“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense (read mechanisms of mass incarceration in Madison) than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

―Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “A Time to Break the Silence”
April 4, 1967

Madison and Dane County are at a continual crossroads around racial disparities. As this city celebrates Martin Luther King Jr day, it should pause and reflect. Reflect on its priorities, reflect on its excuses.

It’d be all too easy to look at Trump and the GOP for their explicit racism, knowing “we’re not them.” This is true, but one shouldn’t use “what about-ism” as an excuse or deflection for their own action or inaction. Instead, it should be a moment where Madison can decide to fully embrace a multicultural future, or keep lying to itself about where the lived reality meets the stated values.

The Dane County Board announced its budget November 2017, which included $76 million in capital funds to renovate the county jail (This is in addition to the County Board already passing a resolution to bring the current model up to code, alleviating safety concerns). They seem to have convinced themselves of a few different things, that single cells are not solitary because you can see in them, the ability to expand and hold more inmates past its current size isn’t an expansion because it won’t be set-up that way (it’s modular and they can add “more cells” if need be), that this is an investment in mental health resources, and that investing in anti-poverty measures and community solutions isn’t an “either/or” when it comes to building a new jail.

The Madison Common Council on the other hand, just approved the Madison Police Department budget at $71 million this year, the budget is the City’s single biggest budget item for years counting. A budget that never gets cut, even as many others have faced cuts, and there never seems to be enough money for direct community investment. And the Common Council is about to debate whether to approve an extra $600,000 to add additional police officers this Tuesday, Jan. 16, with the irony being one day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day being lost on them.

These institutions that Madison and the County have convinced themselves to keep investing in, are directly tied to the continuous oppression of black and brown Americans. Chief Koval himself has said that police don’t solve the problems, they respond to them. And the disparities are more of a reflection of the larger economic racial disparities within our city.

“No, safe communities have more resources. With a police force that works for them, not to police them. In black communities, police look inward as an occupying force. In white more affluent neighborhoods, they look out as a protecting force. This goes beyond implicit bias and individual racism to structural racism.”

To use his own words when he strongly objected to the Common Council spending $400,000 on an audit of his department he said:

“But at the end of the day, the police are ill-equipped to be the primary source of parenting and educating our kids, job creation, providing affordable housing, dealing with issues of homelessness or drug abuse. Certainly, we will do our level best to complement (not replace) families, schools, churches, neighborhoods, not-for-profits, and social service providers in meeting the challenges that lay before our City; but if nothing changes on these various fronts, I dare say that a pristine, “model” police department trying to do everything within our statutory power(s), will STILL have statistics that reflect racial disparities….
…When not-for-profits and community leaders and activists are begging and bemoaning funding for engagement initiatives that are urgently needed, particularly as we head into summer months with youth out of schools and in dire need of constructive options, the City is marching forward demanding a total of $400,000 to get a report card on MPD. Heck! Why stop there? Why don’t we double that amount?”

Beyond some paternalistically racially coded language, he’s not entirely wrong here.

Police aren’t responsible for the economic disparities, and they are called upon to respond and “deal with” our larger societal failings. But what is also true, is the continued investment in jails and police, is a continued investment in these racial economic disparities within our community. They aren’t responsible, but they do help keep the cycle going. These things are directly tied together; it is an either/or.

Where we spend our money reflects our priorities. If direct investment was more than just a small fraction of these investments in human bondage, it wouldn’t be an either or. And morally, there is no choice when it comes to investing in humans or the cycle and evolution of American-style human bondage. So I ask, to those who say it’s not an either/or, when was the last time we spent $100 million dollars to invest in affordable housing, baby bonds, or many other forms of economic investment in one sitting? When was the last time this city spent over $70 million dollars annually on direct economic investments in communities, mental health resources, and more? Where budgets for these investments never get cut – but instead grow over time. When?

Our investments reflect our true values. By upholding “progressive” programs, or policies, bike paths and more, as a way to justify our city to ourselves, we are living a lie. Our true values are what we invest in and we aren’t investing in the people that need it the most. Instead we are investing in chains.

The safest neighborhoods: what do they have? What are they like? Are they walkable? Do they have good parks? Are food and health resources nearby? Or are they isolated from resources with a strong police presence? What do the safest communities look and feel like?

Safe communities don’t have more police officers. If that was the case, this nation would have the lowest crime for so-called “developed” nations. We have more police and more people in jail than any other so-called “developed” nation in the world. If these two things had a strong direct causation to safety and less crime, we’d have the lowest crime rates in the so-called “developed” world.

No, safe communities have more resources. With a police force that works for them, not to police them. In black communities, police look inward as an occupying force. In white more affluent neighborhoods, they look out as a protecting force. This goes beyond implicit bias and individual racism to structural racism.

So, Madison, what do you want to be? Are you going to keep investing in the same insanity, as you pat yourself on the back, giving each other different Martin Luther King Jr awards? Or are you going to take the long, hard, uncomfortable look in the mirror, decide to grow and truly progress? To divest from police and mass incarceration, to divest from the New Jim Crow, and to invest in humanity; to truly live the progressive ideals this city professes to love so much.

This is a choice of political will, justice, and morality. Do you have the courage to stand for justice and for what is right? Or will you keep your eyes blinded by a flag sewed in bondage?