Last week, the Chattanooga City Council took another halting step toward democracy and toward the kind of needed discussions our city and country must have about justice — especially racial justice.
The forward move took some sharp, though not loud or abusive, words before the council hashed its way toward at least hearing out the only organized proposal offered from citizens to improve police action, policy and training here.
The council in its July 21 virtual "strategic planning" meeting will review and hopefully discuss some police brutality and racial equity policies proposed by the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.
It took some doing to get the discussion even on that planning agenda — but not because the policies sound a plaintive call to "defund" or do away with police." Specifically, they don't do that.
It took some doing because of an admitted but bone-headed bias against anything with the word "socialist" in it by the keeper of the council agenda, Chairman Chip Henderson.
Council members Demetrus Coonrod and Jerry Mitchell had inquired about a review more than once, and Coonrod again asked about it in last Tuesday's meeting:
"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."
Henderson responded: "Councilwoman, we can address it whenever you would like to request it being put into strategic planning. ... 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."
Really, council — especially Chairman Henderson — we don't have time for this. And we don't have room in Chattanooga, on what is supposed to be a nonpartisan council, for a fingers-in-my-ears dismissal of needed conversation about racial and social equity and adequate police training. We especially don't have room for such a dismissal based only on the name of the group.
On Saturday, Henderson doubled down to tell the Chattanooga Times Free Press 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."
Stop it already. This has nothing to do with not supporting "our men and women in blue." This has to do with supporting all of us and the best policing and social policies. Chattanooga already has many good policies and officers, and most of those officers would agree that they are the wrong people to deal with some issues — like mental health crises.
Re-examining police policy does not mean defunding public safety. At its best it should mean reconsidering the most effective means to attain public safety, how much it should cost, who should pay for it, and who should do the job. It will take all the creative thinking that our elected council and our citizens can imagine and tweak.
The council initially in June told hundreds of citizens calling for change that they needed a more concrete plan. The local democratic socialists took that to heart and came up with 11 possible city budget amendments and seven non-budgetary suggestions.
On the budgetary side, the group is asking the council pull roughly $4.5 million from the $70 million 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 offers 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 some "nonbudgetary" actions, like implementing a department hiring freeze, suspending paid administrative leave for officers under investigation of excessive force or misconduct, the mandated firing of officers found guilty of those things, and mandating that officers once fired for such causes cannot be hired or rehired.
Those asks are hardly revolutionary. But Katie Keel, co-chairwoman of the group, isn't surprised by the negative attitudes.
"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," she said. "And it doesn't mean like Stalin, and Chairman Mao, and what people think of when they think of socialism."
It also shouldn't be surprising that the most persistent causes of public safety threats stem from a lack of access to adequate food, housing, health care, education — even transportation. Responding to those needs usually doesn't require a gun, a baton or a knee to the neck.
Indeed, the man beaten by five county deputies on Old Lee Highway didn't need to be struck repeatedly with police clubs — he needed an Uber lift out a community that feared him after his car broke down.
So, please, Mr. Henderson and other council members, show your best selves and give these suggestions fair consideration.