In Oakland, Community Solutions Keep Us Safe, Not More Cops

By Miya Yoshitani, Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network and Zach Norris, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

Last week, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf attempted to use recent robberies and assaults targeting Asian seniors in Oakland’s Chinatown to criticize efforts by progressive City Council members and community activists to defund the police. As representatives of Black-led and Asian-led community organizations, we believe in solutions that strengthen our communities, not unprincipled tactics to divide them.

Instead of calling for unity and cross-racial solutions to address harm, the mayor used the opportunity to slam a 2020 proposal from Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas and Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan to trim $25 million from the police budget.

It’s disappointing to see the mayor disregard the growing calls to reimagine public safety and the history of solidarity between Oakland’s Black and Asian community. We do not want to return to the failed “tough-on-crime” policies of the past, when stoking fears justified calling for more money to go toward police instead of services that make us safer and reduce crime: mental health, housing, and employment.

When we talk about safety, we must reimagine the myth that police spend most of their time preventing crime from happening. According to data made publicly available by individual police agencies, police officers in aggregate spend the vast majority of their time responding to incidents related to mental health issues, welfare checks, traffic and vehicle issues, homelessness issues and sex work. Reducing police budgets means reinvesting resources into departments and organizations specifically trained to deal with these issues, and would minimize the incidents that escalate into police violence.

A new approach to public safety is necessary to ensure the well-being of all Oaklanders. By reinvesting in community-based resources, we can cast a wide net that addresses the root causes of harm rather than policing the aftermath. At the Ella Baker Center and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, safety comes from holding mutual aid events to distribute PPE, school supplies, and free food to community members. Safety comes from in-language resources to share vital public health information. Safety comes from cash payments and debt relief to support families threatened by eviction.

Models like Mobile Mental Health First, created by the Anti Police-Terror Project, would eliminate the need for law enforcement to respond to mental health crisis calls. Instead of an armed officer, a team of doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, peers and community members trained to provide non-punitive interventions are first on the scene.

Between 2007 and 2014, murder rates in Richmond, California, dropped by 77%; not from an increased police presence or punitive responses, but by direct engagement at the community level. DeVone Boggan, the Founder and CEO of Advance Peace, formed a brand-new city agency (the Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety) that employed formerly incarcerated people to reach out to the young men directly connected to the violence. He offered the young men an eight-month fellowship program, a monetary stipend, and job training opportunities.

We can work together to heal harm and create the kind of support systems that keep us safe, but only if we resist the forces asking us to invest in more badges and guns on the streets. Real safety is created when we all have access to more resources to keep everyone housed and healthy.

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights builds the power of black, brown, and poor people to break the cycles of incarceration and poverty.