Covid, Race, and the Revolution

The false promise of police reform, stabilizing and protecting renters, the rising power of Black women, and more, in this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution.

Issue No 48. April 21, 2021

The False Promise of Police Reform

By Monique Guevara, Aja Love, Sara Mokuria, and Anand Subramanian

George Floyd deserves to be alive today. For some, his killer’s conviction brought a sense of relief, but the feeling was short lived—as the verdict was read, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot to death by police in Columbus, Ohio, after reportedly calling them for help. The institution of policing neither protects nor serves Black lives. It is an inherently flawed system that causes more than a 1,000 deaths annually and countless other instances of harm and brutality. 

Just a few miles from where George Floyd’s killer was convicted, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was on the phone with his mother when a 26-year veteran police officer shot and killed him last week. It’s a heartbreaking reminder of George Floyd’s final words, a different kind of call to his own mother. George Floyd’s girlfriend had been Daunte’s teacher. These connections are not uncommon or surprising — they speak to the scale of state violence Black Americans experience daily. There were only 18 days when the police did not kill someone in the United States in 2020, despite a global pandemic that kept most people at home until George Floyd’s murder brought record numbers of people into the streets to demand justice. We cannot begin to quantify all that we have lost at the hands of the carceral system’s caging, brutalizing, and killing of Black people — so much harm created and so much potential extinguished. 

One thing is certain: we cannot turn to the false promise of police reform for answers. The work does not stop because of one conviction. At the time of George Floyd’s killing, the Minneapolis Police Department had every recommended reform in place. Minnesota had spent $12 million on premier police training after Philando Castile was killed by police in 2016; 119 people in the state were subsequently killed by law enforcement. 

The futility of police reform is not unique to Minneapolis. When PolicyLink issued the report of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement — an investigation of the San Francisco Police Department for institutionalized bias — it included a timeline that highlighted the repeated cycle of egregious police misconduct followed by public outrage and failed reform attempts over 80 years. In October 2016, panel member Judge LaDoris Cordell read that timeline into the record at a San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting, warning that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Police reform has failed, and always will, because policing itself is built on anti-Blackness, “the devaluing and dehumanizing of people who are Black, [which] is deeply rooted in American culture and economic policies.” The throughline between slavery and our criminal-legal system is now well-known and popularly accepted, thanks partly to the brilliant work of Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow and Ava Duvernay’s 13th. Policing is the frontline of that system — it exists to protect and further entrench white supremacy and racial capitalism. Evidence of this is everywhere, from the commonplace practice of racial profiling to police prioritzing the protection of property over people to the pervasive presence of white nationalist groups in police departments. Policing is operating as designed and, therefore, cannot be fixed. It must be completely replaced with equitable mechanisms of safety, connectivity, dignity, and care. Acknowledging this truth and its implications — both today and in the context of America’s accumulation of wealth and power built on enslavement and genocide — is a foundational prerequisite towards the racial healing and reconciliation needed for a safe and thriving society.

Keeping every community safe requires addressing the root causes of social challenges such as poverty, mental illness, joblessness, and the housing crisis — issues that police respond to with handcuffs, chokeholds, and guns. The path toward true public safety is to divest from our harmful, unjust carceral system and invest in people of color and low-income communities. Promising efforts to do so are taking place across the country, including in Oakland and Austin. As we “build back better,” we must do so with an understanding that infrastructure investments directly impact public safety and target investments to people of color, who have historically been excluded from massive infrastructure programs.

While we invest more resources to build an equitable safety infrastructure, we must also reduce the harm of our existing system by minimizing interactions between police and civilians. As a start, cities and counties must immediately end the use of fines and fees — another anti-Black strategy designed to extract wealth from those who can least afford it. Attempting to levy fines and fees to raise revenue — as opposed to fairly taxing corporations and people who can easily afford to pay — is a commonplace, ineffective, and unjust strategy that disproportionately targets Black people. When jurisdictions attempt to raise revenue via fines and fees, police are incentivized to issue citations and make arrests. In fact, the data suggest that most police departments receive direct revenue benefits from fines and fees enforcement, and many direct their traffic patrol efforts to neighborhoods where people have a large number of outstanding warrants. 

Officers killed Daunte Wright while attempting to arrest him for overdue court fines in the amount of $346. In South Carolina, a police officer shot and killed Walter Scott, who carried a warrant for unpaid child support debt. Philando Castile had been stopped by law enforcement 49 times for minor traffic and vehicle infractions before being shot and killed during a traffic stop in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter.

