More than a year after the mass uprisings against racist police brutality that roiled cities across the United States, many media outlets have distorted or dismissed as unrealistic specific demands by racial justice organizers to divert funding from massive police budgets toward city services. Casey Rocheteau, communications manager at the Detroit Justice Center and co-host of a new podcast Freedom Dreams, calls it “a backlash in mainstream media when it comes to what people are seeing as a ‘new’ demand to defund police.”
In fact, calls to reduce police funding can be found much earlier than 2020. One example is this 2010 report that found a correlation between increased police funding and incidents of police brutality in Washington, D.C., that took place at the same time that funds for social services were cut. And, in the wake of the Ferguson uprising in 2014, some advocates for police reform suggested cutting police funds as a way to remedy state violence.
To remedy the misinformation in many corporate media outlets, Rocheteau, together with Amanda Alexander, founder and executive director of the Detroit Justice Center, decided to create a platform to share powerful and inspiring stories of how organizers are challenging the way police budgets are determined, demanding an end to state violence, and advocating for a significant reduction in incarceration levels.
“When people are calling the police, the police are telling people, ‘We can’t help you because we’ve been defunded,’” says Rocheteau. Such an absurd claim—shared by a Seattle-based organizer in a forthcoming episode of Freedom Dreams—makes the case for a podcast that sets the record straight. In fact, neither Seattle nor Detroit police have been defunded.
Coming at these issues from an abolitionist perspective that aims to dismantle policing and incarceration, Freedom Dreams’ first episode spotlights an effort to close the Atlanta City Jail. It is an inspiring story of how a coalition of formerly incarcerated women, transgender and queer organizers, and undocumented activists have chipped away at the size of the jailed population from more than a thousand to just a few dozen.
The podcast creators, feeling that the story had not gotten nearly as much attention as it deserved, spoke with organizers Marilynn Winn and Xochitl Bervera about their campaign to replace the jail with a Center for Wellness and Freedom.
“It’s been important for us to think about not just what we’re tearing down in terms of policing and jails and prisons, but also focusing on what we’re building up,” says Alexander.
Alexander describes her organization’s communications strategy as “intentional” in “spotlighting the problems” and, more importantly, “the movement builders who are already resisting, that we can be learning from.”
Although the podcast’s focus is on Detroit, where the hosts are based—primarily because, as Rocheteau says, “Detroit is a very fertile ground for this kind of [abolitionist] work,” where social services are chronically underfunded—the creators make a concerted effort to draw connections between similar struggles and solutions in other cities, such as Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, and others.
Alexander hopes to attract young listeners, in particular who “took to the streets last summer” but have not yet taken the next step beyond “protesting what we don’t want,” to asking the question, “What can we learn from people who are building up what we do want?”
Find out more about the Freedom Dreams podcast here.
Not only do most reports of policing and incarceration miss stories like the closing of Atlanta City Jail that Freedom Dreams highlights, but Rocheteau worries there are also alternate narratives being presented that do a disservice to communities most directly impacted by policing and mass incarceration.
For example, mainstream media analysis of policing and mass incarceration often serves up dense facts informed by crime statistics and the complexities of city budgeting, all while making the assumption that policing is the only way to tackle crime.
A case in point is this extensive report in The New York Times that Rocheteau cites about the battle over police funding in Dallas, Texas. The reporters barely scratch the surface of what might be causing crime in the city of 1.3 million residents, and, subsequently, there is no effort to spark a conversation about why the abolition of police is a matter of racial justice. Instead, there are myriad statistics of how the number of homicides and police officers have changed over time.
“Yes, it’s important to know those statistics,” says Rocheteau. “But presenting people with that information often leaves them in a position of feeling like, ‘What do I do about that?’”
With Freedom Dreams, Rocheteau and Alexander hope to inspire action by showcasing how people across the country are engaged in abolition work. “In cities across the country, there is this move to say, ‘We need to stop building jails, we need to understand why people are there,’” says Alexander. “We need to start meeting people’s actual needs in other ways besides policing, and prosecuting, and jailing people.”
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com