Above photo: Makayla Hendrick, nine, holds photographs of her father, Ricky Ball, during a protest on June 5, 2020, in Jackson, Mississippi, over Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s decision to drop a manslaughter charge against former Columbus police officer Canyon Boykin. Rogelio V. Solis/AP photo.
Even those governed by Black elected officials have been reluctant to cut the force and increase social services.
Almost a year ago, the roaring chants echoed in the streets: Defund the police! Abolish the police! The tide of public opinion spurred some of the nation’s more liberal cities into action. Los Angeles cut $150 million from its police department budget, New York City pledged to shift $1 billion from its police department to social services, and the Minneapolis City Council removed the requirement for a police department from its city charter. But in Southern states—home to the nation’s largest Black population—the pattern has been one of strengthening police departments in rural communities. This has been true even in towns led by liberal Black city officials, bringing into sharp relief the urgent need to protect some of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens—Black rural Southern folks.
In Columbus, Mississippi, a town of fewer than 25,000 residents, Mayor Robert Smith, a Black man, has bolstered police power and surveillance to address violent crime. In a recent public address, he announced that he was launching the Concerned Citizens Crime Prevention Task Force, the fourth such task force during his 12-year tenure as mayor. Task Force members include the heads of the city and county police departments, Chief Fred Shelton and Captain Brian Turner, both Black men.
During his address, Smith explained that he believed the causes of crime were complex, citing high unemployment rates and poverty as factors. Although he stated he believed crime would occur regardless of how many officers are patrolling, he later praised the Columbus Police Department (CPD) for increasing its patrolling and surveillance capacity. Despite being deployed in full force and patrolling the city alongside additional officers from the Lowndes County Narcotics Task Force and the city’s police reserve, however, CPD failed to prevent three homicides during the holiday season. Smith, who is expected to run for re-election this fall, has not articulated a plan of action other than sending more police officers into the streets. While the increased police presence has not reduced Columbus’s crime rate, it has put residents of Columbus, which has a majority-Black population, at risk for more needless interactions with police officers. More interactions with an emboldened police force create the possibility of more police killings, which have been on the rise in suburban and rural areas. Just last year, Columbus made national headlines after Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch dropped manslaughter charges against CPD officer Canyon Boykin, a white officer who shot and killed Ricky Ball, a 26-year-old Black man, in 2015.
Columbus’s approach to law enforcement follows the three-decade-old strategy of mass incarceration. When President Bill Clinton signed the 1994 crime bill to address public panic about inner-city violence, he contended his plan would reduce homicides resulting from drug-related incidents. Clinton’s legislation spent millions of dollars in federal funds to hire local cops across the country. It led to a rise in antagonistic police tactics, a surge in prisons, and doled out longer prison sentences to Black youth, disproportionately and systematically depriving thousands of Black people of life and liberty. Today, crime rates have decreased in cities and counties with fewer than 100,000 people while incarceration rates have skyrocketed. People in rural areas are now 50 percent more likely to be sent to prison than city dwellers. According to the Marshall Project, this is a consequence of city officials and judges in rural areas ignoring criminal justice reform efforts.
In an interview, Columbus Task Force Chairman Leroy Brooks expressed interest in four major proposals before the group: enhancing law enforcement, expanding the partnership between the city and county sheriff, establishing a community revitalization project, and creating a recreational program focused on youth mentorship. But by all accounts, Brooks’s stance on crime prevention tilts heavily to increasing the presence of police; he is adamant that Columbus should hire more.
There is little to no evidence that hiring more cops leads to less crime. There is abundant evidence, however, that expanding social and economic programs in underresourced communities decreases homicide rates.
Last year, in my article “Defund the Police Now,” I cited a New York University study that found that in a city of 100,000 people, each new nonprofit community organization led to a 1.2 percent drop in the homicide rate, a 1 percent decrease in violent crime, and a 0.7 percent reduction in property crime. Columbus has gone the other way. In 2016, the city spent $10.4 million, or 48 percent of its general expenditures, on public safety, which includes law enforcement salaries, training, and equipment. In that same year, murder, robbery, and sex crimes were at their highest since 2012. Conversely, the city council spent only $1.4 million, or 6 percent of its general expenditures, on culture and recreation and urban and economic development. Although a reallocation of fiscal spending that prioritizes people over police has been supported by Columbus community members, Chairman Brooks called the idea “ludicrous.”
Brooks is not alone. In recent months, a number of Black Democratic elected officials have criticized the proposal to defund the police, citing it as the reason for the Democrats’ loss of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in the November elections. This kind of stance may be leading defund-the-police activists to grow disillusioned with partisan politics. They know that democratic institutions, at best, can only pursue gradual reforms. This is precisely what troubled Black Freedom Struggle organizers who came to Mississippi more than half a century ago.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kwame Ture’s Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism, a collection of speeches and essays illustrating Ture’s (then Stokely Carmichael) evolving political consciousness. As professor Brandon Terry writes in African American Political Thought: A Collected History, Carmichael’s experience as a young lead organizer during Mississippi’s 1964 Freedom Summer was a “crucial event for understanding Carmichael’s mature thinking about politics.” That summer, as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Carmichael and other Black field organizers and white volunteers instituted freedom schools throughout the state, which served as workshops for citizens to discuss and debate local politics. They also founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a project that allowed Black Mississippians, who were systematically disenfranchised, to select a rival, unauthorized, but racially representative slate of delegates to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. According to Terry, Carmichael, who later changed his name to Kwame Ture, stated that MFDP was “the best—most fully realized example of SNCC’s organizing vision.”
Stokely Speaks, published nearly seven years after Ture’s summer in Mississippi, remains instructive for the contemporary struggle against state-sanctioned violence and racial terror. In a chapter titled “Power and Racism,” Ture argues that Black people electing representatives who speak to their needs is not merely a matter of “putting Black faces in office.” Carmichael believed, instead, that “[Black] power must be that of a community and emanate from there.” Carmichael issued a warning about politicians, many professing liberal values, who do not redress grievances, but merely pass nonsubstantive reforms that only mediate contestation between the state and the people—reforms that, all too often, aid state power and place the status quo above the concerns of an injured minority.
This is one reason why an increasing number of Americans see community organizing as the key to producing needed change—most clearly, in the matters of policing and the carceral state. It was largely the work of Black grassroots organizers who built militant community groups that pressured elected officials in Austin, Texas, and Durham, North Carolina, to enact successful police divestment projects, which have decreased police power in those cities.
In Columbus, no police reform, much less abolition, project has yet borne fruit—not surprisingly, as Black elected officials repeatedly signal to their constituency that the local government will be unresponsive to their demands. But even in Columbus, Black rural folks know the truth about this nation—how it tells itself lies about its commitment to freedom, equality, and justice. The revolutionary fervor that permeated Mississippi in the summer of 1964 remains a living legacy. As we approach the anniversary of last summer’s uprisings, we should ask ourselves whether the prospects for the movement’s sustained growth rest not only in the nation’s progressive cities, but in a broader collective struggle—one that considers the fates of Black rural Southern folks, too.
Justin L. Brooks is an inaugural Just Media Uprising Fellow, a third-year law student at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and an incoming Ph.D. student in Government at Harvard University.