Fund services, not police and prisons!
Vermont activists speak out
A panel of Vermont community and union activists spoke out on police, prisons, and capitalism in Burlington on January 24. Speakers took up the need to fund services and defund police and prisons. The event highlighted a specific reform—community control of police—that is on the local ballot on March 7. The Tempest Collective sponsored the event.
Nolan Rampy: Hey everyone. Thank you so much for coming out tonight. My name is Nolan Rampy. I’m a clinician at Howard Center [a large social services nonprofit for the Burlington area] and involved with the union. I’m also longtime activist here in Burlington and a member of the Tempest Collective, which is a socialist organization.
We’ve got a great panel of speakers that’s going to be focused on police accountability and how we can address that through a myriad of different ways, including ballot Question 7 in the March 7 local election. We’ve got speakers that are going to give a general overview of what’s happened since the Black Lives Matter uprising and the defund the police movement, as well as a speaker from FreeHer Vermont.
Our first speaker is Paul Fleckenstein, a socialist activist from Burlington and a member of the Tempest Collective.
Paul Fleckenstein: Well, there’s a lot to talk about and a great panel—speakers, activists, and really political thinkers to take on a big topic. I’m going to try to do my part here. It’s been an incredibly violent week of mass shootings and more police lynchings.
This topic calls the whole social order into question, which is one of the reasons that the backlash has been so strong around cutting police and cutting prisons. I want to lay out a few markers for this discussion.
First, the current pro-police backlash against defunding police and prisons, and against meeting people’s needs is shaped by the role of policing in capitalist society, and what has happened since the George Floyd uprising that began in May of 2020.
Class societies depend on violence. Capitalist estates make full use of laws and policing to maintain a particular social order organized around profit. The ruling class in the U.S. and elsewhere has responded to capitalist crises in the last fifty years with a particular regime of austerity, policing, and incarceration and other measures to contain and control oppressed groups and to undermine working class and community solidarity.
We’ve seen the George Floyd uprising. This regime [of repression] was challenged by the mass protest of 2020. Over 20 million people, maybe over 25 million people, in the U.S. engaged in protests, often disruptive to say the least. Tens of millions more joined internationally in over a hundred countries. Black-led, multiracial, predominantly young, everywhere in the U.S., the protests were popular across the working class.
The torching of Precinct 3 in Minneapolis got majority approval in opinion polls, and demands for defunding police and re-funding social needs, for abolishing the police and prisons, made historic advances. Local politicians were forced to respond to the demands of the movements.
The state suppressed the uprising with violence (20,000 arrests, thousands of serious injuries, prosecutions, new laws against protests and defending vigilante violence spearheaded by Republicans).
There was also co-optation. The co-optation occurred through redirecting the movement into elections and the Democratic Party. You all can remember former President Obama’s intervention with LeBron James to head off the NBA basketball players joining the protest movement in a strike, and instead toward getting out the vote for the elections in November of 2020.
There were also political and organizational weaknesses across the broad left. For instance, the Democratic Socialists of America failed to relate to the uprising effectively.
And this hindered the capacity of the movement. Subsequently, police reform laws passed—basically amounting to more money, technology and training for policing virtually everywhere. There were small cuts to police budgets. These have been reversed and we’ll talk specifically about Burlington later on, because I think that has its own unique character here that’s important, too.
There has been no change in police killings—one every eight hours, with a record number in 2022—some 1,200, demographically almost all working class. Whites are the largest group, then Blacks and Hispanics. Police kill African Americans disproportionately, three times the rate of whites, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath this, there are tens of thousands of injuries, traumatic brain injuries, trauma, brutality, torture.
And the backlash continues. The Democrats have doubled down on law and order. The Biden administration uses every opportunity to promote more cops and spending on policing.
Vermont Governor Phil Scott used his inaugural address this month to chastise critics of violent and racially biased policing for endangering public safety. And this got a bipartisan ovation in the State House. The New York Times ran a heartless propaganda article on Burlington’s supposed anti-police problem and the ensuing raft of petty crime. Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger claims democratic oversight of police is a step too far.
