at many of the communities that are talking about community policing, they’re not saying they want more police in their community; they’re saying they want their communities to figure out how to handle harm and crime themselves without state intervention.  

I think the second piece is that we [need to] see this as a narrative strategy by the Fraternal Order of Police and other police organizations who have seen the popularization of the defund the police movement. That’s actually what this is—law enforcement lobbyists attempting to create a debate between defunding the police and law and order, but we’re not going to take the bait. People do want something different than gun violence in their communities; they do want to see these mass shootings, typically by white supremacists, to stop; and folks want to understand how to radically reimagine public safety in a way that gets them beyond being dependent on a system that also consistently criminalizes them and their culture. So though I personally felt frustrated with this misnomer about community policing being more cops in my neighborhood and more money being spent on cops than my library and my kids’ education, $5 billion being allocated to violence intervention programs in the infrastructure bill is a big deal. 

What I would offer is that we need to be really careful and intentional about making sure that those dollars actually get to the grassroots organizations that have been doing this work, and not just being concentrated in primarily white-led national organizations that don’t have boots on the ground where we live. And again, I think the administration would be remiss not to know that we’re not confused about the conflation of these two things. When we say “defund the police,” we really mean it and we’re gonna keep fighting for it, even with this $5 billion.

The level of investment that we’re giving to police (and this doesn’t even include some of the dollars that are being projected in this next fiscal year in our federal budget) became really clear to me when I started to realize the bill that U.S. taxpayers are being asked to foot to support this failing system of policing. You can find all this information on—the U.S. spends $348 billion annually on federal, state, and local spending on policing, courts, corrections, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. So I, Ash-Lee from the working class, am one of millions asked to support $348 billion annually towards all those things that I know are just ripping my family, my friends, and my neighbors apart. 

And when I realized that $348 billion a year is more than mass transit and rail, Affordable Housing and Urban Development, and fire services and libraries combined? Then I’m just mad because the actual services that I need are not being resourced. People are wondering why people in my neighborhood do harmful things to each other—it’s because they’re desperate. It’s because we’re not actually investing in the things that would give them what they needed so that they didn’t need to break the law to get it. What it means is that every day we’re spending $955 million on police services that actually aren’t keeping me safe. 

What we have to be responsible for is making sure that we’re bringing communities together to think about the ways that we keep each other safe [and] the ways that we diminish harm. It’s typically through building this social safety net that needs to be resourced [by] the kinds of billions of dollars that we’re putting into policing.

Davis: How can everyday folks on the ground—especially those without an organizing home—push their state and local leadership to not use this directive toward police expansion? How can folks leverage people power to ensure that money is invested in social safety nets and community-oriented services?

Henderson: Check out social media and Google to see if there are organizations in your area or close by that are making these demands of divest-invest. If you don’t, I would steer you to a couple of things: one is [where you can] see the federal omnibus bill that the Movement for Black Lives wrote—our legislative love letter to the folks who hit the streets and the ballot boxes last year—and check out what we demanded. It’s got four sections that divests resources from policing and invests it into our communities, creating new revenue streams and incentivization to shrinking your police budget and the amount of dollars that you’re spending on the carceral state. Then it has mechanisms in it that actually hold elected officials accountable to it. 

I would also say check out the Vision for Black Lives. We have a whole section on divest-invest that has policy briefs and the organizations that have been working on that, whether they’re grassroots building organizations or movement organizations building capacity and doing advocacy or direct service in those areas. [There,] you can see what we were demanding from the federal to the local level. You can start calling your elected officials and asking them, ‘Hey, are you supporting the Breathe Act?’ ‘Hey, have you read this section of the Vision for Black Lives?’ I believe in this and I think my friends and my family members do too. We want to be the gold star, we want to be the vanguard of the folks who are on the side of pushing the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

The last thing that I would say is check out national organizations that you might be able to get down with—if you’re a Black person, the Movement for Black Lives wants and needs you. And if you’re interested in building multi-racial formations that are following the leadership of Black, brown, and Indigenous folks, and Asian and Asian Pacific Islander folks, then you need to check out the Rising Majority. There are places building these organizational homes and absorbing our people, creating a sense of belonging for our folks where everybody has a role. 

There’s much to be excited about at this moment. The reason that we’re even in an opportunity to have a debate about gun violence and more money going to the cops is because millions of people got into the streets last year and said enough is enough. So we might be winning and this might be their way of responding to us shifting the status quo, but this is an not opportunity for us to let up. If anything, right now is exactly when we should be putting more pressure on the Biden administration, on Congress, on our state houses and senates, [and] on our local elected officials on the city and county level to make sure that we actually get what we demanded in the way that we intended.

Davis: Finally, I wanted to circle back to the Breathe Act. I love that description of it being a “love letter via policy” and I’ve always been interested in how a platform this comprehensive came together. What were some of the key considerations that you all made even before drafting it and then how did you build around those core themes to create this end result that is so incredibly detailed?

Henderson: I love this question because I think it’s really critical to understand it was regular people who made this happen. Yes, there were people who have done policy work for years and there were Black people who went to law school, but there were also regular country girls like me who have never really been in deep, long-lasting relationships with people on Capitol Hill [but] knew that something had to change. 

When I think about the backstory of how we got to Breathe, I would be remiss not to start with the Vision for Black Lives. Part of the reason [the Breathe Act] is so comprehensive is because we’d already spent years developing a comprehensive policy platform that [included] a lot of demands from the grassroots on local, state, and federal levels. So when it got to the point of millions in the streets and elected officials starting to position around whether or not they were going to support the demand to defund the police and to invest those dollars into our communities, it became clear that we needed to speak for ourselves about what we wanted on the federal level. 

The Breathe Act was heavily influenced by the divest-invest section of the Vision for Black Lives. Once we had written a draft we went back to those grassroots organizations—folks that were doing work around mental health services and making sure that families weren’t being ripped apart and criminalized, educators, folks in the disability justice movement and the gender justice movement, and more just to make sure that we were inclusive of the policy demands that they were fighting for and to make sure that we were giving people credit for the work that they had done for Black liberation. 

People sometimes think [we’re] just an organization that came together because we wanted to see the end of police brutality against all people, but particularly Black people directly impacted by that violence—and well, that’s true. But what’s also true is that we knew that it was going to require a movement of movements to actually see this [work] come to fruition and that’s what we’ve built and are now stewarding. So the story of the Breathe Act is literally a love story of folks who were willing to do whatever it took in a multi tactical, multi sector, Black-led way to ensure that we got the kind of legislative intervention on the federal level that we deserved and not just what we would concede to.

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson is a 35-year-old Affrilachian (Black Appalachian), woman from the working class, born and raised in Southeast Tennessee. She is the first Black woman to serve as co-executive director of the Highlander Research & Education Center in New Market, TN. As a member of multiple leadership teams in the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), Ash-Lee has thrown down on the Vision for Black Lives and the BREATHE Act. Henderson has served on the governance council of the Southern Movement Assembly, the advisory committee of the National Bailout Collective, and is an active leader of The Frontline. She is a long-time activist who has done work in movements fighting for workers, for reproductive justice, for LGBTQ+ folks, for environmental justice, and more.

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.