‘Starve The Beast’: Southern Campaigns To Divest, Decarcerate, And Re-Imagine Public Safety

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Above Photo: Serena Sebring, an organizer with Southerners on New Ground, at a Durham Beyond Policing Rally. Photo by Elainiel Baldwin from the Durham Beyond Policing Facebook page.

In La Casa Azul, “The Blue House” in East Point, Atlanta, organizers with the Racial Justice Action Center meet in what they call “the war room;” a room where they discuss political strategy, conditions, challenges, and ultimately decide which campaigns they want to take on.

Founded seven years ago in order to train and support directly impacted people who want to organize grassroots campaigns to transform policies and institutions, the Racial Justice Action Center focuses on three prongs of the criminal justice legal system for reform: policing, courts, and jails.

Years before it was campaign strategy, it was a vision. Marilynn Winn, a lifelong Atlanta resident who had been locked inside the Atlanta City Detention Center before, began to say aloud what needed to be done: the Atlanta jail must be closed.

Winn co-founded Women on the Rise, an organization led by formerly incarcerated women. The group teamed up with the Racial Justice Action Center, which is headed by Xochitl Bervera.

“We asked if it was possible to do, we asked who could make this decision, who would get in our way… and it was in a moment where criminal justice reform has become much more a mainstream concept,” said Bervera.

“[Before] no one was using the term ‘mass incarceration.’ But after the Black Lives Matter Movement, criminal justice reform becomes much more recognizable”.

Winn and Bervera are among a wave of organizers in the South who are tackling decriminalization as a path toward racial justice, and winning political victories at the local level that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. From Atlanta, to Durham, to Nashville, communities of color have developed powerful strategies and tactics to not only roll back the power of the carceral state, but to change how we think about public safety altogether.

Forged by Ferguson

Demonstrators call for the closure of the Atlanta City Detention Center. Photo by Lovett Thompson from the Racial Justice Action Center Facebook page.

In the wake of the 2014 Ferguson rebellion, a decentralized movement united by the visceral proclamation Black Lives Matter, burst forth to challenge the seemingly insurmountable structural and paradigmatic violence against Black people in the United States. Because of the decentralized and widely varied nature of the organizing, it has often been easier for political elites to undermine the contributions of the Black Lives Matter Movement instead of acknowledge just how dramatically it has shifted our political conditions.

One of the most popularized political analyses that emerged from the Black Lives Matter Movement is the framework of “Invest/Divest.” This idea asserts that the vehicles of incarceration––police, jails, and prisons––are both unnecessary and economically extractive and costly. In other words: state, federal, and municipal resources that could be invested in any number of socials services are instead going towards violent and racist population control in the name of “public safety.”

The significance of this framing intervention is enormous. It has enabled communities to connect the use of policing to the economic underdevelopment of primarily Black working-class neighborhoods, and to show a relationship between the explosion of the jail population and the decrease in state social infrastructure.

Researchers with the Prison Policy Initiative have estimated the cost of mass incarceration annually to be upwards of $182 billion. This kind of research has become increasingly common, alongside and in addition to the proliferation of cultural markers like the now widely read The New Jim Crow written by Michelle Alexander, which clearly and convincingly articulates the severity of incarceration in the United States and its foundational racism. As a result, a new generation of activists and organizers have begun to use the language of “prison and police abolition” perhaps more commonly than ever before.

Alongside shifts in popular understandings of prisons and police supported by texts like The New Jim Crow and the widespread information and critiques made accessible through Twitter and other digital platforms, the most animated laboratory of contemporary abolitionist reforms still remains in the feet of the people—moving, fighting, and experimenting at the grassroots level.

Close the Jail ATL

Marilynn Winn, co-founder of Women on the Rise, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at the official signing of legislation to close the Atlanta jail. Photo by Lovett Thompson from the Racial Justice Action Center Facebook page.

In May of this year, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made the historic announcement that the city detention center in Atlanta would be closed—“No longer will Atlanta be in the jail business,” the mayor shared in a news release.

Additionally, Mayor Bottoms announced a task force would be created to examine ways to repurpose the building and its annual budget of millions towards community wellness and development. The Atlanta City Jail had been open since 1995 and held 1,300 beds. At the time of the jail closure announcement, the facility’s average daily population had dwindled to70 people, as a result of new local laws that limited the reach of the carceral system.

While advocates and survivors across the country applauded the announcement to close the city jail, lesser known are the years of campaigning and organizing, utilizing a variety of decarceration tactics that enabled conditions where a jail closure could be possible.

