Calls to defund the police both locally and nationally are coming to the forefront of conversations, buoyed by worldwide protests against police brutality that sparked after the viral death of George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis Police Department. The phrase, a rallying cry at demonstrations, has left some wondering what defunding the police could really mean.
The Tampa Bay chapter of Dream Defenders, an organization that was founded after the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida in 2012, took to St. Petersburg City Hall Saturday to explain what defunding the police means to them, and what it might look like in St. Petersburg. The press conference served as a precursor to a more formal outlining of policy demands to be held later this month.
Dozens gathered among the “Face the Jury” statues in the park across from City Hall, holding signs that read, “Defund the police,” “Divest from the police, invest in our communities” and “Things we could invest in other than the police: housing, mental health, social services, economic development, childcare.”
“What brought us to this space today is a real desire to give some context to the demand around defund the police,” began organizer Ashley Green. “I think it’s important to start by acknowledging the truth and reality of how we got here. Police in this country were founded for a sole purpose. That was to capture runaway slaves.”
The origins of policing as slave patrols in the South are widely recognized by historians. Green went on to describe how policing evolved to enforce the Black Codes that followed slavery, then Jim Crow Laws, and subsequently the War on Drugs, which began in 1971 and has been criticized for the disparate punishment of Black communities.
“We are here seeking an end to the violence and making a genuine demand for peace. We’re not saying there’s not a role for some organization or some entity help people feel safe in the community,” she explained. “But my question is, does this look like safety to you? Does this look like protection?”
Green pleaded with the crowd of allies to talk to Black men in their lives, to hear their stories of interactions with the police, and to ask how old they were when they first interacted with police.
“A lot of you folks are just stepping into awareness that police don’t mean safety and protection for a lot of us,” Green said.
Green explained that while policing is top-of-mind in protests and demonstrations today, the entire criminal justice system should be addressed, including the State Attorney and the prison system.
The organizers went on to explain their concerns with the budget allocations for the the City of St. Petersburg, as well as Pinellas County, asking the city and county governments to change their priorities. Richie Floyd, a member of the Pinellas Democratic Socialists of America, which co-sponsored the event with Dream Defenders, noted that the number one priority of the St. Petersburg operating budget is policing, and argued that its emphasis is not in line with the concerns of citizens.
“The people of St. Petersburg during the last election said that their number one priority was housing and the housing crisis going on in this community,” said Floyd.
He was referring to a 2019 poll from St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s political action committee, in which affordable housing was the main concern found among St. Pete residents. Four out of 10 St. Petersburg residents said that a lack of affordable housing was the first or second most important priority for the Kriseman administration to address. Thirty percent of respondents rated traffic and congestion as a top two issue, and 20 percent rated a lack of mass transit options at the top of the list.
In St. Petersburg’s fiscal year 2021 proposed budget, which nears $300 million, 51 percent is allocated to Public Safety, an area comprised of Police and Fire & Rescue. Historically, more than 75 percent of the Public Safety budget has gone to police. In 2018-19, the total operating budget of the City of St. Petersburg was $272,644,786. Of that total budget,$113,265,039 went to police.
Meanwhile, that same year, $743,358 went to housing. In the fiscal year 2021 budget, $600,000 is proposed for funding affordable and workforce housing.
In an open house earlier this year, Kriseman said that an increase in funding for the police department in 2021 would increased the number of sworn officers from 562 to 600. The St. Petersburg Police Department and the City of St. Petersburg also applied for and recently received a $3.5 million grant to hire 25 officers through the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services COPS Hiring Program.
In 2019, Kriseman released his “For All, From All” Housing Plan, which proposed dedicating $60 million over the 10 years to affordable housing, from a number of funding sources, an average of $6 million each year. The plan includes $10 million of city-owned land and future acquisitions allocated for housing that is affordable, $15 million in Penny for Pinellas funds (which had already been allocated to affordable housing by City Council in 2017), $8.5 million from the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area for projects within the CRA boundaries, and $2.5 million funds from a revised FAR bonus.
The other $20 million was supposed to come from a linkage fee, an impact fee paid by developers and based on square footage of new market rate construction. A proposed ordinance that would instate a linkage fee has been tabled indefinitely, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It remains unclear where the outstanding $20 million will come from to bring the plan to fruition.
Dream Defenders brought together a coalition of local leaders, including Terron Gland, the de facto leader of St. Petersburg’s local protests that gather at City Hall at 2 and 7 p.m. every day. He argued that now is the time to capitalize on the momentum of the movement to make real change.
“We’re not going to stop,” Gland said. “I speak for myself, I’m not going to stop. Continue bringing the change, bring your friends, bring the Gatorade, bring the water, bring an umbrella, bring a towel … Listen, if you’ve got to bring your blow up mattress in the back of your truck and take a nap, whatever it takes, do what it takes.”
“We have the power to change now, he said. “The pot is boiling now, don’t let it stop … We’ve been peaceful, now is the time to put the fire to their feet, to demand what we want. Now is crunch time, to start sending in our demands.”
They also welcomed Rev. JC Pritchett, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of St. Petersburg. Clad in a shirt that read “Christian, Jew, Muslim, Neither,” Pritchett alluded to scripture to guide the conversation. He spoke of the book of Matthew 20:16, which reads:”So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
“The first shall be last. That makes people as nervous today as it did 2,000 years ago,” Pritchett said. “There’s a shifting going on. There needs to be a shifting of priorities, a shifting of principles, a shifting of resources, and yes, a shifting of money. And that makes folks nervous.”
“Jesus in that parable tells us that you’re going to wake up one day and everybody who’s first in line, who has the most money, the most power, the most housing, the most security, will be last,” he said. “When the shifting happens, those who were neglected, those who didn’t have adequate housing, or transportation, or wages, will be first.”
“Some stuff is going to get moved around: dollars, jobs, allocations, priorities, policy,” Pritchett said. “Instead of using our income, our wealth and our resources to prosecute people and to lock up people, instead there’s going to be a shift in those economics, dollars and resources will be used for mental health, for counseling, for love. When the shift happens, instead of locking folks up, we’ll focus on what we can do to keep folks out of bondage and chains.”
Epiphany Summers, Statewide Organizing Director for Dream Defenders, told the St. Pete Catalyst that the organization plans to release a list of specific policy demands Friday, June 19 – also known as Juneteenth, the celebration of the official end of slavery – at 3 p.m. at City Hall.