Protesters hold signs in support of defunding the police on July 25, 2020 in Oakland, California. (Natasha Moustache/Getty Images)

Cori Bush Wants to Defund the Police. My Neighbors Have Other Ideas.

The congresswoman can afford private security. Those who live in Oakland, California, don't have that luxury.

Leighton Akira Woodhouse is a documentary filmmaker and journalist whose work spans factory farming, animal rights, immigration, the alt-right, and pompous European social theory.

I first came across his work in The Intercept, but he’s written for Newsweek, The Nation, The New Republic and Gawker. (I try not to hold that last one against him.) Leighton also lives in East Oakland, where he’s been reporting on the movement to defund the police — and its passionate opposition.

So when Cori Bush, the Democratic congresswoman from Missouri, was roundly criticized for defending her private security detail and defunding the police in the span of a single minute, I was keen to find out what Leighton had to say about the matter. BW

In February, a mile and a half from my house, at a park featuring an “I Can Do Anything” mural, a 38-year-old basketball coach named Reuben Lewis was gunned down in front of dozens of children. Two of his three sons, who he was picking up from football practice, watched him die.

In March, about four miles from that park, a 58-year-old man named Andre Weston got into an argument with a homeless man named William Vann. He doused Vann with an accelerant and lit him on fire.

In April, about two-and-a-half miles from where Vann was murdered, a house was burned to the ground in retaliation for a shooting that the people living there had nothing to do with. Esame Musleh, a refugee who had fled Yemen to escape the violence there, was burned alive. So was his one-year-old daughter.

Those are four of the 77 murders that have occurred so far this year in Oakland, California, where I live. Not one of them was at the hands of the police. But if you drive through the city, you’ll see the slogan “defund the police” on homemade placards in the windows of apartments and houses that boast “In This House We Believe In Science” lawn signs out front.

Last week, Cori Bush, a Democratic congresswoman from Missouri whose political career began as an anti-police activist in Ferguson, echoed that message in an interview with CBS News. Bush is a vocal proponent of the movement to defund the police. Yet her campaign expenditure filings show that over a two-and-a-half month period this year, she spent nearly $70,000 on a private security detail.

When asked about this apparent hypocrisy, her answer was sharp: “Would you rather see me die?”

Some residents of Oakland have been wondering the same about the campaign to defund their police force that’s being promoted in part by those who live in safer neighborhoods of the city.

Antoine Towers, a physically imposing but exceedingly friendly 42 year-old, is one of them. Towers is a violence prevention organizer; he spends his days meeting with politicians, activists, and residents in high-crime neighborhoods in Oakland, developing strategies and building coalitions to combat street violence. “We grew up fighting — gun battles, knives, everything,” said Towers, who has lost a cousin and a nephew to gun violence in recent years. When I asked him about Bush’s interview, he said: “A lot of people saying, ‘defund, defund,’ aren’t acknowledging the real threat of the streets.” 

Towers spent six years in prison for an armed carjacking; he’s no big fan of the cops. But he believes one of the reasons that crime is surging in cities like his is that there are too few of them. Referring to Bush’s invocation of the threats against her life, Towers pointed out that people like him face the same risk in neighborhoods like his every day. “She’s showing that it’s real,” he said. “And that when you feel threatened, you’re going to need security.”

Antoine Towers. (Courtesy of author.)

That is even truer this year than last. Nationally, murders are up by 13 percent since last year, which was, in turn, up 25 percent over the year prior. (In Chicago, to choose one of many examples, there were more than 100 homicides in July alone.)

In Oakland, the 2021 murder rate has already topped the total for the entirety of 2019 and is on track to exceed last year’s total of 102. When I recently interviewed Oakland’s Police Chief, LeRonne Armstrong, he described the crisis as perpetual and endless: “a continuous amount of gunfire throughout the city.”

On July 4th of this year, there were seven separate shootings along a roughly three-and-a-half mile stretch of the city; two of them were fatal. Armstrong described it as “12 hours of nonstop chaos.” In another incident, he said, shots were reported in front of a Catholic school. The school called 911, but the police couldn’t get to the locked down campus for two hours. They were tied up with another shooting. 

Given all this, one might imagine that the city of Oakland would want more police, not fewer. But in June, the Oakland City Council voted to divert $18 million away from the mayor’s proposed police budget toward civilian violence prevention programs.

Chief Armstrong, who grew up in Oakland, lost a brother to gun violence in the 1980s and a close family friend this past January. He told me he supports such long-term solutions, but not at the expense of his short-term obligation to keep people safe. “I am not one that is going to sit in this chair as a Chief of Police and say that I have until next year, or I have five years to figure out if these programs actually were successful,” he said. “My role is to try to come in everyday and push and motivate and support our officers to go out there everyday to try to make the community safer today.”

