There is no such thing as voting “no” on police brutality. Until government structures empower communities to directly vote predatory and corrupt police out of their jobs, voting to end over-policing and mass incarceration will most certainly require an indirect approach: a reshaping of community, a redefinition of safety, and a shift in whom we deem responsible for our collective wellbeing.
While guilty officers and entire departments cannot be voted out of power, enfranchised folks should still feel an urgent responsibility to vote, particularly in local and state elections. After all, the majority of over-policing and incarceration originates there, with judges, prosecutors, sheriffs and city officials.
Recent grassroots and political campaigns targeting prosecutors, such as #ByeAnita and #FireMcGinty, have laid bare for a new generation of voters the importance of that office, as well as other elected law enforcement positions. Where possible, communities must vote for people who express and exercise a will to reshape policing, sentencing and imprisonment in our communities. Politicians willing to challenge existing trends are instrumental in creating space to build safer communities for all of us. Although voting out politicians who have historically covered for guilty cops does not deal a direct blow to individuals and will not abolish and rebuild a system, it is a necessary step towards obtaining justice for victims of police violence.
Voting in officials who are willing to expand their imagination of who deserves justice is critical if we are ever going to end police terror. It’s also true that politicians are not solely responsible for community protection. What would happen if the approach often taken towards policing—an influx of money, resources and public pleas for understanding—was also employed to address other failing systems? What would happen if our reaction to poor public education, crumbling infrastructure, insufficient public transportation and a lack of accessible mental health services involved shifting resources, money, time and training into those areas?
Predatory policing is most frequently concentrated in communities shunned and especially vulnerable—homeless people; LGBT youth; genderqueer, non-conforming and trans people; those suffering from mental illness; and women, many of whom exist within several of the aforementioned identities. It’s not a coincidence that nearly a quarter of people shot by police last year were diagnosed with some form of mental illness or found to be experiencing a psychotic or mental break. It should also come as no surprise that a quarter of the people shot by police in 2015 were homeless. Solutions proposed to help these communities often increase police presence within them, leaving them doubly impacted and violated.
Such solutions should be rebuffed in favor of community-centered solutions, ones that increase opportunities for housing, employment, mental health services and youth services. Such measures should all be considered for their potential to decrease interactions with corrupt and violent police. They represent steps against police brutality.
It’s true that a lack of legal accountability processes, political leverage for federal oversight measures and the inherent contradiction of having elected public prosecutors are just a few reasons why civic engagement that begins and ends at the ballot box is insufficient as a means to ending police brutality, corruption and mass incarceration overall—a stated goal of myself and many organizers within the movement for Black lives. However, decisions—even those in the voting booth—made towards ending police brutality are highly unlikely to exist as yes or no initiatives. Ending police brutality means we must rethink safety—who we depend on to create and maintain it, and who we deem worthy of it.
Ashley Yates is an organizer, writer, and artist from Florissant, Missouri. After the killing of Mike Brown in 2014, as an early on-the-ground organizer in Ferguson, Yates stepped into leadership and helped to sustain the longest Black resistance in the United States since the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Today, she engineers direct actions and strategic organizing with an unwavering goal of liberation for all Black people.
This article is part of an op-ed series curated by #WeBuiltThis in which Black millennial contributors explore the sordid relationship between state violence and elected politicians. For more information, text OPED to 228466.