A demonstrator outside Oakland police headquarters on May 29 carries a sign carrying the dying words—"I can't breathe"—spoken by George Floyd, Black man killed May 25 by police in Minneapolis. (Beth Laberge/KQED)
Updated June 22, 11:00am.
With protests across the country calling for cities to defund local police departments, police abolition has entered the mainstream lexicon, along with calls to channel police funding into social services that promote healthier communities.
In Oakland, a city that’s seen school closures and a rapid rise in homelessness in recent years, the police budget takes up around 44% of the general fund. And yet, OPD has been under federal oversight for nearly two decades and has failed to meet standards for reform. After the 2016 sex abuse scandal and numerous fatal police shootings over the past decade, activists are calling for Oakland to take millions of dollars out of its police budget and invest in social services while the city council grapples with a budget crisis due to the COVID-19 economic shutdown.
Below, activists, educators and artists imagine what community-driven efforts to keep the peace could look like in Oakland.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
“In conjunction with our defund OPD campaign, we’ve been very focused on building a model of response to mental health and interpersonal violence that does not rely on law enforcement. We don’t understand why—when we should be sending compassionate care—we’re sending a badge and a gun. We made a very specific demand in the last budget cycle to redirect money from the police to make sure that Oakland had a 24/7 mental health crisis response team.
Even though the school district government and city government are separate, I think it would behoove us to invest that money in our schools and in our children. We could double or triple the summer job program. Cleaning up our city—we have a massive rat infestation in deep East and West Oakland, which brings with it all sorts of health problems that need to be addressed.
We need to house people and get the people sleeping on Oakland’s streets into shelter and provide them with all the resources and supports they need. We could spend the money ensuring that when people come home from jails and prisons, they have the resources to get back on their feet.
We need to invest in co-ops that could create green jobs for Oaklanders. We need to clean up our environment—we have the dirtiest air in East and West Oakland. All of that stuff requires funding.
We need to invest in humanity, not punitive policing. It doesn’t work—if it worked, we’d be the safest country in the world because we incarcerate more people than any other country on the planet.”
“I’m on the side of defunding the police as a way to abolish the police and as a way to abolish prisons and the legal system that entraps mainly Black and brown people for very long periods of time.
Oakland is a huge hot spot for child sex trafficking. The money that is defunded from police should go to organizations that are on the ground working against human trafficking, providing mental heath services for young people especially, services for people without homes. Those are what keep our streets safe. Organizations like Claire’s House, Regina’s Door, MISSSEY and other collectives around the Bay Area doing healing and liberation and therapy, especially for people of color and Black people—those services should be invested into. Those organizations have to be poured into so that we as a community know how to stand on our own two feet to handle harm when it comes up, because it will come up. People who know how to talk to survivors, be respectful of each others’ experiences and know the gravity of trauma.
I am a survivor of rape, and when I brought my case to the police, all the emphasis was on catching this predator and putting him behind bars. A lot of survivors of trafficking experience times when their abuser does go behind bars, their trafficker gets incarcerated. And still, the problem of trafficking doesn’t end. Another pimp picks you up, or that pimp gets out of prison and keeps doing the same thing. There’s no transformative work that’s being done. There needs to be more of a compassionate emphasis around the experience of a survivor and what a survivor needs to heal and be safe in community. A lot of the time, a survivor needs visibility and the ability to use their voice. Also to have stable housing and a pathway to a career.
Those ideologies are really what make us safe, as opposed to constantly capturing people, putting them away and filtering them back into society, often with more vindication and more trauma than what they had before.”
“As someone who grew up in the ’80s, when you were pulled over by the police and the first thing they told you was, ‘Don’t fucking move. I’ll shoot you. I promise you.’ We absolutely have to do away with that system. It still exists today, it’s just more relevant now because it’s on camera. We have to defund the police to eventually abolish them. That money needs to be put into reentry programs, taking care of the homeless, education and mental health programs. I remember being a kid and going to a Boys and Girls Club-type thing after school, and when they shut that down I didn’t have anything to do but be in the streets.
Communities are more resilient than people give them credit for, but often they don’t have the resources. We have to learn to genuinely care about the next human being no matter what they might be, whether they are Black, white, queer—whatever. We can’t do away with the system and create another system.
It’s tricky because there will always be bad seeds, you can’t expect everyone to be great and to care about the next human being altruistically. But we can start going to our youth and plant seeds now of what love looks like, what community looks like, and hope that when we are 10, 15, 20 years down the line that those seeds grow into something sustainable.
