Going Beyond Sanctuary: Building Freedom Cities
With the election of Donald Trump as president, there has been an alarming increase in the rate of targeted attacks on the country’s most vulnerable communities including immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ, black people, women and the poor. Around the country, states are consolidating power, increasing police budgets and ICE enforcement. Meanwhile, the federal government is working on repealing policies that have historically provided mobility and protection for communities of color — the most basic, undermining public education.
Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, a human rights membership, chapter-based organization made up of eight local groups — from Bard College to Sarasota, Florida and Riverside, California — was formed in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin on March 19, 2012. While activists rallied in Union Square and others united to demanded justice for Trayvon Martin across the country, we asked one of the most fundamental questions: Who has the right to be safe and to feel safe in this country?
What happened in September at Cornell University shows how precarious the situation can be. A black student was assaulted by fellow student, 19-year-old John Greenwood, and called the n-word while punched in the face repeatedly.
Following the incident, Black Students United’s co-chair & Million Hoodies Cornell University chapter leader Delmar Fears led hundreds of black students into Willard Straight Hall and occupied the building for several hours after delivering a list of demands to the university’s president.
The student was arrested and the fraternity on campus is now shut down. On Monday, Greenwood was charged with a hate crime relating to the incident. According to court records Greenwood selected his victim “in whole or substantial part because of a belief or perception regarding the race, color, national origin, ancestry … of a person, regardless of whether the belief or perception is correct.”
We founded Million Hoodies in the weeks following Martin’s death, with the goal of ending anti-black racism and systematic violence. Our organization creates space for young black and brown people to discover their agency. We enable them to envision and rethink a world in which they are not inherently criminalized. We develop their leadership skills and prepare them to organize for the dignity and safety of our communities.
As the Trump administration targets Muslim and black dissidents and undocumented immigrants are being threatened with mass deportations, we believe that community members must be empowered to become human-rights responders. To this end, Million Hoodies kicked off a national conversation to reimagine safety with the “We Keep Us Safe” Week of Action. Million Hoodies chapters organized local forums that engaged community members to talk about the political intervention needed to shift our reliance from institutions that are harming us to communities that are working to empower democracy.
We need these programs because the response to rampant police violence has been insufficient. Body cameras are not the perfect solution. Black people already know this is not enough to keep our communities safe from discrimination and violence. We are reminded regularly in the media about the violence black and brown people face. Yet we find ourselves still asking why we aren’t safe.
Fighting the War on Drugs
Thanks to the war on drugs and the war on crime, we’ve witnessed the militarization of our police forces around the country. Since 1998, under the Department of Defense Excess Property 1033 grant program, more than $4 billion in military grade equipment has been issued to local police departments, colleges and universities across the country. Such militarization has often been the state’s tactic to clamp down on dissent and directly target communities of color.
To worsen matters, Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice recently lifted the Obama-era ban on the transfer of some surplus military hardware, including grenade launchers, bayonets and large-caliber weapons, to police departments. President Obama placed restrictions on the transfer of military equipment to local police in 2015. That decision was in response to the use of such equipment by police officers on protesters in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown. The heartbreaking story of Aiyana Mo’nay Stanley-Jones, a 7-year-old who was asleep when members of Detroit’s Special Response Team threw a flash-bang grenade near her before shooting her in the head, sums up the severe problems with these types of armaments and the associated war-like mentality.
Million Hoodies for Justice is committed to the Freedom Cities movement, which makes the case for communities to be centers of innovation. The idea is to make entire campuses, cities and towns safe by demanding investments in humanity and our planet. We are seeking safety beyond policing, real community control, workers rights, community defense and divestment from militarization and other programs that oppress our people.
Freedom Cities is a framework to ensure that sanctuary is reflective of the needs of all of our communities, including immigrants, women and the LGBTQ community. At the grass roots, communities are engaging in prison divestment campaigns and local budgetary fights as they demand healthy and thriving neighborhoods.
Nationally, the Night Out for Safety and Liberation is a model that provides an alternative to policing and punishment-centric conversations to reimagine public safety as about having a living wage job, healthy food, housing, health care and education.
If we envision what actually makes us feel safe, we can do away with the SWAT teams and excessive police presence in our schools and our streets. We need organized and empowered communities with a supportive social safety net. We need stronger, healthier communities — not more prisons and detention centers. In a moment where many communities are experiencing despair, isolation and fear, it is incumbent upon us to build transformative models for the safety of all people. It is incumbent on us to shift power from institutions to communities. We will make the necessary radical interventions that we deserve. It is time to go back to our roots — to build outside the system.