“We started focusing on ‘quality of life’ offenses in the city of Atlanta. Our police department has turned into a department that really polices for the comfort of visitors instead of the safety of residents. [Policing is] used to address homelessness, mental health, substance abuse, which is an outrageous use of a police department,” Bervera said.

Organizers with the Racial Justice Action Center ran a three-year long campaign demanding an expansion of “pre-arrest diversion programs.” This gave police the option to, refer people to harm reduction services instead of making arrests. During that campaign, organizers realized the obstacle the jail presented, with 600 people locked in cages every night, nearly 90 percent of them Black and inside primarily because of substance abuse, lack of mental health care support, or poverty related issues like homelessness.

A new generation of activists and organizers have begun to use the language of “prison and police abolition,” perhaps more commonly than ever before.

“And that’s when we began focusing our attention on the jail, to ‘starve the beast’ and demand reclassification on Marijuana offenses.” Bervera explained. Additionally, organizers were able to remove half of the “quality of life” offenses people in Atlanta could be charged with, while supporting bail reform measures spearheaded by the Atlanta chapter of Southerners On New Ground.

Bervera notes, “It was really a combination of those reforms and a push by immigrant rights advocates to end contracting with ICE, that plummeted the jail population on the city side and the immigration side, bringing down the jail population to about 100 a night.”

Though the Atlanta jail population had dramatically decreased after years of reforms, the facility was still being allocated over $30 million annually from the municipal budget. Observing the political opportunity to make the case to close the jail and re-invest those millions into community wellness, in 2018 organizers officially launched a campaign called Close the Jail ATL.

Bervera emphasizes and credits the leadership of directly impacted people as critical to the success of the Close the Jail campaign:

“You have to be working with people and organizing with those directly impacted. You can’t go to city council without folks who have been in the jail. More than any advocate standing up there, that is what debunks the myth. I’m the person who you are calling a hardened criminal, I’m in [jail] for asking for $2 to get on the train.”

Through this organizing, the same people in Atlanta who had faced direct violence from the policing and jail system now had the opportunity to answer questions about what support they actually needed from the city to keep them safe and imagine alternatives.

“We have done so many visioning sessions with our membership base,”Bervera said. “What would the jail be as a repurposed building? How could it serve the conditions to prevent you from being put in the situation you were put in?”

No new cops in Durham

Durham residents signing a petition opposing a proposed $80 million police headquarters. Photo from the Durham Beyond Policing Facebook page.

In 2016, organizers with Southerners On New Ground, Black Youth Project 100, and other groups in Durham, North Carolina began organizing under the banner of Durham Beyond Policing. The campaign was a response to the announcement that the city would build a new police headquarters for upwards of $70 million.

Organizers mobilized a series of actions and educational events over the year, collecting hundreds of petition signatures urging Durham city officials to backtrack on their agreement to build a new headquarters, and uplifting Durham Police Department’s violent history of abuse towards primarily Black and Latinx residents. Ultimately, their organizing was not able to prevent the new headquarters from being built.

“What would the jail be as a repurposed building? How could it serve the conditions to prevent you from being put in the situation you were put in?”

However, earlier this year, a revived Durham Beyond Policing coalition activated around a proposal the Durham Police Department made in February  to add 18 new police officers and a total of 72 new police officers over the next three years.

“We decided that we would show up to the next city council meeting en masse to let the council know that we opposed the proposal,” explained Danielle Purifoy, an organizer with Durham Beyond Policing and editor at Scalawag. “We filled many of the seats in the council chamber and about a dozen of us spoke during the public hearing session.”

Inspired by a suggestion made by SpiritHouse NC leader Nia Wilson to develop a counter-proposal to the police budget, Durham Beyond Policing advocates saw an opportunity to not only oppose an expansion of police funding but also move an agenda for redefining ‘safety’ as collective uplift:

“The budget is a transparent record of the values of the city government,” said Purifoy.

“The DPD asked for $68M, which is over 60 percent of the public safety budget. But the city was only slated to spend $200K on eviction diversion, and hadn’t even brought part-time city workers to the $15 living wage. So we proposed no additional police, a redistribution of funding to the things that do keep us safe, like housing and living wages, and the formation of a Community-Led Safety and Wellness Task Force to explore alternatives to the police.”

Durham Beyond Policing developed a comprehensive 50 page proposal, advocating for expungement clinics, affordable housing, jobs and harm reduction initiatives.

