Is “Black Lives Matter” going to be the new “thoughts and prayers,” a hollow, meaningless phrase uttered by politicians in the absence of concrete policy change? A City Council that has rallied behind the slogan and a mayor who ordered it painted in large, yellow lettering along Fifth Avenue had a chance on Tuesday evening to prove otherwise. They failed.
What government institution is more outside of the community than the NYPD?
Rather than listen to demonstrators who have risked their lives to protest during a pandemic, endured weeks of beatings from the uniformed officers whose salaries their taxes pay and who have set up an ongoing encampment at City Hall so that those inside its chambers might better hear them, lawmakers instead showed an utter lack of will to put the force of action behind their words.
The central demand of the Black Lives Matter movement in New York City in recent weeks has revolved around the NYPD’s sprawling $6 billion budget. At a time when austerity looms over city agencies focused on education, health, transportation and housing, and 22,000 municipal employees are set to be laid off, surely money spent on harassing black and brown communities and suppressing the First Amendment rights of demonstrators is an ill-conceived investment, activists contend.
Yet in a budget vote of 32 to 17 just after midnight, the City Council signaled otherwise.
“When many thousands of New Yorkers marched and rallied under the #DefundNYPD banner, they were effectively promoting cuts to law enforcement’s power, personnel, duties and funding as the most effective way to end, not tweak or modify, the NYPD’s abusive, racist practices that target New Yorkers of color every day,” the Police Reform Organizing Project responded. “The recently approved city budget achieves none of those objectives.”
Chi Anunwa and Sumathy Kumar, leaders of the New York City wing of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a growing force in local politics, also issued a scathing statement: “After more than a month of daily protests, the City Council has deliberately ignored the calls to defund the police. A government budget is a reflection of values and every Council Member who voted yes last night showed that they value the interests of police unions and capital over black, brown and working-class lives.”
The socialist organization’s Lower Manhattan branch noted that some council members who voted against defunding had previously attended Black Lives Matter marches and taken selfies at Occupy City Hall.
More specifically, protesters called for at least $1 billion in cuts to the police department, a relatively modest demand given that it would bring its budget down to the size it was when Mayor Bill de Blasio first took office on a police reform platform in 2014. This proved too much for council members and the mayor to manage. Lawmakers fell back on equivocations, lies and budgetary slights of hand — the familiar way of doing business at City Hall at a time when a new politics is urgently being called for in the streets.
After initially announcing a paltry $23 million trimming to the NYPD — while, for instance, planning to carve more than half a billion dollars from the Department of Education — de Blasio backpedaled and agreed to more substantial cuts, though he wouldn’t cite a figure. A month passed. Then, on Monday, a day before the City Council’s vote, the public got a chance to see de Blasio’s revised budget.
While it does ostensibly cut the police budget by $1 billion, much of the savings stem from shifting the city’s 5,000 school safety officers from the NYPD’s payroll to the education department’s. More savings will allegedly come from a $300 million reduction to the NYPD’s overtime budget, which has ballooned under de Blasio, even as he has allowed the ranks of the department to grow, in order, he has insisted, to lower overtime costs. Police overtime expenditures — which are overseen by the department, not City Hall — totaled $700 million last year.
The budget also institutes a hiring freeze at all city agencies with the exception of the NYPD, which will be taking on new cadets starting in October.
Councilman I. Daneek Miller, who co-chairs the council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus defended his vote in favor of the mayor’s budget.
“We can’t allow folks from outside our community to lecture us about black lives and what we need in our communities,” he told the New York Times, referencing the multiracial crowd of demonstrators camping at City Hall.
Apparently drawing from the same playbook, Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo said she would have more respect for the protesters if they were “established political activists.”
“These are individuals who have never been seen before,” she said of the demonstrators, some of whom — including Jabari Brisport, a former challenger for her City Council seat — picketed Cumbo outside of her home earlier this month. “This movement is not being led by the black community.”
If Cumbo would deign to meet with the activists, she would see that it is.
The DSA’s Anunwa and Kumar expressed “disgust” at councilmembers who “appear more concerned with preserving their own image than with ending police violence against communities of color.”
Demographics of the demonstrators aside, one wonders, what government institution is more outside of the community than the NYPD? Forty-two percent of its employees live beyond the city limits, some as far as Orange County. Many more reside in the wealthy, white enclaves of the outer boroughs. On the salaries they’re paid, they can afford to. The department’s own patrol guide specifically prohibits officers from living in the precincts they police.
Tuesday’s vote appears to have been conducted partly along generational lines. Over the objections of the New York Democratic Party’s rising and youthful left flank, old guard, machine politicians played to the fears of older constituents — who are less likely to be harassed by police — that crime will rise if the NYPD is defunded.
But with 35 council seats open in 2021, the outcome the next time the department’s budget comes up for a vote could be different. One council candidate to look out for is Sandy Nurse, a Bushwick community activist who cut her teeth at Occupy Wall Street and is currently taking part in the Occupy City Hall encampment. She’s running to represent North Brooklyn in District 37, following the resignation of Rafael Espinal.
“The assumptions here are so wild,” Nurse said of Cumbo’s remarks, tweeting that the Majority Leader’s narrative is “tired.”
Complicating the outcome of Tuesday’s vote is Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a possible 2021 mayoral contender. Citing an obscure provision in the city’s charter, he pledged Wednesday to prevent New York from collecting property taxes.
The budget “sends a message to New Yorkers that, in a time of economic and public health devastation, the city cannot adequately fund senior services, city hospitals or youth jobs, cannot afford to hire doctors, nurses, teachers, guidance counselors, social workers — but unquestionably needs to add over 1,000 police officers,” Williams said in a statement. “It perpetuates the idea that the NYPD is sacrosanct and the solution is always more police and that we must accept this.”
Williams’ refusal to sign tax warrants will likely be contested in court.
Meanwhile, despite multiple attempts by the NYPD to violently clear the encampment, demonstrators remain at City Hall.
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