Oakland can ‘Defund the Police’ and ‘Refund the Community’

Last night the Oakland’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force voted on over 30 recommendations to send to the Oakland City Council. Over the next two months the City Council will debate these recommendations and decide which of them Oakland will adopt. 

This has already been a months long, in depth policy-making process and we’re just getting started. 

It’s important to document where we’re at and how we got here because saying “Defund the Police” is one thing, but ensuring we refund the community is quite another. The dollars we divest from militarized policing and a violent carceral state must be reinvested into communities so we can alleviate the root causes of so-called crime and forge pathways to safe communities. This requires years of complex organizing and advocacy and it is important to note that this is how we got here.  Blood, sweat, tears and … organizing. 

Six years ago I was standing in front of City Hall and I turned to James Burch, now the policy director and Anti Police-Terror Project and in a moment of excruciating pain asked him: “What exactly are we paying them for?” This was on the heels of Bloody 2015 when the Oakland Police Department murdered 11 Black men with no accountability and then the rape scandal of Celeste Guap where it was revealed that OPD was one of 14 law enforcement agencies that had raped and trafficked then 16 year old Celeste Guap.

That led to the launch of the Defund OPD campaign by the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) five years ago. It has since evolved into a coalition of 13 Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-led grassroots organizations with decades-long roots in Oakland and tens of thousands of active flatland members amongst them. 

For years we showed up at city council meetings, took to the streets, and advocated for a 50% cut in Oakland Police Department’s budget and a reinvestment in community–specifically mental health response. We’ve since consistently demanded and been denied a comprehensive audit of OPD to understand where our over $350 million goes every year.

And instead of making us any safer, Oakland finds itself in the middle of the largest spike in violence since 2012. 

While the Oakland Police Department placed the blame on our Black children, the responsibility lies squarely at the feet of the Libby Schaaf administration. For six years, she has neglected the Black community. While she “developed” Oakland, she displaced Black Oaklanders. Her policies have pushed Black people out of their homes, into the streets and the underground economy. We are sicker and poorer. More angry, tired, frustrated and afraid. This is what we mean when we say “all violence is state violence.” It is the state that creates the conditions under which these tragic realities play out.

Cat Brooks

While the Oakland Police Department placed the blame on our Black children, the responsibility lies squarely at the feet of the Libby Schaaf administration. For six years, she has neglected the Black community. While she “developed” Oakland, she displaced Black Oaklanders. Her policies have pushed Black people out of their homes, into the streets and the underground economy. We are sicker and poorer. More angry, tired, frustrated and afraid. This is what we mean when we say “all violence is state violence.” It is the state that creates the conditions under which these tragic realities play out.

Last summer the police murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and despite the pandemic, we took to the streets. The Mayor tried to stop us by putting in place a curfew but we refused and in a major act of civil disobedience as part of an event called: “F&*K Your Curfew” 8,000  Oaklanders came out after the curfew to tell the Mayor that we have grown weary of dead Black bodies at the hands of boys in blue. 

We made it clear that repressing our dissent was not the answer – defunding the police and investing in community was. The movement, and years of organizing, left the city with no choice but to turn our rallying cry into a legislative process.

The Oakland Reimagining Public Safety Task Force was created in direct response to significant local demand to redirect monies from the Oakland Police Department to programs, support services, and resources that take a holistic view of public safety and focus on addressing the root causes of so-called “crime” rather than relying on militarized policing and a violent and cyclical carceral state.

The Oakland Reimagining Public Safety Task Force was created in direct response to significant local demand to redirect monies from the Oakland Police Department to programs, support services, and resources that take a holistic view of public safety and focus on addressing the root causes of so-called “crime” rather than relying on militarized policing and a violent and cyclical carceral state. Though this political moment was born of great tragedy, struggle and sacrifice, there is power in the now to extract real wins for the people that will quantitatively shift the quality of our lives and the future of our children. 

Alongside the legislative process we created Mental Health First Oakland in August 2020. MH First is a free non-police service to folks experiencing mental health crises, substance abuse issues and domestic violence. Since then, we’ve trained over 500 volunteers and each weekend 12 trained experts provide trauma-informed mental health emergency services for the people of Oakland. This program paved the way for another pivotal decision this week at the Oakland City Council, the vote to create a city program called MACRO, that will provide police-free mental health services to the people of Oakland. 

Some people point to this painful period of time and say this is why we can’t defund police. This is faulty logic. Law enforcement has the money now. And our people continue to die now. 

Police are violence responders. Not violence interrupters. We need to invest in root cause preventive strategies. We need to get to the gun before the bullet flies, not watch yet another mother put her child in the ground. We need to Refund, Restore, and Reimagine.

What the people of Oakland decide to do over the next two months matters not just for Oakland, but for the country as a whole. For well over a decade, Oakland has been America’s vanguard for criminal “justice” reform and as we go, so does the nation. We receive weekly calls and emails from organizers in cities across the country for consultation and guidance. 

Movements ebb and flow. This moment where grassroots rage and organizing intersects with political will born of people power and pressure will not last forever. We must extract every possible win for the people in this moment; defund police, invest in community, build alternative models, love our people and free ourselves to dream of a world where we end the insane practice of trying to create peace with more violence. 


Cat Brooks is an artivist, the co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project and the Executive Director of the Justice Teams Network.

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