Lansing residents push for police divestment amid racial equity movement

‘A fire that has been burning for years’

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Lansing has had enough.

A protest against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis took a violent turn two Sundays ago when rioters burned a car, broke windows, beat up protesters and threw water bottles at police, who put a stop to it with tear gas.

Since then, protesters have marched daily, twice to Mayor Andy Schor’s house, where he finally met with them a week after the violence.

The local Black Lives Matter group and other advocacy organizations are demanding changes. BLM’s leader and protesters are pushing for Schor to resign. (Lansing City Councilman Brandon Betz almost agrees. See his viewpoint, P. 6.)

At least two dozen people pleaded with the Lansing City Council Monday to pursue police reforms during a four-hour virtual meeting that continued until almost 11 p.m. It is increasingly clear that something meaningful must be done. But is Greater Lansing prepared?

“Sometimes people forget that the experience of African Americans in this community reflects African American experiences across the country,” said State Rep. Sarah Anthony, the Lansing Democrat who replaced Schor in the Legislature. “Images of black men and women dying are constantly looped in the media. It’s traumatizing, and in many ways, only feeds a fire that has been burning for years in black folks nationwide.”

Only time will tell how local leaders respond to the growing unrest, but many are already putting plans for reform into motion. Ingham County officials have labeled racism a public health emergency. Officials in Lansing and East Lansing have called for changes to their police forces.

Lansing officials are quick to point out: Reversing centuries of racial inequities is no simple task. Dismantling multi-million dollar agencies supposedly geared toward public safety is a hard sell. But officials in Lansing have reached a unanimous consensus: Change begins with an open ear.

“This is about recognizing that what we’re doing isn’t working,” Anthony added. “Nothing can be off the table. This is a time, right now, for every leader to be held accountable. We all really need to take this moment to pause, listen and think critically about what can be done differently.

Local resident Paul Birdsong has become a sort of community commander who for several days has led a battalion of protestors — some armed — across downtown Lansing to call for reforms. Their biggest demands: Police funds must be shifted into other priorities. And Schor needs to resign.

Lansing’s Black Lives Matter chapter has distanced itself from Birdsong’s group over the last week. But while the delivery might be different, their message is similar.

First: Police departments — including LPD — need an overhaul, if not abolition.

A national dialogue on defunding police has simmered for years while hundreds of African Americans have been systematically killed and disproportionately targeted by authorities. The concept evokes imagery of unanswered 911 calls and cities filled with unchecked violent crime, but, at least in theory, the idea is grounded in recognizing that simple reforms are inadequate.

“If there was one way to encapsulate all of this energy, it’s that the status quo is not good enough anymore. Plain and simple,” said Ingham County Commissioner Derrell Slaughter. “We need to be more bold. This is about changing policies and budgets.”

The Lansing Police Department, with a budget of about $46.4 million, accounts for about a third of the city’s total annual expenditures of $136.5 million. Activists think that money could be far better spent.

Some want the cash kept in the Police Department but shifted away from road patrols into community engagement and social work. Others would rather see the money support educational and mentorship opportunities for black youth to proactively prevent crime.

“We understand how difficult it is to imagine a world without armed, violent policing because that is all Americans know,” according to a statement from local BLM organizers. “This is not what policing looks like everywhere. There is a huge difference between policing and public safety.”

Proponents aren’t necessarily suggesting police shouldn’t exist, but rather they should shrink the scope of their responsibilities and shift public safety to entities that are better equipped to meet that need through continued investment in mental health care, housing and the expansion of community mediation and other programs, writes Christy Lopez in the Washington Post.

Lansing City Councilman Brian Jackson would rather police avoid traffic stops altogether unless it’s for a “serious” moving violation to prevent unnecessary and potentially violent police contact. He also wants to make sure the city has an accessible system to file complaints against officers.

“Our Police Department is better than most in the area, but we’re not perfect,” Jackson said. “There has to be some changes. It’s not so much our Police Department as it is police culture.”

Added Councilman Brandon Betz: “We need to divest in the Police Department and spend that money to support black communities. As an ally, it’s my job to take up those demands. More police on the street will likely lead to more police violence. The only answer is divestment.”

Nationally, suggestions for reforms have included wholesale changes to use-of-force policies, demilitarizing the police and providing more community reinvestment into jobs and education. The “My Brother’s Keeper Alliance,” for example, calls for four major areas of municipal reforms:

  •  Review use of force policies.
  •  Engage communities for a diverse range of input.
  •  Report findings to the community and seek feedback.
  •  Reform use of force policies in community police departments.

Birdsong has also outlined a series of demands that he said he’ll address with the next mayor.

— Reopen and financially support community services like those provided by Shabazz Public School Academy and Black Child & Family Institute — the former defunct, the latter on life support.