The dissipation of the Black Lives Matter protests, but not only these, has meant that the far-right street presence has little opposition. There were the white nationalist vigilantes against Black Lives Matter. This movement has also demonstrated against teaching about racism in schools, against LGBTQ rights, against reproductive rights, and generally for white nationalism, all to uphold a traditional gendered, racist and capitalist social order.
In some countries, this has even taken a form looking like fossil fascism, a reactionary fight to protect fossil fuel production and traditional values. Criminalization has been the favored response of U.S. rulers to the trauma, poverty, and social instability generated by capitalism. The state and capital have carried out fifty years of neoliberal cuts to social safety nets and advanced deregulation, tax cuts, and other policies to spur wealth accumulation at the top and inequality for the rest.
In the U.S. this has been a bipartisan effort. A basic goal has been to restore and maintain profit rates in response to crises of profitability—internationally as well— ramping up the carceral state, levering around racial oppression, curbing union and democratic rights, [which] have been the protection against shredding working class living standards and futures. This is one reason that George Floyd uprising was international in scope.
Tax rates in the U.S. and federal funding for cities have been cut dramatically since the 1970s. There is much less money for housing, culture, recreation, welfare, education, urban development, health care, children, and public sector union jobs. The relative budgets for policing have increased, though federal subsidies for prison construction have been large.
The state will use illegality and violence when necessary to enforce an oppressive social order. This can be explicitly directed against working class power, for instance, [in] Congress’s recent suppression of the railroad workers strike last year. And remember, it would’ve been cops who broke the picket lines.
Less directly, but no less violently in a broad sense, the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates to intentionally cause a recession and to increase unemployment in order to break the power of workers to raise their wages and to resist oppressive working conditions. I think these are the broad outlines of some of the markers of the system and dynamics that we’re up against.
I want to talk, to finish up, about the moment we’re in now. We face multiple and interacting crises. Some commentators call this a polycrisis—social, economic, and ecological. The ruling class is banking on repression to protect the status-quo distribution of power and wealth.
The polycrisis is currently producing huge suffering, and—importantly for us to come to terms with—also pessimism and despair for the future, according to polls. But it also provides a foundation for broader mass struggle. Iran in the fall of 2022, and also Black Lives Matter, were part of this. And these struggles advance political conclusions in building the Left and about the nature of the problem—capitalism—and the alternative—abolition and socialism.
NR: All right, thanks, Paul. Next up we have Jayna Ahsaf. She is a prison abolition organizer with FreeHer Vermont and is also working with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.
Jayna Ahsaf: Well, hello everyone. It really is truly an honor to be here today and speak about how abolition brings us to truly safe and thriving communities. So, let’s just jump into it. As Paul so eloquently described the problem in Vermont, I would like to frame the prison crisis we have. Right now, the state has proposed to build four new prisons for a cost of $250 million.
This prison campus will be able to incarcerate between 2,055 to 2,184 people, and there’s a likelihood of massive bed totals being added later down the line. In addition to this, the state has plans to build juvenile secure facilities. So, we can really see the state investing heavily in incarceration at this point.
And what we know is there’s an RFP for this prison, which is a request for proposals. In that, they laid out six options, and they went with option C, which was this prison campus. And we also know that they have awarded a contract to HOK and two local architectural firms. And just to put this in—this has been done without any community input.
So they’ve just been steamrolling ahead without listening to any of us. And also, this path doesn’t really make sense, because [former] Governor [Peter] Shumlin funded Justice Reinvestment, too, which is a working-group initiative, and that was to identify ways to decarcerate Vermont. And we even experienced the 16 percent drop in our prison populations after implementing those recommendations.
They’ve already been awarded $430,000 to do their next round. So it just doesn’t make sense that we’re going in opposite directions here. And also taking into account that Vermont spends over $168 million annually on our Department of Corrections. It’s just sending a really big message about our state’s priorities for our future.
We’re here today because we believe we’re in an extremely important moment. And we really want to ask everyone, do we want to continue incarcerating our communities for generations to come? Because these prisons won’t just incarcerate us. They’ll incarcerate our children and grandchildren.
We also know that prisons don’t work.
Recidivism rates in Vermont hover around 52.5 percent, but I have a feeling it’s actually much higher than that. And they’re so high because people are released, and they don’t have the supports they need. We believe funding should go to the community, because prisons really serve as a revolving door that does nothing but cause further trauma and harm.
