Divest to save Black lives. Invest to heal communities

By Duy Pham and Kayla Tawa 

A “pandemic within a pandemic”

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, Elijah McClain, and countless others at the hands of state-sanctioned violence have once again elevated the daily violence Black people face to the national forefront. Simultaneously, Black people are disproportionately dying of COVID-19 due to a confluence of structural factors, including the absence of health infrastructure, a lack of culturally responsive health care, and centuries of exposure to environmental toxins and stress. All these factors increase the likelihood of preexisting conditions making COVID-19 more deadly in Black communities. In response to these two crises, organizations like Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter have called for defunding the police. They advocate for replacing law enforcement with healing-centered alternatives and community investments. This solution recognizes the interconnectedness of these dual emergencies; as a nation, we have underinvested in the health and wellbeing of Black communities, while we’ve overinvested in systems that enact violence on these communities. To protect Black lives and heal Black communities, we must divest from the police and invest in Black communities. 

In his testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary in June, policing equity expert Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff told senators, “What we are seeing on the streets of the United States is a past due notice for the unpaid debts owed to Black people for four hundred plus years. If the response to this moment is not proportional to that debt, we will continue to pay it—with interest—again and again and again.” Thus far, the response has not been proportional.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and protests for racial justice, policymakers are offering insufficient solutions that fail to address the root causes of structural racism. Policymakers have proposed solutions like implicit bias training and meager efforts to provide economic and health support to those impacted by the virus. These solutions do not acknowledge the state-sanctioned violence directed at Black people, and disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities, as residual effects of over 400 years of oppression. Until our nation has reconciled centuries of physical and economic violence inflicted on Black communities, we will continue to see Black lives tragically lost.

Divest to save Black lives 

Historically, law enforcement has been deeply entrenched in maintaining white supremacy, upholding and perpetuating oppression. Policing evolved from slave-patrols in the south and “night-watchers” in the north – groups focused on maintaining “control” of Black, immigrant, and poor populations. From these racist beginnings, law enforcement has continued to serve the purpose of surveilling Black communities, enforcing white supremacy through policies like stop-and-frisk and the “War on Drugs,” which drive mass incarceration. We must recognize the trauma law enforcement has inflicted on Black communities, understanding that for as long as the system exists the trauma will be compounded. 

Heavy police presence will continue to detrimentally impact the safety of Black, Brown, and immigrant communities. To allow communities to thrive, we must defund the police. This requires demilitarizing the police, including by ending federal programs that allow law enforcement to obtain military-grade equipment. It also demands a stop to overpolicing in communities of color, including by removing police from schools. Divesting from the police requires we build a new vision of community safety that centers economic justice and healing and doesn’t involve police presence. 

Invest to heal communities 

We must ultimately build a new vision of community investment that overturns centuries of white supremacy. One that eliminates the racial wealth gap and ensures that Black Americans can thrive. The movement calls for bold, transformative policy and systems change. Investing in Black communities is more than job training programs, police free schools and funding for mental health. It is more than the COVID-19 economic relief packages that Congress has offered to respond to an economic crisis only comparable to the Great Depression.  Despite over $5 trillion passed through Congress in the HEROES and CARES Acts, Black workers continue to face higher unemployment and fatality rates. The relief packages also do nothing to address the centuries of racial discrimination and exclusion leading to Black Americans having significantly lower wealth and savings than white Americans.

Much like Black activists ask us to reimagine a world without police, we have to reimagine how public policy can respond to inequity beyond our existing systems. Our current mental health, education, and workforce development systems, among others, are steeped in historical and structural racism.

This movement calls for healing-centered liberation policy

Healing-centered liberation policy thinks beyond what is and demands what should be. It requires new decision-making structures, acknowledges failed and abandoned policies, and recognizes both historical harms and ongoing discrimination. It advances a radical, imaginative approach to reparations that isn’t static and transactional, considering a host of systematic policies that have economically persecuted and disenfranchised Black Americans, from the transatlantic slave trade to mass incarceration. Healing-centered liberation policy requires us to follow the lead of activists in communities who’ve been doing the work of organizing and building community-led infrastructure to dismantle the police state and create thriving Black and Brown communities. 

In the coming weeks, CLASP will inform the national debate by creating spaces to share visions of what should be, centering the voices of community leaders and activists doing this work.  We remain committed to advocating for transformative and radical solutions that dismantle white supremacy and respond to 400 years of oppression.