Up next for police defunding advocates: Win local elections

A person holds up a sign advocating for defunding the police as people gather to mark Juneteenth, Friday, June 19, 2020, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

ATLANTA — A coalition of progressive groups are forming a political action committee to back local candidates who want to redirect money away from police departments into social services.

An outgrowth of the “Defund the Police” movement, the WFP Justice Fund is led by the Working Families Party and the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project. The PAC has filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission and plans immediately to begin accepting contributions and vetting candidates to support.

Organizers described the effort to The Associated Press on Monday as a counter to the political power of police unions and a way to continue educating voters about what the “defund” push means. The result, they said, would be a shift in local government budgets and public safety systems around the country.

“We’ve abided by an era where ‘law and order’ was this stamp of approval, where law enforcement endorsements somehow signified legitimacy,” said Maurice Mitchell, executive director of the Working Families Party, which backs democratic socialists and progressive candidates at all levels of government.

“So we are creating a counterbalance that can create the space for elected officials to do the work that’s being demanded from the streets,” Mitchell continued, adding that the goal is “divestment from things that aren’t working and investment in things that are working.”

The PAC’s launch came the same day that President Donald Trump met at the White House with law enforcement officers and people who have had positive interactions with them. It’s part of Trump’s effort to pitch himself as a law-and-order politician while warning of a radical left push toward lawlessness.

Jessica Byrd, who leads the Electoral Justice Project and sits on the new PAC’s board, said that shift opens the door to policy changes. Yet Byrd and other organizers said they are aware of the fraught politics surrounding calls to “defund the police.”

At the White House, Trump continued his broadsides against the movement as his campaign tied them to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

“Reckless politicians have defamed our law enforcement heroes as the enemy,” Trump said. “They call them the enemy. They actually go and say they’re the enemy and even call them an invading army.”

PAC organizers said they aren’t necessarily looking for candidates who pledge absolute elimination of police forces.

“There have been people that have tried to create a straw man argument to suggest that this movement is somehow about abolishing the police altogether tomorrow,” Mitchell said. “This movement is about public safety.”

Byrd made clear that she wants Americans to understand local policing’s roots in enforcing fugitive slave laws before slavery was abolished and the Jim Crow segregation laws that followed abolition. So it isn’t “radical,” she argued, to support approaches like those made in Camden, New Jersey, which disbanded its police force, or the ongoing restructuring debates in Minneapolis or Los Angeles.

The idea, she said, is a “public safety” approach that spends more on education, neighborhood development and parks and recreation and that steers tasks now handled by police to other agencies.

Armed officers aren’t the ideal respondents “if a person is unhoused or a person is in mental health distress or if children are being too loud,” Byrd said. “We can have a system where the person who arrives doesn’t have a gun, doesn’t have a baton and doesn’t arrive with the right to be judge, jury and executioner in that moment.”

Mitchell and Byrd said the PAC could expand to target legislative races, since state lawmakers write much of the criminal code. But mayors’ executive control of police departments and city councils’ control of police budgets, they said, are the starting point.

In Washington, D.C., City Council candidate Janeese Lewis George, backed by the Working Families Party, recently toppled an incumbent Democrat on a “defunding” platform and is in line to claim the seat in November. She faced an establishment advertising onslaught that she said misrepresented her position by suggesting she wanted to abolish police altogether. That’s not the case, she said.

“I was coming from the standpoint that we want to reduce crime in our city –- and the answer isn’t to continue to give money to the police department but to fund programs that work,” she said.

George said she’s simply inviting a serious conversation that goes beyond slogans. “It’s a gradual thing,” she said, “getting people to buy into innovative ideas.”