Also, many community groups that are doing alternative work or reentry work in BTA [behavior threat assessment] actually have to receive their funding from the Department of Corrections because there’s not enough allocated in our general budget for those services. I’m also on the Vermont Freedom Fund [a volunteer-run bail fund]. We could bail out essentially half of Chittenden Regional Corrections Facility (CRCF) if we had the money. [Burlington is in Chittenden County.]
And also, so many are being held pre-trial are there due to technical violations like losing housing, losing a job, being late for an appointment. We don’t believe people should be in prison, but that especially is not a reason to be in prison. So, what we know is there’s only around like twenty folks that really need long-term support and care.
We think that can be done in a facility that doesn’t have to look like or be a prison. It’s important I think for people to be on the same page about what we mean about abolition. Because this term has very large and different connotations depending on your exposure to these ideas.
I don’t think I’ll be able to adequately describe all the elements in abolition in this timeframe, but I’ll definitely focus on some of the most important. I would say the central idea of abolition is that we do not believe these systems can be reformed. We believe prisons and policing systems were designed to do exactly what they’re doing today, which is to oppress and control us.
So, returning to the quote by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, if you caught it on slide one, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” We don’t believe in just opening the doors to prisons and letting everyone run free without a plan or support. Most of us believe in creating community-based care that provide wraparound services that actually engage people in healing and rehabilitation. We really want to create the conditions in society that will make prisons obsolete to begin with. And we believe in providing society with the skills they need to navigate conflict and harm independent of state intervention.
And we also believe in making sure everyone’s needs are met. So, a tough part in this abolitionist argument is that we do understand that some folks are going to need to be incapacitated, for lack of a better word, and will have to be taken care of in a setting that might be removed from the community for a while, but that setting will always preserve human dignity and prioritize holistic healing.
To ground you more in what we’re doing, some of our goal is that we really strive to create a community-centered world rooted in love, in which we fund—or we shift funding to—housing, healing, treatment, the things Paul was talking about that make us successful communities, and along the way, we really need to redefine harm and the ways we address it.
Not all harm is addressed in our current system. If you look at the biggest polluters, their actions are not necessarily deemed illegal yet. They are harming people and the environment on such a massive scale. We also believe in integrating approaches to healing, addressing healing without having violence in there.
And we also want to provide folks with what they need to not only survive but thrive and really start interrupting those cycles of violence, trauma. But yes, abolition encompasses so much more, but these are the main components. I urge folks to read We Do This ’til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba. Taking these principles and applying them to our own community, 95 percent of folks in CRCF, the women’s prison in Vermont, have experienced violence.
We can clearly see there was a social failure there and that folks recovering from trauma are not receiving the supports they need, and it’s leading them to get entangled in our systems. I believe that prisons do not allow us to address the underlying social problems that are leading people to incarceration, and it’s actually just a lazy band-aid solution.
We believe that decision makers have been experimenting with prisons for centuries, and it’s our turn to try our methods. We know that this is possible, too. Looking at Hawaii, they were able to end youth incarceration last year. They were able to do this by moving from a punitive to an Indigenous programming system.
They established a campus that “engages youth in activities that give back to the community.” They distribute food in their neighborhoods. They work with the local elementary schools. They plan time to hang out with family and friends, and in this, they become people who contribute, care for, and belong to the community.
We see that these coalition partners that make this campus were able to end incarceration through integrating Indigenous cultural practices. And they were saying that for many Indigenous Hawaiian youth there, the only way to counter over a century of colonization and its systems was to reconnect with their ancestors.
Looking at the work on a local level, we are FreeHer Vermont. There’s five of us here. We launched in the fall of 2022, and this is what our work currently encompasses. Right now, we are introducing some policies, a prison moratorium bill, which will halt prison construction for five years.
Also, I’m not sure if folks are aware, but there is a school construction moratorium in Vermont that activists have been trying to lift. We will be aiming to lift that moratorium. And we’ll also be pushing an elder parole bill and working to ensure a furlough program here, because that is just a revolving door also.
