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My First Protest
Is defunding the NYPD the answer?
Jaelyn Feliciano
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The day New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton resigned, I went to cover a protest for YCteen. It was organized by Millions March NYC, a local group affiliated with Black Lives Matter. It was the first time I’d ever been to a protest.

The protesters had “occupied” City Hall the day before, which means they stayed in the park next to City Hall until it closed and then they came back every morning. They planned to do this for two weeks. Some of them slept outside near the park.

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When I got to the middle of City Hall Park, there were police officers chatting away at one end. On the other end was the Millions March NYC activist group. They were quiet and calm, not loud and angry like Black Lives Matter protests I’d seen on television. The ones on TV showed what looked like hundreds of people. But at this gathering there were only 15 or 20 protesters of different races.

I noticed one white man in particular. He looked like he was around 60. He had on a yellow T-shirt with the words “White People 4 Black Lives Matter.” As a black woman, I found this encouraging because it shows that the Black Lives Matter group has supporters that are not just from my community.

‘Silence Violence’

Some people were sitting around talking low; others were writing chants on the ground with chalk, like “Stand Up Fight Back,” “Disarm the NYPD,” and “Silence Violence.”

One older black man was wearing a shirt with a picture of a boy on it. It looked like a middle school class photo. Later I heard him talking to a reporter, and I learned that the boy on his shirt was his deceased son. He said his son was shot in 1994 by a police officer. “I never got justice for my son’s murder,” he told the reporter.

My fellow writers and I scanned the scene for someone to interview. We were told the press spokespeople wore Millions March NYC shirts. We spotted a man and approached him. This was not only my first Black Lives Matter protest, but also my first interview as a journalist.

Joel would only give us his first name. He told us this local Millions March NYC group has three demands: that New York City police chief Bill Bratton be fired, that reparations be given to “survivors and victims of racist police brutality,’” and that the NYPD, which has a $5.5 billion budget, be “defunded”—in other words, eliminated.

I asked Joel what he thought about Bratton’s resignation earlier that morning. “It was unexpected, but I don’t think he sped up his resignation because of our demand,” he admitted. He said defunding the police department could make money available for social programs like free college education, after-school programs, and mental health and addiction programs.

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All Cops Aren’t Racist

But if the police department is defunded that means no more police officers. “How will communities be kept safe?” I asked.

“There would be community-based response teams so when someone is in trouble or there’s a problem they will step in,” Joel said.

I found this confusing, because if they do this, the response team will also be a system similar to the police, with some people in charge of other people. And they must be trained. What would prevent these community-based response people from being racist or making the same mistakes the police have?

Although Joel doesn’t think all cops are racist, he believes the whole police system has to change. Referring to people calling bad cops “a few bad apples,” he countered, “The whole tree is rotten. We’re not blaming individuals, but the institution itself.”

I don’t agree. I feel that the police should not be defunded but reformed. I think there are plenty of good cops who aren’t racist.

We Still Need Police

The next day, I had an opportunity to interview Terrell Jermaine Starr, a journalist at AlterNet and a Black Lives Matter activist. I agreed with him when he said we should, “fire police offers who abuse their badges. The person who choked Eric Garner should be fired. The person who killed Ramarley Graham in his bathroom in the Bronx should be fired.”

I feel that there should be reparations for the victims’ families and survivors. I’m not sure where that money should come from, but I don’t think it should come from the NYPD’s budget.

We need the police for many reasons. When we’re in trouble and need help immediately they are three numbers away: 911. They are trained to protect us. In my opinion, getting rid of the police will cause crime to escalate. People might commit crimes believing there is no one to stop them. I also question the preparedness and training of these community-based teams, and I don’t feel the Millions March NYC group has explained well enough how that system will be better than the police. Things need to change, but simply taking away an institution that’s supposed to keep us safe won’t benefit anyone.

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(NYC-2016-09-24)