The last couple of months were loud—not just protest and righteous outrage loud but also nocturnal loud in the form of fireworks popping off in neighborhoods across the country. These fireworks went above and beyond what many of us see as the hallmark of summer. They started back in the spring, they lasted through the night, and they didn’t discriminate between urban and suburban places.
While there was no one explanation, there were as many speculations online as there were people calling the police. From New York to Oakland, firework complaints went from double digits in June of last year to thousands of calls last month.
Regardless of who and what is behind the fireworks—something we may not find out soon, if ever—this issue animates the call from The Movement for Black Lives to defund the police. It also implores us to come up with more effective, caring, and anti-racist ways of addressing seemingly banal issues such as fireworks, which as we’ve witnessed over and over again, could end with police violence and Black people getting killed. When it comes to Black lives, there is no banal issue.
This summer’s fireworks also led to an increase in injuries, fires, as well as deaths. This begs us to think about what we could have done differently. Could we have prevented these casualties and injuries had we mediated in community and relied less on ineffective policing?
Regardless of who and what is behind the fireworks, this issue animates the call from The Movement for Black Lives to defund the police.
As this nation is being forced to reckon with the ongoing brutality of anti-Black racism, this is the time for us to experiment and create new ways of being in community and resolving conflict without relying on the criminal and ineffective system of policing as we have known it. The over-reliance on police, particularly by white people, has meant that most people are poorly trained with the skills necessary to address and resolve conflict. All too often, white people have weaponized race and used the power of anti-Blackness to enforce racial hierarchies by calling the police.
Where I’m from in Brooklyn, the police showed up in Flatbush, a neighborhood not far from where I live, in full riot gear and terrorized the community with arrests and helicopters looming overhead for hours all in the name of stopping the fireworks. Not only was the response savage and cruel, it was also ineffective and demonstrates the failure of law enforcement to come up with sustainable solutions. The borough’s president Eric Adams has suggested an alternative response of “everyday people talking to the people in their community” with local organizations leading the charge to educate and mediate.
The over-reliance on police, particularly by white people, has meant that most people are poorly trained with the skills necessary to address and resolve conflict.
The Baltimore City Police Department has also had a similar response of deploying police officers to address the flare-up of fireworks across the city. Erricka Bridgeford, Executive Director of Baltimore Community Mediation Center says there could be a better way. “Anytime we create space for community members to be heard and when they are given tools in conflict resolution, emotional intelligence and brain science, they are better able to understand the perspective of the person or people they are in conflict with.” She adds that being heard and seen is a first step towards deescalation and coming up with a plan for resolving community conflict. “Police don’t address the underlying issue of neighborhood disputes but community mediation attempts to do just that and in the process has proven to be effective in reducing 911 calls.”
Mediation programs can be effective because unlike police officers, mediators get extensive training on how to diffuse conflict and they don’t uphold violent power structures like that between police and Black residents. Moreover, mediators are often community members themselves so they have firsthand and insider knowledge of what it will take to successfully resolve a nuisance like fireworks or something more serious.
Defunding police is a call to stop police violence and the incarceration of Black people with tactics that are all too reminiscent of periods in American history that we like to believe are over—from slavery to the state-sanctioned violence of the Jim Crow era. But it is also about us reimagining how we coexist with one another as neighbors and how we address human suffering whether it be domestic violence or an issue stemming from mental health, homelessness, unemployment, or disparities in resources and opportunities for Black and brown youth. Ultimately, defunding police is a call for more compassionate and effective public safety and community wellbeing.
Marching in the streets during the day is important but not enough. We must also question what happens in our neighborhoods after dark and challenge the compulsion that so many have to trigger compliance by dialing 911 on Black people. What if instead of continuing to invest in immoral and ineffective police departments, we allocated funds to schools so anti-racism and conflict mediation became required courses in high school? And what if every zip code had one or more mediation centers with trained professionals working to support the peaceful resolution of issues arising in communities—from an annoyance like fireworks to an issue stemming from a mental health crisis, as well as a go-to resource hub for other services and information?
The Movement for Black Lives is on a mission to rewire the collective mindset of this country, which equates policing with public safety. This impulse to dial 911, which is supported by policies like the one in Minnesota which requires store owners to call the police when they think a customer is using counterfeit money, is an impulse that we must retire. As we’ve seen with the fireworks this summer or just about anything involving Black people in public space, all too often police response can be deadly to Black people and sorely inadequate in solving problems. With the right training and tools in antiracism and conflict resolution, we believe that we as a community of neighbors can do a much better job of protecting one another than the police who for decades have done exactly the opposite.
Monifa Bandele is on the national leadership team for the Policy Table for The Movement for Black Lives and senior vice president for MomsRising.org. She is also on the steering committee of the New York-based Communities United for Police Reform representing the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, which is a member organization of The Movement for Black Lives.