News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

June 03, 2020

Defund the Oakland police

By David Cremins

A pandemic — when crime is down and local governments face huge revenue shortfalls, yet killings by cops continue apace — is the perfect time to defund the police. That is especially true in cities like Oakland, where the police department (OPD) eats up a huge share of salary and overtime pay, accounting for nearly half of the city’s discretionary spending. In response to a potential $80 million budget gap, Oakland’s elected leaders confront a pressing question: Should we maintain the status quo of investing in police “reform,” at the continued expense of life-affirming public programs, or meaningfully reduce the power of OPD? Their answer should be clear: Cops with unfettered access to the latest weapons and surveillance tools are not necessary for public safety, and in fact are often the biggest threat to it. We must defund OPD and pass the savings on to the people.

Local activists have worked for years to stop the growth of OPD and audit their activity. They have pointed to myriad abuses of power within the department, including the overuse and underreporting of brutal and often lethal force against Black people, sexual exploitation of minors, planting of drugs, framing of innocent people, and rampant racial profiling. In addition, groups such as Defund OPD argue that many functions currently carried out by OPD (for example, parking enforcement and responding to mental health crises) could be handled more safely and effectively by civilian employees. 

These campaigns have made little progress, however. Police unions are powerful, secretive, and fiercely loyal to even their worst members. Very few politicians want to cross them, so they continue to accumulate influence and money. As is true of the police in Minneapolis and elsewhere, OPD avoids accountability by hiding behind buzzwords like “community policing,” accepting limited reforms such as body cams and bias training, and diversifying their ranks. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf — like many Democratic politicians — offers only abstract platitudes in support of “peaceful protest” while criticizing the ongoing uprising against police brutality because it threatens private property. Meanwhile, Schaaf opposes the expansion of citizen’s oversight of OPD, blocking a progressive measure advocated for by the Anti-Police Terror Project and approved by Oakland voters.

At the moment, Oakland’s proposed plan to balance its budget by June 30 would freeze all hiring and cut arts, recreation, and vocational training programs. Even with these measures, our City Council will have to further reduce spending by about $10.5 million. To accomplish this, they are currently in negotiations with public-sector unions to adjust salary and benefit contracts with city employees. The city’s budget director, however, pointed out to the Council that the entire expected revenue gap is “equal to the annual cost of…employing 320 police officers, about half the police force.” Intentionally or not, this statement suggests another way Oakland can meet the moment.

We are in the midst of the largest Black-led uprisings against racism and police brutality in a generation. Alongside this movement in the streets, from New York to Los Angeles, from Austin to Philadelphia, people are insisting that their city’s budgets reflect the fact that spending more money on police in the name of reform has not been enough. We need to defund the cops. 

Defunding the police is crucial to ending state-sanctioned violence against Black and Brown people. Whether you identify as a socialist, a police abolitionist, or someone who is just fed up with racist police brutality, we all have a responsibility to support communities subject to that violence, be actively anti-racist, and push our local leaders take action to affirm that Black Lives Matter.

Read East Bay DSA’s full statement on the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Steve Taylor, and countless others and how you can help fight back.

If you live in Oakland, let your city council member know our mid-cycle budget reconciliation should prioritize defunding OPD and preserving other government services.