Two years ago, the video of the police-perpetrated murder of George Floyd sparked one of the largest protests in the United States. According to the New York Times, between 15 and 26 million Americans joined the Movement for Black Lives in over 550 locales. New legislation like the 2021 Justice in Policing Act was passed by Democrats in the House of Representatives, but stalled in the Senate. New calls to “Defund the Police” reverberated in marches and at city halls. At the climax of the uprisings, the nation glimpsed the possibility of a transformed society, one in which life-affirming priorities like housing, education and health care would be funded instead of police.
Today, activists fight an uphill battle to push progressive ideas in an era of acute right-wing backlash and the spread of reactionary politics and repression. Republicans have introduced over 100 bills aimed at criminalizing protests since the start of the rebellion sparked by the murder of Floyd, and Republican-controlled states have passed laws granting immunity to drivers who hit and kill protesters. Meanwhile, pro-policing Democrats like New York City mayor Eric Adams have been elected after decrying the “Defund the Police” movement and promising to beef up police funding.
Where does the movement go from here? Truthout interviewed Amara Enyia, the manager of policy and research for the Movement for Black Lives, the massive nationwide collective that describes itself as having come together in 2015 “in response to the sustained and increasingly visible violence against Black communities in the U.S. and globally” and that “launched the Vision for Black Lives, a comprehensive and visionary policy agenda for the post-Ferguson Black liberation movement, in August of 2016.”
Nicholas Powers: What is one of the biggest obstacles to change? We see now a reactionary pushback to the Movement for Black Lives and “Defund the Police,” and a retrenchment of older, more punitive ideas.
Amara Enyia: Well, I’ve seen governments not be responsive to the people, and one of the first steps that has to happen is people must harness their power and create systems that reflect their values. And replace the ones we have. One obstacle is to realize the way things are not the way they have to be.
Can you go into that a little more?
Sure. The first is when people are in survival mode, they don’t have the space to imagine. I mean, it’s just hard to talk about policy when you’re facing an eviction.
Second, is the reinforcement by those in positions of power and authority that we have to accept the state of things. We internalize their notions, get stuck in a box — and yes, people get disillusioned. Third is the intentional mystification of policy. Like tax policy — it dramatically affects people’s lives, but the minute you go into the details, eyes glaze over.
Look at the tax system: It hurts low-income people of color because it values wealth over income. Or look at issues like redlining. In 2020, J.P. Morgan lent more to one white neighborhood in Chicago than to all the Black neighborhoods combined.
The thing is, we all engage in economic activity. Most people intuitively know the power dynamics that shape their lives, but the elites use an obscure language that only those with degrees can understand. It drives a wedge between those who create policy versus those affected by it.
It has been two years since the immense uprising of the George Floyd protests. What do you think led to such an explosion? What has been the lasting legacy?
We don’t know what one spark will do. We had already seen Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and too many more. And then, in 2020 we had a pandemic. It was a confluence of circumstances that no one could have predicted.
The legacy of it is the fact that we have redefined the conversation and [organized to] challenge the billions that go into policing and [demand that we] redirect those resources to the issues that create crime. Out of that has come the Breathe Act [a visionary bill framework] where people are given health care, fully funded schools, youth activities and more…. It goes beyond policing. We need the resources to address what really makes us safe.
What are the obstacles to getting this practical legislation passed?
One of the biggest blocks is the desire for microwave solutions for a slow-cooked problem. Too many politicians want a solution slogan to rattle off in a commercial or campaign. It’s easy to say hire more police, buy more scanners, build more police stations. It plays well on TV. The reality is, there has been a public policy failure over years. Too many politicians did not take the long-term view or even acknowledge where they failed. So they retreat to the same scrappy, cheap “lock ‘em up” slogans.
How can activists and progressive politicians challenge mass incarceration and policing?
We have to resist falling in line. We see the Eric Adams model here in Chi-Town with Lori Lightfoot, who is a Black woman but uses the law-and-order rhetoric. We have to point out to the people that there’s a history. Look at the 1994 Crime Bill, remind them that it doesn’t work. We have to advocate for policy that addresses mental health, or say one [issue] that is often forgotten: environmental racism. What about lead exposure? Lead is a neurotoxin that can lead to impulsive behavior. Youth exposed to lead can become violent, yet we attribute that to some violent gene in their makeup. Add to that disinvestment in youth programs and the lack of nurses or counselors in school. When they become adults, we throw them in jail.
I think of Laquan McDonald, who was murdered by the Chicago police. In a sense he was killed long before they killed him.
We have to stop pushing social problems onto the police. The only tools they have are a gun and the power to arrest.
What are some of the policy proposals that you advocate for to short-circuit this fall back into a default reliance on policing?
Increase funding for front-line violence prevention. These are workers who come from the community and have organic relationships. They know the people in the neighborhood.
Next, permanently fund the front-line prevention. How can they do their jobs not knowing if they will be supported one year to the next? To follow up on that, align federal, state and city resources to amplify the impact the social services can have…. Follow up with expanding programs for the youth. Thirty years ago, we had arts, music and gardening activities; now they have nothing to do and are just left out there in the streets.
Most importantly, for those of us in the movement, learn from the people. We can get into our bubble, too. I talk to everyday people and listen to them. They know what they need.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for publication.
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