Statement on City Council Budget Vote
June 18, 2020
Friends and Members,
I was on a call earlier this week where a movement elder emphasized that these are unprecedented times. Following the leadership of Black communities and organizations, our nationwide response to continued police violence and murders has manifested into powerful uprisings that have inspired new possibilities for the radical visions of our movement.
This political moment—thanks to brilliant Black leadership across the country—has dramatically shifted the national narrative on policing, with calls to defund the police now gaining broader appeal. In the midst of so much grief and suffering, I have also felt inspired and hopeful in a new way.
Yet, on Monday, the Durham City Council voted unanimously to approve a 2020-2021 fiscal-year budget that does not meet our movement’s demands to defund the police. I see and affirm the disappointment and pain many of our Durham For All members and members of the broader progressive community are experiencing. I want to share how Durham For All is working to understand the vote and elaborate on what we think our organization’s role can be moving forward.
When we founded Durham For All in 2016, our team began by generating a collective vision of the future we want to build together so that our deepest beliefs can guide us. After our first two years of door knocking in people-of-color and working-class communities and after a series of discussions with movement leaders, we articulated a vision that includes sanctuary and justice for all. In it, we call for divesting from criminalization and mass incarceration and investing in jobs, housing, healthcare, education, and community-based justice solutions outside of the police and prison system.
As a grassroots political organization, Durham For All has been grappling with the challenge of translating our vision into practice and implementation. We believe a foundational part of this work involves building governing power by electing leaders from our movement into local political offices. And we have won powerful victories.
During last year’s budget process, four of our elected leaders took a bold stance against increased policing. Propelled by the visionary demands of the Durham Beyond Policing coalition, City Councilmembers Vernetta Alston, Javiera Caballero, Jillian Johnson, and Charlie Reece opposed the Police Department’s initial request to fund 72 new police officers and voted for zero new officers, instead allocating that funding to raise all city workers’ wages above $15 an hour.
This was an unprecedented vote and victory in advance of our current political moment, and we are now seeing more municipalities take similar actions. Durham For All is proud to have endorsed Councilmembers Caballero, Johnson, and Reece in their subsequent bid for re-election, during which some proponents of policing launched vitriolic attacks against them for their commitment to a Durham beyond policing. Durham For All did not do enough then to support our elected officials from the backlash they faced after taking a historic stand against police expansion.
On Monday, Durham City Council was again faced with the task of approving a budget. This year, our movement had one less voice and vote, as Vernetta Alston had moved into a seat in the North Carolina House. The four-person voting block that secured a powerful victory last year is no longer present.
Council also faced the sharp economic downturn brought about by COVID-19 and the far right’s disastrous response nationwide. The resulting plunge in revenue forced many compromises that few were happy with, particularly a freeze in merit pay raises for city employees.
Amidst hard choices, there were important victories. With the jobs of working class employees on the line, the Council preserved and protected all 2,400+ city jobs in the midst of this downturn. They also allocated $5 million to COVID relief. Both are crucial measures to support the economic well-being of our communities in this crisis.
Additionally, Mayor Steve Schewel joined Councilmembers Caballero, Johnson, and Reece to approve $1 million for alternatives to policing, based on recommendations from the new Community Safety and Wellness Task Force—five times (or $800,000 more than) the $200,000 that Durham Beyond Policing had initially requested. The $1 million is a step towards a commitment to increase Durham’s investment in community-based alternatives to policing, with the Council intending to allocate future funding on the basis of upcoming recommendations from the Task Force.
Some of us felt this was not enough and objected to the final City budget’s increase of the Police Department’s budget by over $1 million. This increase covers the baseline rising costs of existing services, rather than a pay raise or an expanded budget. But some in our movement felt the political moment offered an opportunity to immediately slash police budgets and decrease the size of the police force.
Durham For All shares the commitment to seize this moment to divest from policing, and we continue to grapple with how we transition a bold and powerful vision into practice. Within that, we recognize that our organization has not done enough in our movement role. We need to be more proactive with both movement partners and elected allies to work together towards our collective goals, which include defunding the police.
Since the budget vote, our elected allies, who less than six months ago were being attacked for being too radical in their commitment to alternatives to policing, are being called in for not being radical enough. On the one hand, this contradiction shows how rapidly public opinion is shifting towards our movement’s vision around defunding the police. On the other, it highlights that our movement must translate our momentum into continued organizing as we navigate the challenging work of systematically developing alternatives to policing, creating new institutions to advance those alternatives, and shifting funding towards those new institutions.
I would like Durham For All to be in conversation with our members and partners about taking a protect and correct approach to the elected leaders who have come out of our movements. When our elected allies take powerful stances like they did last year and get attacked by forces that aren’t aligned with our vision, we must be at their side. When they take actions that we are concerned may not be aligned with our vision, we must seek to understand their choices through dialogue, collectively assess misalignment, and if there is misalignment, address that from a place of solidarity. Our movement is multifaceted, so our assessments will look different based on the important roles we all play. Nonetheless, I believe we can move onward united.
Durham For All is committed both to the urgency of this political moment and to the necessary work of systematically developing the systems that can replace our current reliance on policing. As we build towards a model of collaborative co-governance, we are committed to working with community organizations leading the fight to defund the police, our elected allies, and our members to bring into reality our collective vision of a Durham for all.
Executive Director, Durham For All