This summer finds philanthropy increasingly engaged and devoting more and more attention to Black Lives Matter, arguably the most urgent issue the United States faces today. Yet I am far from the only one seeing that police shootings of black men have continued apace, and with each incident the deaths seem more egregious and unnecessary.
The shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge demonstrate the dangerously frayed relationship between some law-enforcement departments and the communities they serve. The question is simple and heartbreaking: What is to be done?
Many communities are trying important approaches, such as the MacArthur Foundation’s support for a Police Accountability Task Force that provided recommendations for building trust between police and black residents of Chicago. Showing Up for Racial Justice provided an indispensable list of black-led racial-justice organizations that are leading the way through this urgent social moment.
Without presuming to know all of the strategy discussions, thoughtful evaluations, and expert assessments underway, I propose that it is time to directly confront one controversial and yet utterly unsexy element that leads to criminalization of people of color: municipal budgets.
To be sure, it is important to think about more traditional approaches, such as providing food banks and legal aid in communities torn by racial shootings and their aftermath, as well as support for community organizing, independent journalism, and art and educational programs that help people explore and learn. Financing such projects remains important to both the short- and long-term challenges of making America a safer and more humane place. But we need to step up our game.
One important takeaway from the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile is the increased surveillance and punishment of minor crimes (traffic violations, street sales of bootleg CDs), which lead to more police encounters and more economic vulnerability for people of color. This intensified policing has been traced to budgetary shortfalls, whereby compounding fines, tickets, agency surcharges, and even brief imprisonment are all used to supply substantial portions of a city’s budget (nearly a quarter in the case of Ferguson. Mo.) In the words of Mother Jones’s Jack Hitt, "Police shootings won’t stop unless we also stop shaking down black people."
This story was well covered in 2015 following a Justice Department investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, but two recent shootings reinforce how economic precariousness poisons police-community relations: Alton Sterling was selling bootleg CDs outside a convenience store, and Philando Castile was stopped 46 times by police, caught in a cycle of high fines for minor driving violations that he struggled to pay back.
One of the saddest aspects of the sniper attack that killed five Dallas police officers last week is that the city’s police force had become a model of transparency and training to reduce use of lethal force. Other promising signs come from Wichita, where the police force sponsored a "First Steps" cookout to build better relationships instead of the antagonistic postures of protests.
Even if, as in the case of many incidents, police stops resolve without violence or death, this is still a grinding punishment upon already-vulnerable members of society. And it comes down to cash — the need for the state to pay for itself and the choice to do so by making poverty itself a crime.
By all means, let us continue to fund organizing efforts but realize the tremendous onus already placed on hard-working activists. Attitudes, protocols, and culture are amorphous and take a long time to change. However, one element of the relationship between police and populations of color is a lack of money, and money happens to be the one thing philanthropy can directly provide. As Scott A. Williams wrote in a powerful opinion piece in The Chronicle last week, "What we need to change the culture and inequalities that exist in our legal system and law-enforcement agencies, and the culture of mistrust and hatred of police in our communities, is ... to stand up and speak up for real and actionable solutions."
For all of our philanthropy’s talk about battling systemic problems, perhaps the time has come for a radical Jubilee, directly ending the incentives for cities to use the police against poor people. One of those tangible solutions goes against many of my own concerns about replacing government services with philanthropy and will violate others’ concerns about the effectiveness and oversight that grant makers usually seek from their funding. Nevertheless, consider one bold step: buying out the debts of cities that target minor violations to supply their own budgets.
What if a consortium of grant makers chose a pilot city (or cities) in fiscal distress and simply paid the revenue otherwise generated by tickets, fines, fees, and so forth for a number of years, on the condition that all such payments owed by its citizens would be erased? What would happen if a city had options other than deploying a police force to extort its own budget?
Indeed, this approach would condone some unsavory behavior. Budgets may likely be mismanaged to begin with and require serious re-evaluation as part of this experiment. Some of the shortfalls can be traced to higher-dollar tax-evasion cases, as with Judge Ronald Brockmeyer in Ferguson, who owed more than $170,000 in back taxes; perhaps a condition of this project would be increased prosecution of such crimes. It may be an unpleasant precedent to eliminate consequences for breaking laws designed to keep peace. However, no matter how much of a long shot it is, no other actors can conduct what seems to be an increasingly vital experiment: seeing what happens when we remove the institutional incentive to go after the crimes of poor people.
One persistent element of the shootings from the last two years has been the lack of indictments of police officers, in part because law-enforcement departments and city officials feel duty-bound to protect their own members to preserve trust within the force as a whole. Perhaps only when we disentangle the economic incentives from possible racial biases will we know how to change police culture without impugning individual officers’ characters. The power and availability of firearms will still be a major issue. Likewise, an infusion of private money will not fix the larger economic landscape that redistributes wealth from communities to businesses in the form of tax breaks and starves state and local governments of funding for basic services. Yet in this one case, throwing money at the problem may help by bridging the impasse of police solidarity and outrage over racial injustice.
There is precedent for philanthropy being applied to buy out a city’s debts. The Kresge, Ford, Kellogg, and seven other foundations, most admirably, struck a grand bargain to cover Detroit’s debt and save both pensions and the Detroit Institute of Arts. What I propose does not involve a world-class art museum (with all the prestige and revenue one can provide to a city). Yet if philanthropy is literally named "love of humanity," perhaps we should treat human beings as works of art, equally vital to the well-being and growth of their cities.
Amy Schiller, who has worked as a major-gifts fundraising consultant, campaign director, and political organizer, is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate Center of CUNY.