In a historic victory that’s a sign of the times, organizers in Durham defeated the proposal to add police and additionally won raises for part-time city workers to $15 an hour. Purifoy explained how the work of grassroots organizations, who have spent years educating on the harms of criminalization, led to a shift in the local political landscape that was integral to convincing city leadership not to expand policing:

“One of the things that shifted was the politics of the city council, the DA, and the sheriff. DBP, SONG, BYP100, SpiritHouse, All of us or None, and other organizations really pushed the candidates on police and jail funding and developing alternative systems in the 2017 election, and we got some gains that have opened the door for conversations that seemed like non-starters before.”

Purifoy noted that targeting budgets for divestment from criminalization is a significant tactic. “The way that cities distribute their money is deeply connected to the level of violence they’re able to inflict upon our communities. As one of the council members who voted against us said, the city budget is a ‘moral document.’ If we can change how the city spends our money, we can maybe create a shift in our perceptions of what makes a safe community.”

“The way that cities distribute their money is deeply connected to the level of violence they’re able to inflict upon our communities.”

Less than five years ago in Durham protestors were arrested while chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”, and “I Can’t Breathe”, evoking and honoring the lost lives of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Mike Brown, and thousands of other Black people assassinated by police. It’s difficult to appreciate the gravity of such a rapid shift in political conditions and power at the local level for those demanding a future that does not include policing and incarceration.

“I think the most important thing is that there’s now critical mass of organizing around these issues (policing, jail, criminalization, money bail) in the city, that it is impossible for any politician/decision maker to ignore,” Purifoy said.

Bailouts in Nashville

Members of Nashville’s SONG chapter. Photo from southernersonnewground.org

Another one of the most salient criminalization reforms led by organizers in the South in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement has revolved around the crisis of money bail and pre-trial detention, targeting the billions of dollars in profits made by the private bail industry on the backs of the most underpaid.

In an interview with Democracy Now! Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners On New Ground and one of the architects of the Black Mama’s Bail Out, explained the tactic of bailing out Black mothers in time for Mother’s Day:

“One out of nine Black children have parents who are incarcerated. And so our goal is to be able to free our people from these cages, using the traditions from our ancestors that bought each other’s collective freedom to get our folks back home.”

Angela Henderson and Teddy, who only used their first name in an interview, are SONG organizers in Nashville, Tennessee. They have helped develop their local SONG chapter and, along with establishing the chapter, are working on local campaigns that advance abolitionist reforms.

“We are trying to poke the dragon and see how power reacts,” said Henderson. She noted that the group has a statewide perspective because across Tennessee, “rural jail expansion has been exploding, pretrial detention is exploding”.

Henderson and Teddy emphasized the importance of participating in direct actions like bail-outs and court watching as part of building out their local campaign challenging money bail and pre-trial detention:

“We see bail outs as a major tactic for how SONG Nashville wants to do this work, there’s just something about being able to welcome people home, playing a direct role in getting people out of a cage… We have signs and posters and flowers and so much energy, hearing more of the stories of what happened and feelings of release on finally being out. Bail outs give the opportunity to base-build with those directly and currently impacted by the Prison Industrial Complex, [and to offer] case management and court support, which is a huge part of our work.”

“We are trying to poke the dragon and see how power reacts.”

Those organizing for abolitionist reforms in the South are  up against the same forces of co-optation and concession affecting organizers across the nation. As the call for bail reform and de-carceration grows louder, the increased use of tools like “risk assessments” raises concern by those who see them as a continuation of racial discrimination that especially punishes the poor and those more likely to encounter policing where they live. Risk assessments consider a variety of factors in order to determine if a person should be held in jail or released before going to trial.

Teddy observed the application of risk assessment tools while court-watching in the Nashville night court. “Risk based assessments are just further criminalization of poverty,” they said. “How much of a risk is it for someone to come back? The questions being asked in night court were not rooted in compassionately trying to meet people’s needs.”

Black Lives Matter, a phrase that has become so ubiquitous as to sometimes be rendered a punchline, and that is certainly not immune to commodification by companies that have made a fortune on exploiting and undermining the lives of Black workers, must also be understood as an unfinished project of worldmaking within a nation that has never seen Black people as fully human. To target systems of criminalization is to target the technology of state violence that has evolved directly from chattel slavery to maintain social control and undermine the development of revolutionary Black power.

Targeting systems of criminalization can also expose the processes of daily dehumanization that make such barbaric institutions seem normal and acceptable, in order to unlearn the narratives we have been fed around who is dangerous or disposable.

As Henderson reiterated, “We are challenging ourselves as well to imagine a world where we don’t see people as risks, reimagine what public safety looks like. What healing looks like. That’s what we are interested in.”