News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.
Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.
March 31, 2020
By Katie Ferrari
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors will be voting on this issue on Tuesday, March 31. Find your supervisor and their contact information here.
Like law enforcement agencies across the country, the Alameda County Sheriff’s office is using the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to expand its powers. As shelter-in-place continues, and threatens to be enforced more strictly, Alameda County Sheriff Ahern wants to hire 263 new full-time cops and outfit them with weapons and body cameras. To do this, the Sheriff’s office is requesting an additional $85 million in funding each year for the next three year, on top of its annual budget of $185.7 million.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s office has a long history of racist policing, most recently the violent eviction of Moms 4 Housing this January. A larger police force is guaranteed to intensify the brutal policing and surveillance that the Bay Area’s marginalized communities already face.
COVID is an international crisis, a critical juncture that can shift the country and the world in one of two basic directions. We can move towards a more right-wing capitalism with greater inequality, eco-apartheid, and stronger surveillance states. Or we can heed this pandemic’s warning and nurture economic systems and governments that value people and the planet over profits. The full weight of Covid has not come crashing down on us yet, but the tension between these two futures is already playing out in Alameda County.
The Board of Supervisors has a choice on Tuesday, March 31st: will they pour $85 million into strengthening a racist police force that fundamentally protects property and the wealthy, or will they allocate those immense resources towards desperately needed health care?
If the Supervisors vote to expand funding for the sheriff’s department while nurses at Highland go without life-saving personal protection equipment, they will deepen the crisis that brought us to this point. Since the 1980s, the United States has defunded and privatized public goods like hospitals and schools. As the social safety net withered, cities and counties dramatically increased their spending on law enforcement. In 2017, Oakland spent $242.5 million on police, 41% of the city’s general fund. Now, underfunded public hospitals like Highland don’t have enough staff or supplies to care for the community during Covid. The extra $85 million the sheriff’s office is requesting is more than the $81.2 million the county loans to Alameda Health System, which administers Highland Hospital and eight other public hospitals and clinics.
It may be tempting to call on police to enforce social distancing, as many Californians continue to disregard the order to “shelter in place” and leave their homes only for essential tasks like grocery shopping or caring for family members. But the role of police has always been to protect capitalism, not people. “Shelter in Place” fines and misdemeanors will be distributed unevenly, following the racialized pattern of traffic stops and other police activity throughout the state: for example, despite accounting for 5% of San Francisco’s population, African Americans make up 26% of drivers stopped by police. Already marginalized communities will bear the financial and social burden of increased police scrutiny. On a larger scale, state violence is used to defend private property and wealth, from the brutal assaults on striking workers throughout the 20th century, to the water cannons fired at Standing Rock protestors in sub-zero temperatures, to the AR-15s and tactical gear used to evict Moms 4 Housing.
Gregory Ahern, who has been Alameda County Sheriff since 2006, is no exception. He, like many other sheriffs and cops, is sympathetic to far-right extremists. In 2007, he established Urban Shield, a major international convention where the world’s militarized police forces swap tactics and weapons. Last year, Ahern’s office opposed the Board of Supervisors’ recommendations to shift Urban Shield away from militarization and towards community-based preparedness strategies.
Police don’t keep communities safe, community does. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, spontaneous mutual aid efforts saved countless lives, while police and white vigilantes murdered African Americans accused of “looting.” Amid FEMA and Coast Guard inaction, locals commandeered small boats to rescue their stranded neighbors from rooftops across the city. Community groups like Common Ground worked with Florida’s Veterans for Peace and thousands of volunteers to run a health clinic, community kitchen, tool library, and more for years.
COVID is shining a glaring light on our country’s skewed priorities, and the choice between investing in care and criminalizing those in need has never been more stark. The pandemic and shelter-in-place have simultaneously made mutual aid and direct action more difficult — and more important than ever. As the federal government continues to bail out corporations and fan the flames of xenophobia the rest of us must come together to organize, disrupt, and push for what we need to survive this crisis: nationalized production of personal protective equipment, Medicare for All, rent moratoria, and more.
As Naomi Klein recently said, “the future will be determined by whoever is willing to fight harder.”