The Chattanooga City Council will consider a group of police brutality and racial equity policies proposed by the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America after allegations of "stonewalling" the group based on its political affiliation.
The socialists, in cooperation with several other local activist groups, proposed a list of budgetary amendments and other potential policy changes to the council in June after a meeting at which more than 150 citizens called for changes to combat police brutality after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25.
During that and the next meeting, council members suggested the activists needed a more concrete plan for policy changes. The activist group responded with 11 possible city budget amendments and seven non-budgetary suggestions.
"When all those protests started, they were everywhere, and we noticed things that people were doing in other cities and other places that were getting results. And we decided to emulate those here as much as we could," Katie Keel, co-chair of the group, told the Times Free Press on Thursday.
"The council's response was, well, there's a lot of angry people yelling here but they don't have any actual concrete ideas," she said. "We took that and in DSA, we had some members that took it upon themselves to comb through the budget they just got passed, line by line."
On the budgetary side, DSA is requesting that the council pull roughly $4.5 million from the Chattanooga policing budget, taking away from polygraph, advertising, overtime and other operational expenses as well as from capital improvements planned for the city's law enforcement training center. Then, the group lays out a plan for reinvesting those funds into youth and family development, court translation fees, the city's food bank, a skate park and other social programs or projects.
The proposal also suggests the city scrap $400,000 or nearly half of the anticipated revenues from narcotic forfeitures, because "the city should not budget based on predicted money taken from citizens," and because of the uncertain predictability of the fund.
The group also suggests the following "non-budgetary" actions:
— Implement a Chattanooga Police Department hiring freeze.
— Suspend paid administrative leave for police officers under investigation for the use of excessive force or other misconduct.
— Mandate that police officers who were terminated from the Chattanooga Police Department, or any other police department, may not be hired or re-hired by the department.
— Mandate that Chattanooga Police Department officers found guilty of using excessive force be terminated and rendered ineligible to collect their pensions.
— Cap compensatory time and overtime pay accrual for police officers.
— Eliminate overtime pay for military-style training exercises performed by police officers.
— Withdraw the Chattanooga Police Department from militarization programs.
The group sent the amendments to the city council, expecting the body to consider the suggestions in a public setting. But for weeks, the suggestions went without discussion by the council. On Tuesday, Democratic Socialists of America members and other activists repeatedly called for the city council to take up the list.
"I would just like, while I'm here, to voice my personal support for the proposal submitted by DSA," resident Chelsea Dewaters said. "I'm not a member of that organization, but I think the measures there are very useful and are worth looking at if you're serious about addressing this issue practically."
After Dewaters, one of many citizens who brought the proposal up at the meeting, made her comments, Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod asked the chairman why the amendments had not yet made it to an agenda for discussion, despite her asking about it.
"I have sent an email in regards to the DSA request," Coonrod said. "How are we planning on addressing them, how are we going to converse about it in open discussion? Also Councilman Mitchell brought it to the table as well, and weeks later, we're still doing nothing with it.
"I just want to know what's the plan to have it placed on the agenda for discussion," she added. "I know we've heard them say the same thing over and over repeatedly for the past four weeks. And, either, like they say, we're gonna move forward with it, or we're not."
Chairman Chip Henderson, who creates the agenda for city council meetings, told Coonrod that they could discuss the amendments, but that he would not support a "socialist agenda."
"Councilwoman, we can address it whenever you would like to request it being put into strategic planning," Henderson said. "I don't feel like it is up to me to address a socialist agenda, and I have no intention of addressing a socialist agenda.
"I would be happy to place it on there," he added, having the clerk set the matter on the July 21 strategic planning agenda.
Coonrod then suggested Henderson's political leaning was the cause of the delay.
"I can respect your stance, chairman," she replied. "But yes I've sent the email, and I guess that's why I didn't receive a response."
Saturday, Henderson said that he has no tolerance for the group's views.
"I have and will continue to support our men and women in blue," he said. "This is not about the budget, this is about socialism, and I have no tolerance for their socialist views."
The amendments have been publicly endorsed by members of other local activist groups, such as I Can't Breathe Chattanooga and Concerned Citizens for Justice — neither of which associate with a specific political party. But the proposed legislation coming from the socialist group seems to have marred its progress, Keel said.
"Previously councillors have been reluctant to openly associate with socialists, you know for good reasons, and it's kind of a bad word in the South and really everywhere in America," Keel said.
"I mean that's not a surprise. There's a long history of, you know, anti-socialist, anti-communist, whatever you want to call it, political stonewalling. We recognize that we're sort of rehabilitating the image of socialism in America," Keel said. "Part of our mission, as the Democratic Socialists of America, is to take socialism mainstream, and to help people understand that, like a lot of what we want to do has been done in other countries successfully. And it doesn't mean like Stalin, and Chairman Mao, and what people think of when they think of socialism."
Echoing the calls of citizens across the country and in Chattanooga for cities to divest from or entirely defund police departments in order to deconstruct the institutions and re-prioritize funds for social programs, the Democratic Socialists of America said its proposal is an attack on systemic racism.
"The most prevalent and persistent causes of crime and threats to public safety are lack of access to adequate food, housing, health care, and education," the statement presented to the city council on June 22 says. "The professionals best suited to address these issues do not carry guns, they need other resources — resources that the proposed 2021 budget instead allocates to punitive forms of social control.
"Misallocation of public funds is part of the systemic racism against which Chattanoogans have been crying night after night in recent weeks; it is a system of denied opportunity and degrading quality of life for Black and brown families."
Council will discuss the amendments at 2 p.m. on July 21 during a regularly scheduled virtual planning meeting.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.