We want to work on expanding pathways out of prison. Also, the basic income guarantees, the first step in our re-imagining community’s program for the state. We also do legal work. We’re not doing it formally yet, but we will be formally launching our hub this year, and that allows us to help community members with their legal cases and support them through that traumatic process.
And as always, our work will continue to be shifting the narrative. Many people have not had conversations like this yet. And we think it’s a really important step that’s necessary to changing these mainstream ideas about prisons, incarceration, and harm. This is just our fourth month of the campaign, though, and we’ll constantly be building and evolving.
So please stay in touch. And just a big thank you from FreeHer Vermont that you all were here and receptive to this, and we really hope to see you at something coming up. Thank you.
NR: All right, thanks. Next up is going to be Andy Blanchet. Andy is a worker at Howard Center and actually was just recently elected as the president of AFSCME 1674, which is the union at Howard Center.
Andy Blanchet: Thank you everybody for coming out. Thanks to everyone who has spoken so far. My name is Andy Blanchet, and I’m 29 years old. I’m a resident of Winooski. I’ve lived in Vermont my whole life, and I work at Howard Center. I’m an employment advisor, so I work with adults with disabilities to find competitive work in the community and to keep their jobs and help advocate for them at work.
Howard Center does a bunch of social services. If you’ve ever known anyone that works there and you ask them if they know someone else, 90 percent of the time they don’t, because there is a huge range: you have school-supported services; developmental services, which is residential; employment-based, community-based, education-based; mental health services that are residential; and acute harm reduction like the clinic and outpatient services. And I’m not an expert in what most of my coworkers do at Howard Center, but in the union, we have the opportunity to come together and talk about our shared struggles.
So, I want to talk a little bit about the impact of underfunding from the state. For forty-plus years, agencies have not had enough funding to create the infrastructure, or resources available, for the increase in community needs. Agencies will explain that they are unable to pay truly livable wages due to this underfunding, let alone enough to retain workers.
This is why unionized social service agencies are of the utmost importance. Workers must be able to collectively bargain for wages that we know will retain our coworkers and provide quality services to our community members. [This includes] continuity of services, so community members across Howard Center can rely on having people who know them to work with them and know what they need and what they want. When there is constant turnover, the quality of support inevitably diminishes, and community members do not receive the supports that they need. At best, this delays growth or attainment of goals. At worst this can put community members receiving services in danger or seriously isolate them from the rest of the community, which causes them great harm.
Across all services, there is the impact of burnout. When people receiving services are not having their support implemented as needed, other workers have to pick up extra work, meaning there is too much to do for too many people. When this occurs, workers will burn out, and this will lead to workers leaving.
This only worsens the cycle. This burned-out worker can then impact their community’s attitude towards the people who need social services. Clients who are frustrated at how their needs are not being met may then communicate that verbally and physically to those around them while in the community, or at school, or in a residential setting. Some clients may end up dealing with the carceral system rather than getting the right amount of support they need in the first place—often leading to the behavior.
Meanwhile, social workers see the police continue to get increased funding and see plans for a new prison to be created out of the manufactured fear in the community regarding crime.
It is a slap in the face, and we are all the while told explicitly or implicitly that the reward for the work that we do won’t come from money. And that’s just how things are. More social workers are seeing this for what it is. It’s a way to divide.
Some of us experiencing understaffing in acute crises find ourselves in situations where we’re in danger and see the role of police as essential, since there are no other solutions currently available. The current structure of social work, when designed by the ruling class to fail, can easily divide workers and have us support that which goes against our self- and collective interests.
The state has shown again and again for decades that it would rather create the appearance of safety and rehabilitation for the white liberal than actually divest from the root causes of crime and harm, which is capitalism. With no sign of divestment from capitalism in sight, social services are then put into this gray area. Since those root causes won’t fundamentally change, social services are viewed as the answer. Social services are then purposely underfunded and deemed ineffective. The predetermined answer to that becomes to fund the punitive measures, which further harms the working class, and the cycle continues.
Without strong unions and organizing, the current structure and structures of Designated Agencies do not allow for workers input regarding what people receiving services may need and what workers must have to meet those needs. To be clear, the voices of those who receive services are often the most stifled in discussion.
Designated Agencies in Vermont [of the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living] are often led by wealthy people, the same people who buy into the illusion of safety and rehabilitation provided by the carceral system. Workers will need to will need to push Designated Agencies away from alignment with said systems through collective organizing.