Loren Taylor, a City Councilman who represents one of the most violent districts of Oakland, was one of two Council members who opposed the $18 million diversion. The other no vote came from the only district in the city with even more crime than his. 

Taylor, who told me that twice as many unanswered 911 calls come from predominantly black and Latino East Oakland than the rest of the city, believes he’s fighting for what his constituents want: faster response times and safer streets. Taylor grew up in Oakland and has a business degree from Berkeley. He bristles at the ideological pretenses of his critics and says he suspects that the groups advocating for a reduced police presence are speaking to “a very narrow audience” clustered in more comfortable neighborhoods that are not as heavily impacted by crime. When defund protesters showed up to his home in June of last year, Taylor noticed that they were “a much whiter group,” and suspected they were not from East Oakland. 

Demonstrators outside of Loren Taylor’s home. (Courtesy of Taylor.)

This typifies the split between the two sides of this debate: critics from the neighborhoods most affected by violence tend to regard the defund crowd as outsiders with their own agenda. Defund advocates, meanwhile, tend to regard those critics as either corrupted or manipulated by the police.

Foremost among those advocates is Cat Brooks, the co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, one of the main groups pushing for defunding the Oakland Police Department. She was brought up in Las Vegas by a white mother who was an anti-domestic violence activist. Her father, a black man, struggled with substance abuse and ended up in prison. “I watched him be terrorized and traumatized by law enforcement,” she recalled.

While pursuing a career in acting in Los Angeles, Brooks stumbled into political activism, which eventually brought her to Oakland. In 2018, she ran for mayor, coming in second with about a quarter of the vote.

When I asked Brooks about the two Council members — both black — who voted against the reduction in the police budget she was unambiguous in her contempt. They are “representing the interests of the police, and they’re representing the interests of development,” she said. “If they were representing the interests of the people, then they, too, should want black bodies to stop falling.”

But Taylor questions who Brooks’ group represents. “A significant amount of that movement calling for defunding without regard for those calling for service don’t reflect my community,” he said. “They’re not the ones making the two-thirds of the calls to 911.”

Last month, the two sides met face to face at a rally to stop gun violence at Oakland’s Lake Merritt that was organized, in part, by the police department. I wasn’t there, but my colleague Lee Fang was. He described the scene as “surreal,” with families, mostly African-American, mourning the deaths of their loved ones, while a small group of mostly white protesters jeered at them for collaborating with the police. Towers, who attended the event and spoke directly to the protesters, described them as “a lot of white folks that don’t even live out here.”

The protesters, for their part, basically accused Towers and other African-American families there of being tokens or stooges of the police. In a tweet the same day, Cat Brooks’ group echoed that sentiment: “OPD are exploiting Oaklanders pain to make sure they keep getting the largest chunk of the money.”

When I asked Brooks if she supports the abolition of police, she said, “Absolutely. Unapologetically.” Describing the role of the police in society, she said, “Their job is to maintain the status quo. And the status quo is race-based capitalism. And so they are the front line soldiers of the larger system of white supremacy, which is the engine of this country, both here locally and globally.”

But when I went to a barbershop with Towers, the opinions I heard were more complicated. Over an hour-long conversation between a half-dozen black men about the causes of violence in their neighborhoods, none of them blamed white supremacy. “Our youth are not killing each other because of the white man,” said Towers.

One man, a rapper in his mid-30s who supported diverting money from the police and toward schools, complained that “when a police officer kills a black man, we say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ right? But if I kill you or you kill me, they’re not out there marching — you feel me?”

“The community is coming together in protest of what the police are doing,” Towers added. “But we also need to come together when we see that we are killing ourselves.” The rapper nodded in agreement.

Barbershop in Oakland. (Courtesy of author.)

The consensus in the room echoed what I heard from Chief Armstrong and Councilman Taylor rather than the worldview of the anti-police protesters at Lake Merritt holding signs reading “Quit Your Job, KKKop.”

On the national stage, though, the “KKKop” message has real resonance. Cori Bush has compared policing to slavery. So has Jamaal Bowman, a recently elected congressman from the Bronx. Rep. Rashida Tlaib has called policing “inherently and intentionally racist” and said that it “can’t be reformed.” The same arguments have been published in The New Yorker and The New York Times.

Towers lives in a small, cluttered apartment in West Oakland with his teenage son. Unlike those celebrity members of Congress, he doesn’t have the funds for private security. He doesn’t have a communications staff. And he couldn’t care less about social media fanfare and campaign donations. He doesn’t talk much about revolution and white supremacy and “abolition.” He just wants to figure out how to keep his family and his friends alive.

Read more of Leighton’s work here.

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