Opinion – We Need Leaders: City Budget Misses the Mark
Politicians are offering empty and symbolic gestures but no real and substantial change
In early April as the reality of COVID-19 began to set in, Arundhati Roy wrote the pandemic is a portal, "a gateway between one world and the next." What Roy knew and what's become all too apparent is that COVID has exposed the fault lines beneath the wealthiest country in the world.
As the pandemic surges and more Texans file unemployment, our leadership, Republican and Democratic, has proven itself to be woefully inept at handling this crisis. After months of inaction and record-breaking spikes in cases, Gov. Abbott has finally done the bare minimum and implemented a statewide executive order requiring masks in public. Mayor Adler hasn't fared much better as Austin has regularly led the country in positivity rate and, instead of figuring out ways to help our vulnerable populations, particularly unsheltered folks, he's resorted to finger-pointing with the governor. From the occupant of the White House, who has all but abandoned the fight against the coronavirus, to our local leaders, the pandemic has proven that neoliberal policies that value big business and gut social safety-net spending ultimately supports profit more than people.
Ordinary people have been put in impossible situations. As COVID-19 impacts Black and Latinx folks disproportionately, they are overwhelmingly the essential workers that have to decide between their health and livelihood. Not only are these communities having to find new, socially distant ways to bury their loved ones lost to the virus, but coupled with the deaths of Mike Ramos, Vanessa Guillen, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others, our communities are in mourning.
We would think that in times like these the city's politicians would pull together to pass a budget that reflects the needs of the communities. A central concern of the recent unrest and reemergence of the Movement for Black Lives is the demand to defund the police, a demand that ultimately argues that, as a society, we divest from policing, jails, and prisons and invest in the social services that improve the lives and well-being of all, especially our society's vulnerable. The demand reflects the at least half a century trend of drying up budgets dedicated to funding affordable housing, public health programs, universal childcare, and the eradication of poverty, programs that have historically supported over-policed communities. Instead, year after year, increasingly militarized police get their budgets bolstered as reflected in this year's fiscal budget that dedicates over 40% of the general funds to APD. The culmination of the city's priorities were laid bare when APD shot a 16-year-old during a protest with so-called "non-lethal" rounds, underscoring the city and its leaders' inability to solve a crisis with resources other than the police. Instead, they offer empty and symbolic gestures like painting "Black Lives Matter" on streets but offer no real and substantial change.
Indeed, the new budget proposed by City Manager Spencer Cronk claims to be cognizant of the need for police reform and the desire to cut spending. In reality, however, the proposed budget not only fails to cut police spending in comparison to last year's budget, but it actually increases spending in the police state apparatus. In a disingenuous political move, Cronk "cut" $11.3 million in additional spending that would have been allocated to police, bringing down APD's budget to $434 million, the same amount they were allocated last fiscal year, and invested roughly $6.3 more million into the police state allocated for the Office of Police Accountability and to replace APD's records management system. In short, Cronk is playing politics and hopes that we don't find out.
What has been made apparent is the serious lack of leadership in Austin, Texas, and the nation. We need leaders not politicians. We need leaders who care more about people than profit. We need leaders who can lead a public health crisis without capitulating to the demands of big business. We need leaders more concerned about homelessness than attracting the next corporation with large tax cuts. We need leaders who are concerned about the vulnerable among us. If the pandemic is to be a portal to take us from our old "normal" to a new world where all of our basic physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs are met, then we must be those leaders. We will have to be the ones that fight to make sure politicians know they work for us and that people come first.
Joshua Crutchfield is a Ph.D. student in the African and African Diaspora Department at the University of Texas where he studies the history of social movements.
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