Black freedom fighters in Birmingham once changed this country.
Speaking onstage in Kelly Ingram Park on Juneteenth, Celestine Hood, a woman who witnessed radical change during the Civil Rights Movement, said Alabamians had the power to do it again.
Hood was a child in this park in May 1963, one of the young students participating in a demonstration for racial equality when Police Chief Eugene "Bull" Connor ordered attack dogs and firehoses on protesters. Images of children enduring that brutality enraged the world, sparking international support for the movement.
In May of this year, a video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in custody for allegedly spending counterfeit money, shocked the world again. Protests erupted in big cities and rural towns, demanding an end to police and vigilante killings of Black people.
"We had dogs and firehoses," Hood said. "You've got tear gas. You've got rubber bullets. It's the same fight."
The crowd of a few hundred—Black, brown and white, young and old—nodded, raised their fists.
This year's annual celebration of emancipation from slavery was part of a series of statewide protests hosted by Alabama Rally Against Injustice. Organizers say the current fight for justice in Alabama is rooted in the legacy of Black-led grassroots organizing in the South—and the white supremacy pushback through state-sanctioned violence.
It was here where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," and where police brutally beat the late Rep. John Lewis as he marched across a bridge in Selma and untold numbers of Black people have been jailed, brutalized or killed in their fight for liberation.
Undeterred by white violence and police brutality, freedom fighters carried their movement throughout the South to Washington, reshaping the ideals of American civil liberty and labor law with the passing of the Civil Rights Act.
A group of people gathered on the Jacksonville Square to protest for BLM Monday afternoon. Photo by Stephen Gross for The Anniston Star.
Onstage, organizer Celida Soto thanked Hood.
"We don't stop this movement until there is complete change, revolution," she told the crowd. Her black T-shirt read "freedom fighter."
To prepare the crowd to take over the streets in Birmingham, Soto pointed to volunteers in neon shirts who would serve as witnesses if police began arrests.
The week before, police in Huntsville deployed pepper spray, flash bangs, rubber bullets, and tear gas on a nonviolent crowd, including families with kids. Birmingham police had arrested a prominent activist and comedian for inciting a riot despite his role in stopping a crowd from tearing down a Confederate statue. In towns across the state, protesters had been arrested for breaking curfews implemented by city leaders who said they were protecting property from looters.
"Don't say this protest is peaceful," Soto said. "We are not at peace about the conditions of our communities."
In the park as they prepared to march, a Black father knelt to tie his son's shoe. An elderly white couple adjusted one another's masks worn to protect from the coronavirus. A group of teenagers hoisted a rainbow flag with an encircled Black fist into the air. There was talk of what to do if police used military tactics to break up the protest.
Behind them stood statues of police dogs forever charging stone-faced children who sought basic rights.
Protesters in Kelly Ingram Park in BIrmingham on Juneteenth. Photo by Webb-Hehn.
Today, activists in Alabama are part of a national movement gaining momentum to defund police. Doing so means reallocating a portion of local police budgets to organizations building healthier and safer communities. Their goal is to eliminate overpolicing in Black and brown neighborhoods while uplifting the community-led efforts to ensure all people have equitable access no matter their race, class, identity, or ZIP code.
"Don't say this protest is peaceful," Soto said. "We are not at peace about the conditions of our communities."
Onlookers film a Black Lives Matter March in Birmingham on Juneteenth. Photo by Webb-Hehn
Public health crisis for people living in poverty
When Soto was searching for the right neighborhood to put down roots for her family, she fell in love with Birmingham's west side. Since moving to Alabama a few years ago, Soto had been living in Hoover, a wealthy suburb of the city, but never felt at home.
"Someone immediately said, 'Whoa, you don't want to live in the hood,' and I said, 'Whatever it is, this is exactly where I want to be,'" recalled Soto, a hunger advocacy coordinator with the nonprofit Alabama Arise.
She bought a home and began connecting with her neighbors, mostly Black and brown people with tight-knit relationships like her own Afro-Latina family. Because of her work, Soto knew one in four children in Alabama don't know when their next meal will be. While she shared newfound joy with her neighbors, she also recognized what she calls "hungry faces."
West Birmingham, Soto knew, had a reputation for being dangerous. It's where the majority of the city's homicides take place, police presence is high and surveillance cameras installed by the City Council and Alabama Power record the streets for illegal activity day and night.
Celida Soto leading a march on Juneteenth in Birmingham, Ala. Photo by Webb-Hehn.
But as a resident, Soto said, she witnessed a different kind of violence—a public health crisis much quieter and more pervasive than the crimes making the nightly news.
Her neighbors dealt not only with hunger, she said, but with insecure housing, inadequate health care, underfunded schools and unreliable public transit.
It wasn't always this way. In the early part of the 20th century, the west side was home to a thriving steel industry and diverse population. Craftsman homes lined lush green boulevards. Downtown strips bustled with shops and restaurants. Segregated Black neighborhoods flourished in spite of Jim Crow. Then, beginning in the 1950s, as Black people sought equality during the civil rights movement, white west siders fled the unrest to the suburbs, where Black people could not legally follow. In the 1970s, the steel industry collapse led to further, devastating population decline.
