How Birmingham’s “Violence Reduction” Initiative perpetuates violence against black communities
On January 24th, a gang of militarized police officers raided a neighborhood in search of a group selling illegal weapons. They entered the house of a 66-year old grandmother in Pratt City, a few miles northwest of downtown Birmingham.
“They put guns in our faces and told us to get on the floor,” her sister said, “and I told them my sister had three strokes and she really couldn’t get on the floor because her leg was really hurting her that day. He said, he didn’t care, ‘get on the floor’.”
Law enforcement left without finding the weapons they were allegedly searching for. The grandmother was taken to the hospital after the assault.
This raid was conducted as part of the Birmingham Violence Reduction Initiative (BVRI), a law enforcement program with ambitious goals and wealthy donors. The BVRI is based on a national program and is intended to be “reducing homicides, decreasing incarceration, and building police legitimacy”. Since the program began in 2014, none of these goals have been accomplished. The homicide rate is up, the state is building new prisons, and local neighborhood groups and community organizers are more worried about police violence than ever.
Central Pratt Neighborhood Association President Eric Hall criticizes the program for bringing in outside officers that don’t understand the cultural specifics of the communities they’re policing. “Law and order” politicians are quick to paint any criticisms as being anti-police, but Hall doesn’t blame individual officers for the BVRI. He points out how many Birmingham officers are overworked and underpaid, which affects their job performance. For him, better policing would involve better working conditions and greater community involvement.
I spoke with Martez Files, a local professor and organizer at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He noted how the program has no measures to address poverty or any of the structural ills that lead to crime. The economics of crime are fairly simple: “Drugs pay bills. If you sell anything in the alternative market, it’s because it’s profitable. If you can’t find me an alternative legal channel to make money, I have to do what I have to do to stay alive.”
The BVRI is essentially a square policing peg trying to fit into a circular economic hole. The program is destined to fail in stopping crime without any kind of economic empowerment of people who have been left behind without opportunity to support themselves and their families. Without addressing the real problems faced by underrepresented communities in Birmingham, the BVRI is simply pumping money into expanding and militarizing our police force.
But then why is the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham generously funding the program? Surely, they would have considered the importance of considering the causes of crime if reducing violence was their actual goal.
Not so coincidentally, the increased police presence in Pratt City has been accompanied by major development and construction. The city of Birmingham is in the process of constructing a new eight-acre park along with new housing as part of the One Pratt community project.
In April 2011, tornadoes in Pratt City destroyed numerous homes. This was a personal tragedy for the people who lived there, but it was also an aesthetic tragedy for the privileged folks who now had to drive by these “eyesores”. Birmingham worked quickly to assist with these hurting property values by establishing the Birmingham Land Bank Authority (BLBA) which took over the cheap land where many of these homes stood. Then, Birmingham took the $4.75 million from the federal government meant for disaster relief, and gave that money to a private developer to build new property in the area while keeping the profits from the house sales for the city and ignoring the families who once lived there and the communities who currently do.
It’s abundantly clear how little Birmingham’s financial elite care about the people who live in this city. Journalist Brent Godwin writes about neighborhoods solely as “assets” through the lens of investors. He describes the “vicious cycle of blight that has plagued several Birmingham neighborhoods,” seemingly unaware of how his language of disease to speak of poverty dehumanizes the communities who live there.
The violent language reveals the true nature of this gentrification scheme. In the same article, the chairman of the BLBA talks of “cleaning up these communities”, and Birmingham’s senior planner says getting investors and developers on board (yet apparently not community members) is integral to “revitalizing” neighborhoods.
Now, the goal of the BVRI becomes much more clear. Mayor William Bell doesn’t care about assaulted grandmothers or the problems of black, working-class communities. If he did, he would have ordered an initiative that worked with community members to solve those problems instead of exacerbating them.
Instead, we have the BVRI, a program designed around receiving favorable press to show investors that Birmingham has been “cleaned up” without having to actually help the people Bell is meant to represent. Majadi Baruti, Community Engagement Coordinator at Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Community Land Trust, points out how many other cities where the Violence Reduction Networks have taken place have also been gentrified. He places this physical police violence which intimidates in the context of the upcoming economic violence which forces black communities out of their neighborhoods.
The BVRI’s training material emphasizes limiting media coverage until a “trusted reporter” is found, and at which point, media becomes a “key partner” in the project. A black woman who “grew up among violence” has been chosen to be the public face of the program, even though it is unclear how much power she holds over the law enforcement initiatives.
The call-ins where city officials lecture black youths to stop committing crimes make emotionally manipulative video compilations to showcase on the BVRI website. In August 2016, there was a presentation with music, candy, food, and games to sell the BVRI to the Smithfield Community, with similar, more recent “Victory Over Violence” tours receiving favorable mainstream media coverage.
While Mayor Bell courts the capitalists with good press to bolster business, the violent police raids leave a community wounded. Another elderly woman next door to a raid was traumatized by a flashbang that went off in the neighboring house. Citizens observing the raids were harassed and frisked after police officers couldn’t find the alleged weapons.
The BVRI claims that it holds “groups” accountable for the action of their members, but what exactly does that mean? Does their broad definition of groups include family and community members who will naturally come together? Will more innocent people be targeted because of some affiliation with another person?
If Mayor Bell wants to convince our fellow citizens that the BVRI is seriously meant to reduce violence instead of being a front for gentrification, he must perform concrete actions which address the needs of the city. He must ensure that the new homes built in Pratt City be sold to a community land trust instead of being put on the private market to give permanently affordable housing to the residents. He must ensure that policing initiatives be done with the input and consent of communities affected, not investors and donors like the Community Foundation. And finally, he must ensure that individual police officers are held accountable to ensure that they never perform violent assaults on innocent people again.
Birmingham is not a city of “blight” with neighborhoods that need “cleaning up”. It is a vibrant city full of resilient people and communities who have been economically oppressed. Only once our government represents the human beings within communities instead of wealthy real estate owners solely concerned with property values will we be able to move away together from poverty and crime.
Dannial Budhwani is a writer currently based in Birmingham. His work has appeared in WBHM 90.3 and The Auburn Plainsman.