Cat Brooks on Refunding the Community

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Cat Brooks, standing on a flatbed truck, speaking at at community event in Oakland.  (courtesy of the Cat Brooks for Oakland campaign)

In January of this year, Cat Brooks and the Anti Police-Terror Project launched a service where trained professionals are called to respond to mental health crises; it's an alternative to people calling the police to handle the situation.

Mental Health First, or M.H. First, initially launched in Sacramento, and began serving Oakland this summer.

Around the same time, Oakland's City Council set aside $1.35 million to fund the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program-- which has a similar aim as M.H. First. But MACRO's services leave a gap in coverage, as its hour of operation coincide with the traditional work week.

"If you're fortunate enough to have your mental health breakdown between the hours of 9:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday, you might get some help," Brooks says facetiously. "Other than that, you know, it's 9-1-1."

Without trained mental health professionals, police interactions can be deadly. The Washington Post's police shooting database reports that nationally over the past year, around a quarter of those killed by police officers are people with mental health issues.

Cat Brooks speaking to a group of people
Cat Brooks speaking to a group of people (Stephen Flynn)

Brooks says that M.H. First is just one part of the effort to refund the community and divest from overspending on police.

This week on Rightnowish, Brooks discusses M.H. First, the racism she encountered as a young person and she traces her organizing origins back to the killing of Oscar Grant-- a case which was recently been reopened.

Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Cat Brooks.

PEN: I’ll just ask you blatantly: Why not go through established police departments?

CAT: Well, nationally one in four people gunned down by law enforcement are in the middle of a mental health crisis. Police are not trained, nor do they actually want to do this work. Oakland Police Department will say 'well, we've got crisis intervention training.' In municipalities across the country, [this training] is usually eight to fifteen hours. To be a mental health professional requires thousands of hours before you can work with someone professionally.

The other reason is that police are trained to force compliance and to do that through violence and force if necessary. And so when law enforcement shows up, your job is to do what they say when they say it, how fast they say it and the way in which they say it. And just not doing any of those things can get somebody seriously injured or killed as we see, you know, daily... People in mental health crisis or who may not be sharing our reality often cannot respond to those commands, do not understand those commands, which law enforcement is trained to see as somebody resisting.

Because of the way that we've stigmatized and demonized mental health crisis, it usually results in incarceration. We talk about people being in mental health crisis. A lot of times what we're having are mental health moments. And I say often, I don't know how you're Black or brown or in distress support in this country and you're not having mental health moments. And what we've seen, particularly right now, you know, in the middle of this pandemic is people are having more and more of those moments. Because people are losing their jobs and they're losing their housing or they're sick or they're afraid of getting sick or they're losing loved ones to this virus or their essential worker. I mean, there's all of the stressors that go along with this particular moment in time. And sometimes people just need to be heard. They just need to be listened to. They need someone to talk to them.

PEN: This is something you've written about recently in the San Francisco Examiner. You mentioned how local police unions in the Bay Area have co-opted some of the language that yourself and other organizers have been using in terms of community policing. For someone who's not introduced to the work, why is that significant?

CAT: Well, when you start to see your opponent not condemn your message, but co-opt it, then you know that you're doing something right. You know that it’s resonating. You know that they’re clear that they have to shift strategy and that the public debate has been impacted in a particular way.

Around 2014 to 2016, when we saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, what we saw was the rise of the Blue Lives Matter movement, right? And a lot of the messaging was about how dangerous it is to be a police officer. The demonization of protesters, things like that.

And I think it's a testament to the organizing that has happened over the last few years that they weren't able to do that this time. We've seen enough dead bodies. We’ve seen enough protests. We've done a good enough job in the media.

...We have been taught from very young ages. Myself included, that cops are the good guys. They get the kittens out of the tree. That's who keeps us safe. And so there are folks who still believe that if we do enough trainings, if we do enough body cameras, if we do enough reform, if we shift use of force policies, that maybe things will get better. And when that messaging is coming out of law enforcement, they're promising to do that. I think it's easier for some people to put their faith in the system that they know, even though it doesn't work.

And that's what I think this moment is begging of us, is demanding of us, is that we completely reimagine what public safety looks like. That we're committed to completely transforming the way in which we keep our communities safe. And it's time that we do something radically and dramatically different when it comes to public safety in our communities.

PEN: It's a larger conversation that has to do with redirecting funds toward different aspects of society that could lead to people not having to call the police. When you start to pull the threads away at defunding the police, what's the first brick that you have to move in order to get there?

CAT: Building what we call small, replicable models. It's on us as organizers to show the people something different. That you can have a response to mental health like Mental Health First that doesn't rely on law enforcement. And that keeps people safe and keeps families together.

You've got to build a movement. I think it's important to understand, at least within the context of Oakland, that “Defund OPD” is not a new phrase. That campaign was started by the Anti Police-Terror Project five years ago. And we were laughed out of rooms. And so organizing is important, Pen. And impacting the public debate is important, Pen.

And I'll cop to this: It might have been a bad comms move to call it defund police. Because I think people hear that [and freak out]. We should've led with “refund community.” We are talking about using data driven strategies, techniques, practices and policies to divest from things that we don't need law enforcement to do. And to invest in things that actually keep us safe.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.