Workers with organizing power allow working-class people to both have impact and influence over their working conditions locally and have a say within the legislature. When workers experience a housing crisis, particularly for renters at this point, this directly impacts our ability to stay at our jobs, advocate for ourselves, our clients, and our fellow workers.
In addition to our collective ability to advocate within the legislature, workers in social services are beginning to wake up and see in large part, due to this housing crisis, how we are all a half step away from needing the same supports and services. For example, if we lose our apartments and are couch surfing, we may need to defend ourselves in the same way our clients may need to.
If we are to defend ourselves while being without a home in a vulnerable situation, we too could end up losing our jobs and be thrust into the carceral system. The prison industrial complex is a tool by the ruling class to harm working class people the most, and we know that it has been specifically created to target Black and Brown workers en masse.
Labor then must take up the call and work in coalition with fellow working-class groups that have been advocating for the abolition of prisons and police since long before the collective uprisings of 2020. Some considerations for this panel? It may be helpful trying to get Green Mountain Self-Advocates [a disability rights organization] and other self-advocacy groups into this discussion.
It was not long ago that the Brandon Training School [for people with developmental disabilities] existed in the state, and though people with disabilities and mental health challenges are often stereotyped as dangerous, these demographics of folks are statistically the most likely groups to experience harm by the hands of people in their communities.
This is without accounting for the intersections of race and gender. Self-advocates are our neighbors, our coworkers, and they need to be part of this conversation.
NR: Finally we are going to have Jess Laporte. Jess is with People for Police Accountability.
Jess Laporte: Hi. For folks who don’t know me, my name is Jess LaPorte. I identify with she/her pronouns, and I was a part of the Battery Park Movement back in 2020 and continued on in that work in Burlington by working on Community Control of Police, which is a charter change proposal.
I’m no longer a resident of Burlington. I’m not a property owner in the state of Vermont. I am a human being, and one of the not wealthy-white-executive-directors-of-a-nonprofit. My… I hesitate to say my work because I really believe in this concept of life work, and I think that all the different parts of my life are woven together, some of that being that most of my professional life started in Haiti and I learned, actually, community organizing from Haitians.
Then I found myself back in Vermont, and I got involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 here in that shape and form, but I hadn’t been living in the U.S. for a while.
And now I do dedicate the majority of my time to initiatives, projects, groups of people who are creating the conditions that I think will allow abolition to happen.
I think it’s super important to contextualize that. I’m going to talk about a very specific ballot item in Burlington that has a very specific purpose, which is very different, I think, from the breadth of what we’ve talked about on this panel and the vision for the future. I am an active member of the Vermont Releaf Collective, which is an affinity space for BIPOC Vermonters to engage around land and our foodways, and to share our lives together and to be more visible in ways that aren’t harmful.
I’m also a part of the Every Town BIPOC land access project, and that is a really essential vision for Vermont that believes that BIPOC people exist in every town of Vermont now and into the future [and advocates] putting a parcel of land into permanent trust [for BIPOC people] for perpetuity under our capitalist society.
When I come to the work in Burlington, I think about creating the conditions for people to thrive. And unfortunately, Community Control of Police is not a service. It does not provide alternatives to policing. It acknowledges that policing exists in our city and [that] in our current political climate, our city is not ready to move beyond policing. And in those conditions, we are fighting for an accountability system for the police to have to operate within, which is, of course, just like all the other things that the other panelists talked about, an affront to our system as it is.
And so, the backlash is very understandable, but my hope is that for folks who are here and who listen that there’s an understanding of what this ballot measure is talking about—that there’s clarity about what it has the ability to do and what it doesn’t have the ability to do. It is not a defund measure. It is not chasing police officers out of town. It is not reducing the number of officers on the force. However, when this came about, there were other asks on the table specific to Burlington, and of course our words will always be twisted.
Just really quickly: How familiar are folks with Community Control of Police, the charter change ballot proposal? [Show of hands.] Okay. I’m not going to test you on the five main principles. But I think that those [five principles] can help to move things along a little bit in what I’m sharing. I’m a part of People for Police Accountability, and it has morphed with a lot of other groups of people. Essentially, I would say anyone who is concerned, who is a concerned resident and is willing to organize around Community Control of Police, is a part of People for Police Accountability.
