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As a novice writer, I am learning to study the meaning of the words I choose and to be responsible for what those words mean. We are encouraged to find ways to liberate the energy in our words so that it has a positive effect on the lives of people.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind because I feel that he knew of this energy and used it to capture his audience’s minds. Although King was aware of the power of his words, he also knew the implications that come with symbolic gestures, such as calling the Declaration of Independence a “check” that was given to Black people marked “insufficient funds.”
I believe that’s how most of our residents – particularly our vulnerable populations –feel at the moment, like they have received a bad check that they will never be able to cash.
As we approach the 57th anniversary of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the fight for economic rights and social justice continues. Complacency has ignited distrust, and symbolic gestures now disguise opportunities to take action.
After a summer of streets ringing in protests against police brutality, cries for police reform, and a series of meetings requesting a more equitable budget, the City of San Antonio unveiled the first draft of the 2021 municipal budget proposal that introduced an increase of $8 million for police.
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Additionally, the City Council will be considering a resolution to declare racism a public health crisis and could authorize Juneteenth as a paid city holiday. None of the community members asked for this. These measures do not address the root issue of inequality, nor are they reflective of the demands or feedback expressed in the public input process.
“This is a farce of the public process,” Marlon Davis, a community organizer, said of the proposed police budget. “This decision ignores the near-unanimous public comments in favor of reallocating those funds and postures as if the collective bargaining agreement rules 100 percent of that funding. Additionally, this is the invention of inequality. We underfund communities and set them up to be criminalized and overpoliced.”
For context, the San Antonio Police Officers Association’s collective bargaining agreement dictates roughly 80 percent of the budget terms for law enforcement. Notably, all of the 1.7 percent increase, or $8 million, to the police’s budget can be attributed to the 5 percent pay increase mandated by the collective bargaining agreement for police officers. You can read more about a complete overview here.
Davis and other organizers have been working to ensure that the other 20 percent (roughly $100 million) of police funding that is free from the collective bargaining agreement’s stipulations is reinvested in underfunded and essential departments, including health, housing, and human services.
Moreover, the most recent Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report Poll reveals a clear call for change, with 68 percent of voters surveyed agreeing that police unions have been a barrier to holding rogue police officers accountable for misconduct.
As someone who has worked in local government, I have personally witnessed the challenges that come with slow-moving bureaucracies and the frustration that comes with regurgitated conversations around nonbinding policy considerations and hollow resolutions that eventually fall by the wayside.
We have known for decades about the structural and systemic problems communities of color face. Year-after-year, it seems we are having discussions and debates about race and justice, while Black, Latino, indigenous, and other people of color are still broke and still dying. Yet the answer always seems to be: We need more time.
I urge our leaders to remember the spirit behind the words shared in 2017 when the first municipal budget with an “equity lens” was passed. During that meeting, there were statements about the importance of removing inequity in budgets and the proper prioritization and management of resources. At this moment I hear the echo of those words – and the echo of King’s words: “Insufficient funds.”
Either on the dais or at the ballot box, City Council members will have to reckon with where they stood when their constituents were shouting for help. I hope they will take their responsibility seriously and be the catalyst that will turn the conversations and debates into actions needed to pass a more equitable budget, versus simple symbolic “wins.”
Racism and oppression began with economics at the root. If budgets are moral documents, then the 2021 proposal is proof that we have no conscience.
The next community input process on the budget takes place Aug. 17-31 (see the City’s budget calendar here). Please consider contacting your City Council member to ensure that your voice is heard.