Community members gathered on Thursday to confront violence and public safety with a bottom-up, demand-side strategy, offering alternatives to policing.
Roughly 100 local residents attended a town-hall meeting Thursday in Flatbush to address violence occurring in New York City. Among a sea of orange T-shirts exclaiming ‘communities united against gun violence,’ a diverse crowd shared food and passed drinks as panel members took their seats.
The panel brought together some of New York City’s leading anti-carceral organizers. They advocated a holistic approach to the issue of violence; instead of merely addressing the issue in terms of blood and bullets, muggings and homicides. Violence is too narrowly defined by the media and politicians and should include a wider range of aggressions and causes, panelists posited.
“What will we need to do to end gun violence? Universal mental health, living-wage jobs, $1 billion for community-based drug intervention, invest in our youth!, and affordable housing and investment in our neighborhoods,” read the poster announcing the event.
The event was co-moderated by New York Communities for Change tenant organizer Winsome Pendergrass and David Alexis, a democratic socialist who is challenging state senate District 21 incumbent Kevin Parker in the August 23 Democratic primary.
Panel members began by acknowledging the multitude of public safety crises that burden New Yorkers.
Panelist Jawanza Williams, activist and director of organizing at VOCAL-NY, a member-led organization that builds power among low-income people impacted by HIV/AIDS, the drug war, mass incarceration and homelessness, emphasized that “violence isn’t just bullets, mace, handcuffs. Violence is also the defunding of NYC public schools. Violence is also mass homelessness.” Williams pointed out that while the NYPD was fully funded in the city’s recently-announced annual budget, school funding and other public services were cut.
Also on the panel was Professor Alex Vitale, professor of sociology, coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing. In the book, Vitale argues that the police, as an institution, are ill-suited for almost all the work they do and that their interactions with the public should be reduced to the absolute minimum possible.
At Thursday’s forum, Vitale juxtaposed the various forms of violence with the universal, solitary response to it. “Right now, there’s one strategy for all of these different types of violence: Let’s send the police.” He posits that this is a ‘supply-side strategy’ that is not working and will continue to be ineffective no matter the extent of police training or gun-control laws.
A call for a New Deal for Public Safety that would create 25,000 permanent new community-based, public safety jobs over the next five years.
“We’re going to criminalize the guns, criminalize the gun carrying, and we’re going to use the police to stop and search people, to stop people in cars, to get into everyone’s business in hopes of intimidating people so thoroughly that they won’t carry guns,” Vitale said. “Is it working? There are more people carrying guns than ever before. What we need is a demand-side strategy. Why are people picking up guns? Why are people carrying guns? Why are people using guns?”
Numerous studies have found that violence is caused by discriminatory public policy and often stoked by the police. Some cities and counties have actually discovered that by stopping prosecution of low-level, nonviolent crimes — by limiting neighborhood policing — violent crime rates went down.
“Police have not been effective in actually providing security or solving our problems. And what’s even worse is that they themselves are a source of problems, of violence and difficulty,” said Vitale. “Every day, they take more and more resources away from the things that we would really like to have to produce safe, healthy, secure communities. Where are the resources for our young people to do safe things after school? Where are the resources for affordable housing? These are the things that get at the real problem.”
Pendergrass agrees. Speaking with The Indypendent after the panel ended, she said, “to tackle the problem of violence, one needs to start in the home, the school, and the wider community.” For that reason, NYCC has endorsed Alexis. “We need someone new,” Pendergrass said. “Someone young, someone who is on the streets and knows what the youth want, what the middle class want and what the working class is fighting for.”
“It’s essential to try to stop the core reasons that cause gun crime, and I think that we can do this with an aggressive investment in the community.” Alexis told The Indypendent. His New Deal for Public Safety seeks to create 25,000 permanent new community-based public safety jobs over the next five years. Some of these positions include youth recreation workers, community anti-violence specialists, library support staff, homeless outreach workers, and drug-related harm-reduction workers. He also seeks to put thousands to work in well-paid, unionized construction jobs to build and maintain public housing, community centers, and schools. Moreover, Alexis wants to hire more mental health outreach workers, school counselors, drug treatment specialists, and trauma counselors. He contends that people will flock to these jobs because the wages, benefits, and job security would be increased to match that of police officers.
“Alternatives to policing exist,” said New York City Councilmember Tiffany Cabán (D-Astoria), a former public defender who also participated in the panel.
Pendergrass said the inspiration for the panel came from a May 22 demonstration against gun violence that NYCC organized in central Brooklyn. The event drew more than 200 people of all ages despite the stifling heat. NYCC decided to build on that momentum by organizing the town hall forum to engage the community more deeply.
Towards the end of the panel discussion, conversation was opened up to the audience. One woman asked a question in Spanish that was translated by one of the event’s interpreters. “My son is eight-years-old, and the question he asked me is, ‘How can we keep our schools safe and make sure no one can bring guns into the school?’,” she asked. Panelists responded by reemphasizing the need for robust community investment to combat crime and that guns — whether carried by teachers or cops — generally don’t reduce gun violence.
“Once a school shooting starts, it’s too late to call the police. People are already dead. That’s the lesson they learned in Uvalde. Forty percent of the local budget in Uvalde goes to police and they couldn’t save anyone,” said Vitale.
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