By Laila R. Makled
Doom. Existential dread. Powerlessness. These are words we come across everyday as we collect signatures for the People’s Budget Initiative. In a perfect world, this initiative would allow the people of Oakland to vote on where our tax dollars go through neighborhood assemblies. But, folks are skeptical. Skeptical something like this could actually work. Skeptical to trust their neighbors. Skeptical to change the status quo. And honestly, who can blame them?
We know this distrust is bred, bred through propaganda manufactured by our elected officials to keep cops in the streets as the only way to keep us safe. In response to the murder of beloved community member Lili Xu in late August 2020, District 4 Supervisor Nate Miley said, “At this point the council needs to show more support for law enforcement and get the resources there.” To our elected officials we ask: Why? Why is it that after every devastating event that involves gun violence, the answer is to put more cops on the street? Why do we keep putting more money towards things the community doesn’t want, and that simply aren’t working? Aren’t you tired? Don’t you want to try something different?
As it stands, it doesn’t matter how many questions we have about why 47% of Oakland’s budget goes to cops. Or, why less than 10% goes to libraries, parks and rec, violence prevention, housing, transportation and other city services…combined. It doesn’t matter because at the end of the day eight city council members and one mayor have the power to decide where millions of dollars in Oakland go…in the words of Eqbal Ahmad, they are our elected democracy’s guardians, and their violations are constant.
Gas prices are soaring, schools are closing, people can’t afford rent, gun violence is increasing, and the city’s response continues to be predictable: give more money to cops. What do you feel in your body when a cop is around? For us, we get nervous and scared. We feel small, powerless before the power they hold over us with their weapons and badge.
Now, we’d like to ask an opposing question: what do you feel in your body when you imagine things like ending food deserts, funding robust violence prevention programs, or having access to free mental and physical health care? What about affordable housing, well-funded schools, or clean drinking water? For us, it’s pretty exciting. We feel warm, fuzzy, hopeful – like maybe there is a possibility for a better world.
So, ultimately, the People’s Budget Initiative wants to give Oakland voters a chance at that choice. But, how do we trust our neighbors to make the same decisions? The truth is, there is no way to know how this will turn out. Maybe it will be worse. Maybe it will only be marginally better than before.
In spite of that, we want to try, which is why we got involved with Community Democracy Action. The only thing we can say for certain is that power being in the hands of a few is not working, and we want to believe we can enact structural change on a large scale. Maybe, just maybe, the People’s Budget Initiative will fundamentally alter how democracy operates, and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the process.
And we’ve seen it work, here in Oakland and globally. We have been hosting mock neighborhood assemblies in Oakland, and running them as they would run if the initiative passed. At these assemblies, various city departments and community leaders have come together to discuss their current budget, and what they would do if they had access to more funds. At the end of the presentations, those in attendance vote on where the money goes. Communities, coming together, discussing their needs and getting a choice on how their tax dollars are spent. That’s what the People’s Budget Initiative is about. We know what we need, and it is not 9 people making decisions for hundreds of thousands of us.
Additionally, participatory budgeting has already been implemented in nearly 1,500 municipalities and institutions around the world! The first full participatory budgeting process for a city was implemented in 1989 in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil. At the time, Porto Alegre had a population of 1.2 million (more than twice the population of Oakland). It was a resounding success – sewer and water connections increased from 75% of households in 1988 to 98% in 1997. The number of schools quadrupled since 1986. The health and education budget increased from 13% (1985) to almost 40% (1996). Imagine, a world where we can make the choice to put our tax dollars towards schools, clean water, and healthcare.
Community Democracy Organizer Silver Zahn writes, “I’ve always been resistant to city and state level of political engagement. Maybe it’s because I believed I was too ‘uneducated’. Or because I was too poor to take a break from working and struggling to get informed. I just know our system is fucked and we need community collective care to survive these exploitative capitalist structures. The work of dismantling ultimately lies in many different avenues. I don’t know how this will turn out and its actual ability to create change, but I do know that by not engaging I automatically surrender power to the dominant stakeholders.”
Will you dream with us? We can’t do it without you. We still need 22,000 signatures out of 50,000. We are hiring signature collectors and volunteer recruiters. If you don’t live in Oakland, there are participatory budget campaigns happening all over the country. Go to communitydemocracyproject.org or follow us at @cdpoaklandto get plugged in. We look forward to continuing to build a better world with you.
Author info @push2exist, push2exist.net