Ending policing, fines and fees, and other anti-Black systems will be a protracted struggle that requires all of us. At PolicyLink, the Community Safety and Justice and Eliminating Fines and Fees teams are partnering with impacted people, grassroots organizations, advocates, and governments to build a transformative public safety infrastructure:

  • PolicyLink co-founded the People’s Coalition for Safety and Freedom, a diverse network of organizations leading a grassroots collective process to replace and remedy the harms caused by the ‘94 Crime Bill (register now for a teach-in on alternatives to policing, another critical strategy to transform our public safety system). 
  • PolicyLink co-facilitated Oakland’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force to invest 50 percent of the Oakland Police Department’s general fund allocation into alternative responses and programs that will reduce police interactions and increase community investment. 
  • Through Building Beyond Policing, PolicyLink is working toward a principled long-term movement to transform our safety infrastructure away from one focused on criminalization and surveillance to one centered in community investment and well-being.
  • PolicyLink co-created Cities and Counties for Fine and Fee Justice and — as part of the Debt Free Justice California coalition — recently helped pass the Families Over Fees Act, repealing the authority of California counties to charge people for 23 of the most harmful fees imposed in the criminal-legal system.

The story of this country is one of racial and economic injustice and the struggle to rectify it. Frantz Fanon writes, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” At PolicyLink, we believe that the mission of our generation is to create a just and fair society for all. But we will never have justice or equity unless we acknowledge that our current public safety system of criminalization, surveillance, and punishment exacerbates violence and inequity, cannot be reformed, and will never keep us safe. 

Senior Associates Monique Guevara, Aja Love, and Sara Mokuria and Managing Director Anand Subramanian are part of the PolicyLink Community Safety and Justice and Eliminating Fines and Fees teams.

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web

A word from PolicyLink President and CEO

Michael McAfee shares his honest reflection in light of the verdict yesterday, naming the oftentimes challenging reality of holding today's pain alongside the hope for a new future. Find his full statement here.

Covid collides with mass incarceration

Covid-19 has magnified the devastating impact of mass incarceration, and our policies of mass incarceration have exacerbated the pandemic. For nearly 400 days, 1,500 men and women in the District of Columbia jail have been locked in their cells for 23 hours a day to stop the coronavirus from spreading, the Washington Post reports. They have been denied visits, haircuts, library time, and until recently, even a few moments outdoors — a form of mass solitary confinement, though without basic services normally provided to those in solitary. “That’s insane,” an official tells the newspaper. 

To cut down on coronavirus transmission, many jails and prisons have released people locked up for low-level offenses. But these policies do not address how other law enforcement practices, including arrest and pretrial detention, fuel the spread of the coronavirus. A new study in Health Affairs finds that cycling people through Chicago’s Cook County Jail was associated with nearly one in six confirmed cases of Covid in that city and statewide. The findings support arguments that reducing reliance on incarceration is essential for public health, write researchers Eric Reinhart and Daniel L. Chen.

Stabilizing and protecting renters

The National Equity Atlas and the Right to the City Alliance released a new rent debt dashboard, equipping advocates and policymakers with timely data on the extent of renter debt nationwide and in their communities. We estimate that renters collectively owe about $20 billion in back rent. The mounting debt burden and the potential for mass eviction are one of the most pressing equity issues created by the pandemic. Low-wage workers, disproportionately people of color, are most likely to be impacted. Visit the dashboard to review the data and see the accompanying analysis for key insights and actions that local, state, and federal policymakers can take to address rent debt head-on, stabilize those hardest hit by the pandemic, and facilitate equitable recovery.

Eviction records dog people for years, as landlords use them to screen prospective tenants. The Philadelphia City Council is considering bills to stop blanket eviction bans and other discriminatory practices that deny people a fair shot at securing stable, affordable housing, WHYY reports. The legislation would be particularly helpful to Black women, who disproportionately face eviction and have been hardest hit by the economic fallout of Covid-19.

The rising power of Black women

The recent election of Tishaura Jones as the first first Black woman mayor of St. Louis is part of a surge of Black women being voted into powerful offices in US cities, Barbara Rodriguez writes in The 19th. As of March 2021,  the mayors of the 100 largest cities included 32 women, seven of them Black. “We’re seeing a reshape of what executive leadership looks like,” said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, an expert on Black women’s political power. The change isn’t confined to the mayor’s office. From 2016 to 2020, women of color, including Black women, had large increases in political representation in elected positions in cities across the country, according to the Reflective Democracy Campaign.

