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As is well known, this country’s “original sins” are slavery and genocide. But there has been a war on Black, Brown, Indigenous and poor people on this continent since before there was a United States. And it never ended; it has only shape-shifted.
The war against Black Americans has been based in slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration. The U.S. currently cages more people than any other country on the planet because it hyper-polices Black and Brown communities, and Black men and boys in the U.S. face a one in 1,000 chance of being killed by police in their lifetimes.
We know Long Island isn’t immune to these dynamics. The officers who brutally assaulted Freeport’s Akbar Rogers back in December are still on the streets. Rogers, just like George Floyd and Eric Garner, was ignored when he screamed “I can’t breathe” as police officers pinned him down, punched, kicked and tased him. The only reason you may not remember Rogers’ name is because he wasn’t murdered that day.
But the war on Black, Brown, Indigenous and poor people isn’t just physically violent; it’s also economically violent. Inequality in the U.S. is at historic levels. Three people control more wealth than the bottom 50%, and New York State is the most unequal. A handful of people have prospered at the expense of everyone else, and they continued to do so even as tens thousands of people died during the pandemic, which — no surprise — disproportionately impacted Black, Brown and Indigenous communities due to disparities in housing and health care caused by centuries of institutional racism.
So it’s no accident that over the last four decades police budgets have skyrocketed while essential public services and social safety net programs have been slashed. Modern police forces were birthed out of slave patrols in the south and, in the north, groups of watchmen tasked with controlling disgruntled workers forced into burgeoning cities. The role of the police has not changed; it has only shape-shifted. They are now used to contain the social problems caused by austerity politics.
It’s time to end the war that has been continuously waged on marginalized communities on Long Island and across the U.S. It’s time to rethink the way “we” police, but that rethinking must include reevaluating our priorities.
Each year, the counties spend massive amounts of taxpayer dollars on their police departments. Suffolk County’s elected officials budgeted more than $863 million dollars for their police force in 2020. If you include the Suffolk County sheriff’s department, the total for law enforcement eclipses $1 billion. That’s 36% of Suffolk county’s $3.2 billion budget. For context, according to a pie chart summarizing the budget, Suffolk county spends 5% of its budget on education, 3% on health and 2% on house and community services.
The story is the same in Nassau County. For 2020, lawmakers in Nassau budgeted nearly $894 million for its police department and more than $153 million for its sheriff’s department out of a $3.56 billion county budget. Meanwhile, Nassau lawmakers allocated just $137 million for preschool and “early intervention,” and the county’s Department Of Human Services — which houses the Office of Mental Health, Chemical Dependency and Developmental Disabilities Services; the Office for the Aging; the Office for Youth Services; and the Office for the Physically Challenged — was awarded a meager $39 million.
We need to rethink our concept of public safety, which isn’t synonymous with policing. We must confront and ameliorate the conditions that create what the state deems criminal behavior. We need to be proactive about public safety. Police are reactive.
Generally, police are called after a crime has been committed, and most of those crimes are never solved. Other times officers are dispatched on calls they’re unequipped to handle. Rather than send armed officers, some of whom have a tendency to violently escalate otherwise nonviolent situations, the counties should pay mental health professionals to answer calls about mental health crises, and addiction experts to answer calls about opioid abuse. We need more counselors in our schools, not cops. These aren’t radical ideas.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has said calls to defund police “do not make any sense.” Does it make sense to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into a police force each year to combat the social problems partially created by pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into a police force?
Our priorities are backwards. We need to tackle our social problems with tools that could solve them rather than resorting to violence and criminalization. We need to divest from law enforcement and invest in the public services that actually keep us safe and healthy. Early intervention is the key for learning. Preventative health care saves lives. Investing in our communities and people will reduce crime. We must seriously fund education, public health services, affordable housing programs and youth services.
No one is expecting this to happen overnight. This is a gradual process, but it is an essential one if we want to begin to tackle the rampant racism and inequality on Long Island.
For more information, contact Nia Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.