As protests over racial inequality continue to sweep across America, many demonstrators have settled on one goal: redirecting portions of policing budgets toward mental health services, job creation, housing, and more.
In turn, attention has increasingly focused on how exactly this process, commonly referred to as "defunding" the police, could happen – and particularly, who would drive it.
"We are deeply invested in ensuring that the people who suffer the worst brutalities by police decide where the resources go," said Kayla Reed, a St. Louis activist and a leader with the Movement for Black Lives, a national network.
Following the death of George Floyd in police custody that sparked nationwide protests and the deployment of federal agents to some cities, officials in two dozen cities are already mulling rejigging their police budgets, according to advocacy group Local Progress.
Now activists are increasingly creating alternative budgets that reflect social aims and pushing for "participatory budgeting," under which funding priorities are gathered from residents, shaped into proposals voted upon by the public – and then implemented.
"Too often too many decisions are made without anyone impacted by those decisions in the room," Ms. Reed told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The approach has been used in a growing number of United States cities over the past decade but is suddenly seeing an explosion of interest, said Kristania De Leon of the Participatory Budgeting Project, a national nonprofit.
"We're seeing a conversation that we haven't seen before," she said, pointing to sudden attention from both activists and city officials.
Several cities are seeking to establish new budgeting processes, Ms. De Leon said, pointing to Seattle, Sacramento, and the Phoenix school system, among others.
Portland, Oregon, is reaching out to the city's homeless to notify them of $1 million allocated for an upcoming participatory budgeting process, according to a city councilor's office.
The coronavirus pandemic – which is escalating in southern and western U.S. states – has also driven the surge in interest, Ms. De Leon said.
"In this moment, people really want to understand where government investments are going, where cuts are being made," she said.
As a formal strategy, participatory budgeting is typically traced back to late-1980s neighborhood action in Porto Alegre, Brazil, but it was not instituted in the United States until 2009 in Chicago, said Ms. De Leon.
Over the past decade, about $300 million has been allocated through such processes in the United States, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project, with 173 votes taking place last year and at least 233 scheduled for this year.
But the exact approach and aim of any given process varies significantly.
Some cities set aside a portion of their budgets for regular participatory processes, or council members use them to decide on discretionary funds they control, according to Local Progress.
Many cities use participatory budgeting for specific purposes: allocating money for schools, for instance, or public housing.
The approach strives to be equitable: In New York City, participatory processes have involved more than 50% more low-income residents than local elections, as well as more people of color, says Local Progress.
The Movement for Black Lives urges participatory budgeting at all levels of government.
One of its policy documents points to "a lack of community control over budget and revenue decisions."
As a result, it says, "revenue measures are often inequitable, placing greater burdens on Black people, and public spending fails to meet the fundamental needs of Black communities."
Rashawn Ray, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the approach is particularly important in the context of police budgets.
"First, because it's taxpayer money," he said. "With policing, the payoff is supposed to be less crime, but part of the problem is that research doesn't actually support that more funding for police leads to a decrease in crime."
Mr. Ray said 90% of calls made to the police by the public have nothing to do with violent crime.
"So people who are calling for defunding of the police are [on firm ground] in saying that mental health and addiction specialists should be much more involved in response calls,” he said.
The Fraternal Order of Police, a national union, has reacted strongly to calls to defund or even dismantle municipal departments: last month the union's vice president, Joe Gamaldi, called such proposals "crazy" and suggested they would hurt public safety.
But a Gallup survey released this month found that 58% of Americans – and 88% of Black Americans – say major changes are needed in policing, and nearly half supported reducing such funding, including 70% of Black respondents.
Neither the police union nor the U.S. Department of Justice responded to requests for comment.
In St. Louis, Ms. Reed and the nonprofit she leads, Action St. Louis, were able to use public anger over George Floyd's death to push through legislation this month that had been three years in the making.
The bill will now see the closure of a local jail and the creation of a fund that will be paid out through a participatory budgeting process, "to guarantee resources are spent in communities that are experiencing high levels of violence," Ms. Reed said.
In coming months, Action St. Louis will start gathering community priorities, she said – with votes and funding expected by mid-2021.
"If people want a ceasefire program, or we often hear that there's not a lot of activities for young folks to get into, or if they need streetlights, or if there's a [derelict] house and folks want to demolish it."
Ms. Reed said many saw the jail campaign as an important learning process for a larger focus on policing.
"To have a conversation about the police, we have to cut our teeth on this campaign and learn about budget processes ... and how we can sharpen our analysis on how to get more resources into the community," she said.
"That is self-determination. That is power – that is how it is manifest."
Elsewhere, Mr. Floyd's death left little time for activists to organize ahead of budget deadlines: In Nashville, the city budget was due to be finalized by mid-June, leaving activists just two weeks to seek to create their own budget proposal.
The Nashville People's Budget Coalition eventually called for greater funding for education, housing, and healthcare, and less for criminal justice.
"There's a huge push to divest from all the funds that are being funneled into law enforcement ... and reinvesting in things that directly impact and build up communities of color," said Jackie Sims of the People's Alliance for Transit, Housing and Employment.
Similar "people's budget" efforts have been created in Los Angeles, New York, and other cities.
While the Nashville coalition was unable to affect the city budget this year, Ms. Sims said the effort drew the attention of the mayor, city council and broader public – and is set to continue.
The coalition has since held a "people's assembly," with more scheduled in the months to come and the aim of offering another budget proposal well ahead of next year's deadline, Ms. Sims said.
"We're serious about citizen participation in the governance process, especially when it comes to our tax dollars," she said.
"The money always goes to the same people, the same organizations, and that has to change."
This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
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