— Provide weekly mentorship programs at city parks in every ward. Birdsong has also asked the mayor to personally attend these programs for at least two months.

— Provide de-escalation training for cops and let the public watch. These should also involve real community interactions, Birdsong emphasized, not just webinars and videos.

— Move Police Department funds into mental health and social workers. “We don’t want a police force. We want a public safety force,” Birdsong has explained.

“I get the sense that people aren’t necessarily looking for us to lead on this right now,” added Lansing City Council Vice President Adam Hussain. “They’re looking for us to listen. And while this conversation is being had, we need to be actively reviewing our policies and procedures.”

Schor floated a $100,000 police divestment plan to protesters earlier this week, and cemented it in an initiative to funnel that money into a new Racial Equity and Anti-Racism Fund. The city also plans to collectively pitch in another $70,000 and launch a community fundraising effort.

It’s only the beginning of a much larger and overdue conversation on racial equity, Schor said. But for many, it’s an empty gesture that divests less than two-tenths of 1% of the police budget.

Schor said Lansing must invest in a “safe, inclusive and equitable community,” but he has stopped short of charting further divestment from the police. Both he and Police Chief Daryl Green have expressed some concerns for public safety should those funds be further reduced.

Schor’s latest budget proposal actually adds three more officers to the local Police Department.

“I don’t support defunding the Police Department. If anything, I think about supporting the Police Department with more resources,” Green said at a press conference Monday, his first since the downtown unrest. “We’re already doing a lot of the things that many of the protesters are asking, and we’ll do our best to do better as police.”

Other City Council members are also concerned about the concept of “defunding” the police. Some would rather see the department undergo some additional training on racial inequities and social justice, or hire more highly trained social workers in the city. And that all takes cash.

“If we’re talking about eliminating the police budget, that’s not a reasonable request,” said Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley. “I’m willing to talk about shifting to more community and social outreach, but I certainly don’t want to have a defunded Police Department when crimes are being committed in this city.”

Schor’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council plans to hold a town hall to solicit for community feedback. The Council also plans to host a series of “listening sessions” in the coming weeks.

Betz is exploring plans to trim the police budget by 10% over the next five years and instead divert that funding to community organizations that support local black residents. A discussion on the topic is expected to continue at upcoming City Council meetings.

Nothing has been scheduled. Schor declined multiple requests for an interview with City Pulse. And in the meantime, dozens of residents have made another demand: the mayor must resign.

Black Lives Matter Lansing co-founder Angela Waters Austin was among the first to make the request during a video conference call with Schor. Protesters have echoed it in the streets.

Both alleged that Schor’s heavy-handed police response to Sunday’s protests — paired with his alleged failure to meaningfully connect with the black community — requires him to step down. Schor responded by saying that he was “not planning to resign right now.”

“How dare you get on here and act like you care about my people? We said we’d get behind you. We told you we’d show up for you. And look how you showed up for us: You put our children on the firing line,” Waters Austin said to Schor.

“You already had a chance to do these things,” Waters Austin told him. “We brought money. We brought people. We brought a team that could’ve helped. You could’ve been a champion.”

Schor has since apologized for being “unprepared” for the video call with Black Lives Matter. Still, many residents haven’t accepted his apology. Schor must leave for meaningful change to move forward, said activists like Waters Austin, Birdsong and local firefighter Michael Lynn Jr.

“He didn’t want to hear from our community,” Lynn said. “He fails to realize that there’s a black community out there that is upset with the way things are being handled. It was clear he was unprepared, and if he’s not prepared to tackle these issues then we don’t need him in this job.”

“He has a vote of no confidence from Black Lives Matter Lansing and Black Lives Matter Michigan,” according to a statement on the group’s Facebook page. “That will not be resolved with phone calls from advocates, apologies or town halls. It is time for a transition plan.”

To move forward, the Ingham County commissioners this week considered a resolution to declare racism a public health crisis.

Officials expected it to be passed unanimously Tuesday (too late for City Pulse’s deadline) after County Health Officer Linda Vail, among others, pushed for the move during a virtual call last week with Black Lives Matter activists.

“I declare racism a public health emergency in Ingham County,” Vail said. “Though my power is broad and public health is my duty, as a state appointed health officer, they’re words you hear from me and words I believe but words alone are not enough to remedy 400 years of inequity.”

Slaughter, who proposed tonight’s resolution, said it was necessary but also recognized that words only go so far. The largely symbolic gesture will only lead to meaningful results if the local community — and its elected officials — stay focused on bridging longstanding racial devices.

“Dismantling systemic racism requires vigilance, oversight, accountability, transparency and a willingness to take a hard look at some of the worst parts of ourselves,” said County Prosecutor Carol Siemon. “Only through aggressive and intentional action can we find solutions and heal.

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