Janine Jackson interviewed the Movement for Black Lives’ Monifa Bandele about reimagining public safety for the January 26, 2024, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Redirecting public resources away from punitive policing and toward community-centered mechanisms of public safety like housing, like healthcare, is the sort of idea that, years from now, everyone will say they always supported. Talking heads on TV will stroke their chins and recount the times when “it was believed” that police randomly harassing people of color on the street would decrease crime, and that neighborhoods would greet police as liberators.
The ongoing harms of racist police violence, and the misunderstanding of ideas about responses, are illustrated in new research from the Movement for Black Lives and GenForward.
And joining us now to talk about it is Monifa Bandele, activist with Movement for Black Lives, as well as senior vice president and chief strategy officer at MomsRising. She joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Monifa Bandele.
Monifa Bandele: Thank you for having me.
JJ: Let me ask you to start with the findings of the latest from Mapping Police Violence. I suspect some folks might be surprised, because we’re not seeing police killings on the front page so much anymore. But what did we learn, actually, about 2023?
MB: What we saw in 2023 was actually the highest number on record of police killing civilians in the United States since we’ve been documenting, which was higher than 2022, which 2022 was a record breaker. So police killings have actually been increasing year over year.
Contrary to what people believe about the activism of 2020—and while we have seen emerge very important and successful local initiatives to shift public safety away from police into community alternatives, and those things are working—overall, across the country, there’s been an increase in police budgets. So police budgets have gone up, these killings have gone up, and the data shows locally, in places like New York, which you can maybe say it’s happening all over the country, is death in incarceration is also increasing.
So just in January, here in New York City where I live, you’ve already seen two people die on Rikers Island, and the first month of the year isn’t even over.
JJ: Yeah. Let’s get into the new perspectives on community safety, because so often we see corporate news media’s defense of police violence presented as, “It’s just liberal elitists who oppose things like stop and frisk. The people in these communities actually support aggressive policing, because they’re the victims of crime.” So, it’s “you can pick safety over safety,” and it’s this false frame. And what’s interesting and exciting about this new report is the way it disengages that.
So tell us about this “Perspectives on Community Safety From Black America.” What was the listening process? And then, what do you think is most important in the findings?
MB: Absolutely. Black people are just like any other people, right, all over the world. And so, for a long time, people had no idea what options there could be, what alternatives there could be, for community safety other than policing.
It’s not just presented in our policies and what we see on the streets, we’re fed a daily dose of it in our larger popular culture. The police shows, the true crime series. All of your favorite actors at some point have been on the policing shows, or even if it’s shows about “gangsters” or “criminals,” it really has what we call this copaganda—which is police propaganda—storyline, which ultimately says, you need police, you need vigilantes, you need this tough-on-crime entity in order to have some semblance of safety in your community.
So I’m actually really proud and impressed in the Black community, because what our report shows is that, even though we are really bombarded, millions and millions of dollars are spent to convince people that this is the only way that you can get safety, and people have lived their entire lives only experiencing this one model, that large portions of our community are really questioning that, and are really listening to folks who are saying: “Hey, we actually know what keeps us safe. We know that people need care and not punishment.”
And this is something that, while we do it sometimes in our buildings and in our tenant associations or in our families, this could be scaled up community-wide. This could be scaled up citywide, statewide, nationally, where we actually figure out and get to the root of violence. You prevent most of it from happening, because you have the right mechanisms in place. And then when people are in crisis, and may cause harm to themselves or others, we combat that by giving them what they need to not be in crisis in that moment.
So the report is showing us, really, that 2020, where the discussion around “defund the police” really, really exploded, it’s not that we’re in a retreat of that, but that it launched a conversation, and that that conversation is growing year over year, and people are saying, you know what? I’m sick of people dying on Rikers Island who have yet to, one, be charged with anything, and even if they were, they shouldn’t be dying incarcerated. And I’m sick of feeling the fear of my loved ones when they interact with the police, and having to feel like that’s also the only way that we can be safe.
JJ: Well, to me, the fact that the report shows that support for alternative responses, for community-centered responses, goes up when specific solutions are named, solutions rooted in prevention, in things like mental health—when you name possible responses, folks can see them and believe in them. And, of course, the flip side is—and I’m a media critic—when those responses and alternatives are never named, or are presented as “not feasible” or marginal, then that’s a factor in whether or not people believe that they’re possible. So this report to me is really about possibilities, and how we need to see them.
