by Jack Russillo
After Seattle City Council voted yesterday on the 2021 City budget, partners in the Solidarity Budget coalition hosted a live Facebook-streamed teach-in event to share perspectives and analyses of the close-to-official City budget. Mayor Jenny Durkan has said she will sign the budget into law next week.
Solidarity Budget is a platform endorsed by more than 200 community organizations who have been calling for a 2021 City budget that is anti-racist, pro-Black, and that works toward a healthy future for all. Among representatives from King County Equity Now (KCEN), Decriminalize Seattle, Transit Riders Union, Got Green, Puget Sound Sage, and other Solidarity-Budget-supporting organizations, political activist Nikkita Oliver helped facilitate the 77 minutes of virtual conversations.
While some parts of the 2021 budget were cause for celebration for supporters of the Solidarity Budget, the primary demand was not met: the Seattle Police Department (SPD) will see its funding cut by 18%, not the minimum 50% that protesters have been calling for since the end of May.
“The wins that we’ve had build off decades of war. We are not the first people to point out that the SPD kills,” said Angélica Cházaro, an organizer with Decriminalize Seattle and an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law. “We are not the first people to have pushed back and to push for something new and different. But this is the first time—and the first budget building on the work of so many other people—that we’re actually seeing SPD’s budget decrease, so I just want to pause and take a moment to recognize all the work that’s come before us with people suffering at the hands of SPD and pushing for something different. This was the year and this was the moment where we finally saw that tipping point to actually seeing those in power listen and act in a way that forced the budget to shrink.”
After the 2020 budget saw police spending account for nearly a quarter of the overall City budget, decreases to SPD funding will help fill financial voids that have been left open for years. While just under half of the SPD budget cuts will reduce some parts of the police force, like defunding vacant positions and laying off about 30 SPD employees, the other half of the SPD budget cuts will come from transferring some of the SPD responsibilities, like 911 dispatching and parking enforcement, out of police jurisdiction and into other city department control.
“To us, it’s very clear that [an 18% budget decrease] would not have happened if we had not made the demand of 50 percent,” said Cházaro. “And when we said 50 percent, we meant it … We do not want to see the police department funded at these levels. We are hopefully on track to get at least 50% gone, if not more.”
Even with the budget cuts, the total number of police officers on the streets in 2021 could still be more than were on the streets this year. The mayor originally proposed funding 1,400 officers; the council reduced that to 1,343, with 1,222 of those on active duty—the same number as this year. Instead of actively decreasing the number of funded police positions, the new budget will not allot resources for officers who leave the force. Essentially, the only divestment from SPD is through attrition.
“We pulled back a hugely bloated budget, but there is still so much more to do,” said Cházaro.
“We didn’t win everything, especially on the police divesting front,” said Katie Wilson, General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union. “There’s a lot of work to be done next year. We want to give people a sense of what we’ve accomplished and be able to celebrate that because we did win a lot, but then also recognizing that there’s a long way to go and hoping that people will be able to keep taking action in the future.”
Just under half of the cuts to the SPD budget will end up funding the participatory budgeting process and programs that will be funded through that process, which will allow for more city-funded research positions for more young people from BIPOC communities to “address economic and other urgent needs” and eventually a more large-scale and accessible system for city residents to have input on the budget.
“The scale of participatory budgeting to be launched in 2021 is unprecedented in the city, as is the fact that at least $12 million that will be distributed to community-selected projects would otherwise have gone to the Seattle Police Department.” said LeTania Severe, a lead researcher for KCEN’s Black Brilliance Project, which will help inform and determine the participatory budget priorities and processes. “This work was supported by the unrelenting pressure on the streets, with protesters showing up every day to uplift Black lives and calls to defund SPD.”
All told, $30 million has been allocated for aspects of participatory budgeting, like community surveys, a fraction of the $200 million that KCEN hopes to have in a future budget. The $30 million will fund the steering committee to help the design and implementation process and city employees to provide technical assistance. It will also go toward meetings and online tools that allow residents to share and discuss ideas for projects as well as funding for the actual projects themselves, once they’ve been voted on by the community.
Among other advances in managing Seattle’s homelessness, the 2021 budget will see the City’s Navigation Team replaced by the new Homelessness Outreach and Provider Ecosystem, which will coordinate nonprofit outreach providers to help improve unhoused peoples’ transition to appropriate services and minimize dehumanizing sweeps that forcibly remove people and their belongings from a public space.
“It is essential that we recognize the vital role of the movement in these victories, which otherwise would not have happened,” said Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant in a statement released on Monday. “If we as working people do not, then our future demands will fail. We should recognize and claim every victory our grassroots movements win.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of total SPD positions the City Council’s proposed 2021 budget allowed for.
Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Featured image: Jul 20, 2020 Pay the Fee rally. (Photo: Susan Fried)