The trend has emerged as many longtime mayors announce plans to leave their jobs, often citing Covid exhaustion among their reasons, the New York Times reports. While the past year has been brutal for officials who hold what’s considered to be the most hands-on, personal job in politics, the departures open opportunities for new, more diverse leadership.

The Ford Foundation has committed $15 million to seed a new global initiative to support Black women and girls on the front lines of movements for equality and justice, Darren Walker, the foundation’s president, writes in The Root. “For too long, the contributions of women and girls of color have remained unrecognized. And further, we know that this recognition alone is not sufficient — that we must give the power and resources to the people and communities closest to them to solve problems.”

How New Mexico advanced vaccine equity

Despite a high poverty rate, limited public health infrastructure, and a vast rural landscape, New Mexico has emerged as a leader in getting its population vaccinated — including people of color, Politico reports. It has administered shots to Black and Latinx residents at a higher rate than any other state, and achieved a relatively rapid rollout to its large Native American populations. Other states are looking at the model, which has leveraged a streamlined appointment process, partnerships with community and tribal leaders and health providers, and "Trusted Voices," a multilingual media campaign featuring local residents who dispel myths and encourage vaccination.

The pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of concerns about rare blood clots has disrupted campaigns to inoculate some of the most marginalized communities in the country, including homebound patients, migrant farmworkers, and people experiencing homelessness, Bloomberg reports. The J & J version, which requires just a single shot, is the most popular among people who are hesitant to get vaccinated, and experts fear the suspension may turn people off just as vaccine acceptance has grown — especially among Black communities.

Half of US adults have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine and about a third are fully vaccinated, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All adults in the US are now eligible. But in hundreds of counties vaccination rates are low,  in some cases, as low as the teens. That makes it questionable whether the country will ever reach herd immunity.  The New York Times examined vaccine data for nearly every US county and its findings suggested that the disparities reflect political divisions: rates of vaccination or plans to get the shots were lower, on average, in counties that voted to reelect Trump. 

Republicans and rural residents are now the groups most likely to say they will not get a vaccine, Axios reports. Black Americans are among the groups most likely to take a “wait and see” approach and to face access barriers.

Anti-Asian hate spurs activism

The wave of anti-Asian attacks has galvanized Asian American artists to activism, the New York Times reports. Many are using their art and finding solidarity with each other to push back against hate and protest issues that endanger their communities, such as income inequality, surveillance of immigrant neighborhoods, and the criminalization of sex work. 

In New York, as in other cities, Asian Americans and allies are banding together to make the streets safer, with resident patrols, trained bystander intervention, and other nonpolicing strategies, the Times writes

Amid concerns about Covid and racist violence and harassment, Asian American families in Boston are refusing to send their children back to the classroom at far higher rates than any other group, the Boston Globe reports. With public elementary and middle schools set to reopen full time later this month, just 35 percent of Asian American students plan to return, compared with 59 percent of Black and Latinx students, and 72 percent of White students. Sacramento and Chicago have seen similar disparities

On the website The Conversation, three scholars discuss the safety of Asian American children and how schools can create environments that reduce harm, buffer the pain of discrimination, and help all students feel safe and protected.

While Black and Latinx students have returned to the classroom in large numbers, equity advocates are pushing back on the federal demand for standardized testing to resume. “Inflicting tests on students during a pandemic will only magnify the inequities these tests were designed to reflect,” the Journey for Justice Alliance writes in an open letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

Federal policy excludes some Indian nations

Federal recognition provides tribes with critical resources, including health care and education. But what happens to the hundreds of tribal nations that the US refuses to recognize? High Country News looks at the “slow-motion genocide” of the Chinook Indian Nation, which has failed to win recognition despite decades of lawsuits, petitions, and appeals to presidents. Indigenous people are dying of Covid at 2.5 times the rate of White people, but unrecognized tribes have not received any of the billions of dollars Congress approved in aid for Native communities.

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We hope you find this series an important tool for keeping up with news about the virus and its impact on communities we serve. As a non-profit organization, PolicyLink is honored to provide resources to support the needs of our nation's 100 million economically insecure individuals. Generous partners like you make our work possible. 

Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.