MB: Absolutely. And it also disrupts the myth that somehow people who believe in the abolition of police and policing aren’t concerned with public safety. When mass media report on, initially, the Vision for Black Lives, and the demand to defund the police, and take off the whole entire invest/divest framework that’s also presented in that same platform, they actually are misrepresenting the demand, and therefore causing people to look at it through a false prism.
What invest/divest demands is the investing in mental health support, the investing in first responders who actually know what to do in a crisis, depending on what the crisis is. People know that when all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail, and that that’s not effective.
And we also have to remember that, particularly around this mental health crisis piece, we are in a larger mental health crisis right now. We know the stories of Mohamed Bah and Daniel Prude and Walter Wallace, and these are recent cases where families called for help. They called for an ambulance, or they called to get some mental health support for someone having an emotional health episode, and the police come and kill them. These are real families, and communities and people recognize, “You know what? I’m actually being duped here. I’m left with a solution that’s not a solution. It doesn’t work. And no one is talking about the alternative, because I actually picked up the phone to call for help, I called for care, and instead what I got was cops.”
So the solutions are named by activists, and that is growing. It’s spreading, because it also just speaks to what people know. People know that in their heart. Sometimes even on my own block, I have a neighbor who has mental health episodes, and we send around an email to the block association saying, “Don’t dial 911, because they might come and kill her.”
JJ: Well, I thank you very much, and I just want to ask you, finally, there’s kind of a conversation happening about whether we’re “saving journalism,” or whether we’re serving people’s information needs. And I’m loving that paradigm shift, because it’s like, are we trying to stave up existing institutions, just because they’re existing institutions, or do we want to actually have a vision of things being different? And do we want to look at the needs those institutions say they’re serving, and talk about other ways to meet those needs? So there’s a conversation even about reporting that is about some of these same questions.
And I just wanted to ask you, journalism is a public service. Corporate media is a profit-driven business, but journalism can be a public service. And I wonder what you think reporting could do to help propel this forward-looking movement forward? What would good journalism on this set of issues look like to you?
MB: Good journalism would have to be brave journalism. Some of the things that we see when it comes to reporting on police violence, when it comes to reporting on death in prisons, or torture, solitary confinement, false imprisonment, is that all of a sudden, journalists lose—it’s almost like, did you take writing?
I mean, passive voice when it comes to state violence, it makes my skin crawl. It speaks to the anxiety and the fears of the individual reporter to not name a thing a thing. “Police kill 14-year-old” instead of “14-year-old dies”—that would be rejected by my English teacher if I wrote it. How are we all of a sudden not these brave truthtellers and storytellers?
So one of the things that we really do need is a level of integrity when it comes to state violence, and we find very few outlets and very few journalists stick to that, regardless of where they lean on the subject, or how they feel overall about prison and policing abolition, but just to say, this thing happens to this family, to this individual, and the perpetrator is this person, and they are in the police department.
And the reason why we were always taught not to use too passive a voice, because it does alter one’s feeling about what you’re saying about the incident, right? Someone just walks down the street and dies? That’s going to make me feel a lot different than if you articulate if they were killed, and this person was killed by this other person, or this entity or this institution.
And then we have to really figure out how to separate the money, because I think a lot of that fear, a lot of that lack of bravery of reporting, has to do with the fact that this is how we get paid, or this is how our institution, when we talk about corporate media, this is how we stay on the air, or this is how we keep the papers printed, is that we are owned by someone who’d be very upset if we were too truthful about this.
I’m also really excited about community-based reporting, some podcasts that I’ve seen emerge, where people are telling the stories of their communities, and the voices of members of the communities, like really reporting self-determination, so to speak, emerging that I’ve been listening to. I think these are all really important ways to counter what we’re seeing in corporate media, where it seems like the story is twisted in a pretzel to support the status quo.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Monifa Bandele, activist with the Movement for Black Lives. You can find the report that we’re talking about, “Perspectives on Community Safety from Black Americans,” at M4BL.org. Thank you so much, Monifa Bandele, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
MB: Thank you.