We are talking about a city charter change, and I’ll talk about the full process.
This proposal is a specific removal and substitution of language in the city charter. It currently says that the chief of police has sole power to make disciplinary decisions that have to do with hiring, firing, and discipline of all kinds. And the only case in which the city council and mayor, our elected officials, step in is if the chief is being investigated.
And to be very clear, the Police Commission was created in earlier iterations of movements looking to bring accountability to policing in Burlington as they did across many other cities. But it has an advisory role. I think it’s really important to understand the five main principles, which are disciplinary power, investigatory power, independence, representation, and transparency.
These five pillars were something that were built into the proposal through research about what has led to effective community oversight in other cities or other proposals that were on the table at the time, in the fall of 2020. I think I resonate along with what Jayna said, that our society has been experimenting with prisons and the carceral system for many, many years, and we have very little funding and length of time that we’ve actually been able to implement these alternatives.
Disciplinary power is number one. That’s the most direct substitution in our current city charter—that this body, the Community Control Board, would take over for the chief of police. This wouldn’t be in all cases. It would be targeted to cases of misconduct, so [it’s] not dealing with an officer showing up late to work on a repeated basis or not following other parts of their handbook and rules. [It’s] specifically around misconduct. And this might be violent misconduct, but it also can be patterns of abuse of power, and that is something that we are seeing, live.
In order to fight Community Control of Police, the police department and the mayor collude to create a situation in which residents feel less safe and where they aren’t even offering the service that they’re supposed to offer. And so I just want to make sure what we are talking about because a lot of people will be like, “Well, there haven’t been violent incidents.” There have.
The [second principle], investigatory power, is important because it removes investigation from within the very body where these employees are coming from.
And something I want to highlight in between investigatory power and independence is that, currently, if you would like to report misconduct of a police officer, you have to report that to BPD. Technically they do have administrators, and you can send an email and you can do other things to create some level of distance [from offenders in the BPD].
This body [the Community Oversight Board] would be able to field these cases of misconduct, and I believe that will allow us to have a more full narrative about the level and extent of misconduct in policing in Burlington. And I would love to see this across the state. I currently live somewhere that we’re under the jurisdiction of the state police, and we know they also have their own issues.
Independence [the third principle] also has a key part to play around legal counsel—for this community oversight board to have independent legal counsel where the interests [represented] are of the people and not just of the city’s bottom line.
Representation [the fourth principle] is also very important. We often find—similar to the nonprofits who are working in social services—[we’re] being led by people who are not from the working class, who are white and privileged in a number of ways. We want representation, and particularly because we’re talking about policing. We’ve identified lived experiences and identities that are more likely to have interactions with the police.
And I think Andy, like your whole cycle is what we’re talking about because of lived experience and identities, there are people who have a more direct experience of policing. Even in my life as a light skinned, middle class, Black person, I do not have direct interaction with the police on a frequent basis.
And I think that’s an important distinction that a lot of people don’t understand is [that] policing is a concept to some, and policing is a lived experience to others.
And then [fifth], transparency. This is a public board, and it will be subject to those statutes.
The last couple of things that I wanted to mention is that it’s great and I love talking to folks like you all, but ultimately when we take these larger concepts of abolition, of defunding the police, of all these kinds of reforms, where we can get in the fight is often at a local level.
It’s also not where people feel the most comfortable to get in the fight. In 2020, everyone was saying, “talk to your racist family member.” I want to ask the people in this room to talk to the moderate middle in your life, your supervisor at work, your coworker, your neighbor, who you sometimes get in issues with at the condo association, to the everyday moderate middle that we—I am assuming many people in this room are progressive—that we actually swim in every day.
I personally don’t have energy to talk to our racist family members, but what I’m asking people in Burlington to do is before February 15, when mail-in voting begins, and March 7th, when we vote on this proposal, we have to be willing to have those conversations so we can have a more representative picture about what’s happening with policing in Burlington and not just the sound bites that Mayor Weinberger goes back to all the time.
Featured Image credit: map of Burlington from Public Domain Pictures; modified by Tempest.
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