Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old father-of-six, is paralyzed after a Kenosha police officer fired several rounds into his back on August 23.
Groups working to overhaul law enforcement and reimagine public safety in the US told Insider that the "defund the police" movement isn't just about having fewer cops on the streets.
They want to ward off vigilantism, as in the case of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin in 2012 believing the 17-year-old was "suspicious."
Activists and experts say "defund the police" is about freeing up billions of dollars and reinvesting that money into education and job opportunities, mental health and housing resources, and other community-led security efforts.
Police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, said that a 911 call involving a "domestic incident" took them to Jacob Blake's neighborhood on August 23.
The 29-year-old Black man was shot seven times in the back within three minutes of officers arriving, according to dispatch audio pieced together by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The accounts leading up to that encounter vary.
Blake's defense team says he was trying to break up a fight, according to NPR. A police report says that "a female caller reported that her boyfriend was present and was not supposed to be on the premises." It also describes officers trying unsuccessfully to take Blake into custody.
The Blake shooting has reinvigorated Black Lives Matter protests around the United States, which swelled after the killing of George Floyd in May. The movement has included a call to "defund the police" — generally understood to mean diverting funding from police departments to other community resources.
Asked how else the Blake situation could've been handled, Sean Blackmon, a spokesperson for the Stop Police Terror Project DC, a police reform advocacy organization, replied: "I would suggest not shooting him in the back seven times."
Blackmon wasn't trying to be flippant. He said police, too often, resort to violence when things don't go the way they want.
"We have to ask ourselves: Was Jacob Blake shot ... and partially paralyzed because he wouldn't leave the premises? Or because he refused to obey the word of a cop? And to police, not doing every single thing they say is a crime worthy of death," he said.
Combating 'racist vigilantism' with 'democratic community-based public safety'
Paige Fernandez, policing policy advisor for the ACLU National Political Advocacy Department, took it a step further, saying that armed police officers should never have been at the scene to begin with.
"Even if they did respond," she said, "they shouldn't have been armed, and there shouldn't have been multiple police. Police didn't de-escalate that situation — they escalated it and tried to murder a man. They are unreformable, and we must work to shrink their role and responsibilities, so they aren't able to cause further harm."
Activists and policy experts who spoke to Insider believe that public safety should be in the hands of the community.
But that's not without its issues: George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida, shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 after reporting that the teenager appeared "suspicious."
He had pursued Martin even though a 911 dispatcher told him not to, taking matters into his own hands. Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted of murder in the case, claiming he shot Martin in self-defense.
Eight years later, Travis and Gregory McMichael hopped into their truck and chased Ahmaud Arbery through their Georgia neighborhood based on the belief that he resembled a burglary suspect. The 26-year-old Black man was gunned down during that encounter. After the case was passed between several district attorneys, the McMichaels were charged with murder weeks after the incident.
Blackmon described those crimes against Black people as acts of "racist vigilantism," and stressed the need for "organized democratic community-based public safety."
A Black Lives Matter co-founder envisions a 'restorative and transformative' justice system
A warrant had been issued for Jacob Blake's arrest in July. He was charged with felony sexual assault and disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing, both misdemeanors, according to Wisconsin court records. The Wall Street Journal reported that the charges stemmed from his girlfriend — who is also the mother of three of his six children — telling police that Blake entered her house, digitally penetrated her without her consent, and took off with her car and debit card.
On Friday, Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis said he couldn't confirm whether the aggressive approach taken by police was connected to the warrant for sexual assault in the domestic abuse case.
But Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter — who told Insider she's personally experienced domestic violence — said the issue wasn't relevant. Blake's fate isn't justice, she said.
"I don't know a survivor who wants the outcome that was meted out on Jacob Blake for even their abuser," she said. "What they want is an end to the abuse."
Abdullah turned to her brother for support. But not everyone can depend on their family like she did, she said. That makes it critical for American society to be "creative and thoughtful and restorative and transformative in our approach to justice."
"We really believe that the answer to all of this is investing in community," she added. "So even if you don't have a wonderful blood brother like I do, you can have the community ... offer what you need."
Abdullah views a budget as "a statement of values and priorities," adding that cities would be better off if put taxpayer dollars were used community resources on the "front end," helping people in need, rather than pouring billions of dollars into police agencies every year. Her plans would involve abolishing police departments as we currently know them.
"The police are basically there to respond to crime," but "interventionists and prevention workers can actually bring peace to neighborhoods," Abdullah said.
'We want the community that's most impacted by violence to be the providers of security'
For his part, Blackmon took a long view of policing in the United States. He said the current policing system is worse-off for disadvantaged people, including people of color. The result of this centuries-old status quo is a build-up of "resentment and frustration," he said, and "the police are put in place to keep a lid on the pot of frustrations."
Reducing the size of a police department is not enough, he said, calling for a holistic approach that is fueled by the "intentional reinvestment" of funds into better education, affordable healthcare, employment opportunities, youth services, and community-led peacekeeping efforts.
Fernandez echoed the sentiment, noting that the ACLU supports divestment and specifically uses that term because it's "not a police or prison abolitionist organization."
Instead, she said, the ACLU believes "we need more investment in communities of color that have suffered from decades of underinvestment in everything except police, racist policies, and their related punitive programs. If we invested more in prevention, many domestic incidents wouldn't have happened in the first place."
It's important for higher-ups to fund "community-based and community-led interventions," Fernandez added, because "communities know how best to respond to harm in them, and it's important we foster accountability on the local level."
Abdullah believes that the next Zimmerman or McMichael can be avoided by ensuring that those who are tasked with safeguarding a community come from within it and can understand its pain points.
So Black neighborhoods, for instance, would be empowered to look internally when it comes to their own safety.
"We want the community that's most impacted by violence to be the providers of security," she said. "We want community members to be able to determine what security looks like for them."
This article has been updated.
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