There are people really impacted by the system, whether it’s the incarceration side of things or the police system. Who knows better what it means to be persecuted than the people who are impacted by the system? We want everybody to be involved. But you should leave it to those impacted by these systems to get the message out there and rally behind them.”
Kortney Ziegler, creator of the Appolition bail fund app
“The global pandemic where the whole economy shuts down and everyone has to be inside—I think it’s a perfect time for people to extend that imagination to envisioning the world without police and how we can use the surplus of money that’s being used to terrorize American citizens, as well as anyone that lives here, for so many other things. Education, community spaces, more social services and healthcare. I’m really excited about what’s happening now in the conversation, but I’m worried a lot of the conversation is about defunding and keeping police around rather than figuring out how we can live in the world without police.
When people have things they need to lead a healthy life—education, access to healthcare, food, equality, resources—our idea of crime will probably be nonexistent. Living in this country, a very violent country that has significant levels of poverty, people are committing crimes because of that. A lot of people are ill in this country because of the violence. There are a number of things the American public has to address when we discuss abolition because it relates to our mental health, how we relate to each other and what it means to be accountable in a community, and how we institute practices where we hold people accountable without policing them.”
“There are so many artists out here that need to be supported, especially with COVID-19. Cultural affairs could be one area where we directly divert those funds from [OPD]. At the same time, we can’t take money from anywhere in Oakland without addressing the housing issue, addressing homelessness. That has to be at the top of the list.
OUSD has been in budget crisis for years, even to the point where they were taken over by state government years ago because the budget was in disarray. Teachers’ salaries—I’m a teacher involved in the union negotiations trying to fight for fair wages, a wage where we can live in this high-priced market. A lot of our teachers have to move away because they don’t make enough money.
There need to be more spaces where our youth can be creators, can be leaders, whether it’s putting more money into places like East Oakland Youth Development Center and Eastside Arts Alliance. Anything that can help develop these powerful youth. It’s obvious they have ideas and they have civic engagement. They marched to Libby Schaaf’s house. They have all this energy, and we have to find a way to channel this energy into a positive direction.
And with COVID, there should be a small business relief fund, especially when it comes to business owned by people of color.
We have an Oakland Community Police Review Agency, so that needs to be developed more so people know what it is, who’s involved and how to get involved.”
“Historically, the police are an institution that is built on the foundation of slave catching. Throughout my entire life growing up here [in Oakland] and in Los Angeles, I have never had a good experience with the police. Furthermore, when I was in an abusive relationship with someone with mental health issues, I would never call the police out of fear that they would kill my former partner. I don’t believe we should have police exist in its current form.
I want specialized experts who address sexual assault, I want specialized experts to be able to come to somebody’s home when there are mental health issues.
I would like to have collaborative program for when I have issues with noise or fireworks in my community, or I notice someone is abusing an animal. I would like for service workers to be easily accessible. I don’t believe the police are necessary for that. We don’t need force of peace keepers who are so heavily militarized.
I believe in abolishing the police and I think it starts with defunding them. But I fully believe we have to transition to another way of keeping the peace. That’s something that’s many years away, but it has to evolve from investing in things that work."
“Considering that this is a government service, and being from communities where the government has constantly neglected us, I think it is only proper to defund the police and create something that is community oriented and actually serves the people. We pay taxes for it.
Millions of dollars were actually put into Black communities in the ’60s and ’70s, but it was through COINTELPRO. It was through the FBI coming in and tearing Black communities apart. For the first time in a very long time, we have the opportunity to control where government money is spent in favor of the Black community. We have to rectify and get reparations for what has already happened.
There has to be an integration of the Black Panthers’ ideals and values and history into the Oakland Unified curriculum. I think that’s specifically because, if we’re going to understand how to move forward and what the issues are at hand, we need the entire population of the Bay Area, the entire United States, to jump on board and realize history was not always done right. We should not embrace the American identity that was, that oppressed Black people and other people of color.
In order to reimagine [policing], it has to be on a very local scale. I think when we say police abolition, we think nationwide, it’s going to be a sweeping change, it’s going to look uniform. I think it starts in that very grassroots, community local scale.”
Correction: This article originally stated that the budget for the Oakland Police Department constitutes 44% of Oakland’s total city budget. The OPD budget constitutes 44% of the general fund, not the total city budget.
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