Jobs disappeared. Businesses shuttered. The streetcar stopped running. The state erected I-20/59 through the heart of a historic Black neighborhood, relocating into public housing many of the residents whose homes were razed. Mortgage lenders stifled prosperity through redlining, the American practice of tracing the outline of Black neighborhoods in red ink on maps and restricting lending within those borders.
"Why not let the people tell us what they need?"
Disinvestment rooted in systemic racism continues today as real estate investors are denied loans for revitalization projects that are commonly greenlit in white or gentrifying neighborhoods like Avondale in east Birmingham.
Today, the buildings of the west side are ghosts of what once was. Still, Soto said, the people are resilient.
"Poverty doesn't mean without intelligence. What these people are capable of doing while living in complete deprivation, that's beauty," Soto said. "And that's the thing I wish our government officials would understand."
Soto's activism is rooted in this love of her neighborhood and in the fear of what might happen to her teenage sons if things don't change, if Black boys continue to be seen by others as inherently dangerous.
Her own work centered policy and advocacy since graduating from Rutgers University but it wasn't until police shot and killed 21-year-old Emantic "E.J." Bradford Jr. at a shopping mall in Hoover on Thanksgiving in 2018 that Soto felt called to organize for police accountability.
"He could have been one of my sons," she said.
In late July of this year, Soto was arrested in Hoover for leading a protest on public grounds—in the same spot where blue lives matter supporters gathered without law enforcement intervention during a counter-protest to those calling for Hoover to release the video of police killing Bradford.
Soto said she won't stop organizing protests.
"What we're asking for is basic human rights," she said.
Achieving that starts with reallocating a portion of the police budget toward community-led efforts to make neighborhoods healthier and safer, she said.
Police afraid to ask for help, chief says
In the small university town of Jacksonville, Alabama, the police department's first Black chief said it's time for America to decide what the police are for.
"Do we want police officers to be social service workers? Do we want them to protect and serve?" asked Chief Marcus Wood.
The calls to defund police are "foolish," he said.
Jacksonville Police Chief Marcus Wood gives a tour of the Jacksonville City Jail. Photo by Stephen Gross for The Anniston Star.
His list of reasons for more funding is long: to improve training beyond the roughly 500 hours required, to offer pay higher than the current entry-level rate of $10 an hour, and to provide mandatory mental health services for officers who will undoubtedly work traumatic cases.
Right now in Alabama cosmetologists need three times the hours of study to wield their blow dryers as police are required to spend at the academy before being issued their guns. To ensure their discretion in using those guns, officers undergo a psychiatric exam during the hiring process, but "nobody checks up on them after we hire them," Wood said. And, he added, the academy doesn't prepare recruits for the cumulative stress of a demanding job where training emphasizes combat tactics to stay alive in the line of duty.
The result is a culture in which police are expected to be "bulletproof," he said, and are afraid to ask for help for fear of being stigmatized.
"Some of those situations where excessive force is used, maybe the cop is having a bad day. That's not an excuse. I think that's real life," he said. He's working to change the culture around mental health and to ensure officers step in to stop fellow officers' use of excessive force.
But many are baffled by the idea that a bad day for a cop means someone might die or that more money for police might cause less harm. Police budgets have risen in recent years across the South as the role of officers has expanded to respond to a growing list of societal problems from accompanying social workers when DHR removes a child from parental custody to mental health crises.
Wood said people call the police over ridiculous skirmishes like a dog pooping in a neighbor's yard.
Jacksonville Police Chief Marcus Wood poses for a photo with one of the department's SUV vehicles. Photo by Trent Penny for The Anniston Star.
Accountability, repairing the harm
In Birmingham, the City Council allotted 20 percent of its budget for policing, totaling nearly $93 million. The state's other large cities—Montgomery, Mobile, and Huntsville—allocated nearly $50 million each.
Not every municipality has that kind of budget. There is a disparity between police departments, seen clearly in the split between cities and rural towns, said Mike Rollins, who was the director of Coosa Valley Youth Services in east Alabama for decades before retiring in 2019. Now, he trains officers across the state in best practices with juvenile offenders.
"Some of these departments are the Taj Mahal. Some are real dungeons," he said.
With increased budgets, the expectation is to see better results for the central tasks of police. Trends in Alabama are similar to what's happening nationally. The latest data from the FBI shows police cleared fewer than half their cases, leaving 46 percent of violent crimes and 19 percent of property crimes unsolved.
Those most adamantly against defunding police often cite fear of rising crime, in particular, gun violence. In recent years, violent crime has dropped, according to the Bureau of Justice. Data does not show a connection to soaring police budgets.
Because police training emphasizes combat and the danger of public encounters, police presence can escalate situations to violence, as with current protests.
"The city knew he was racist," Baker said. "And he's policing the same neighborhoods as he was before."
"Some of what we're asking for costs nothing," Soto said, referring, in part, to policy changes like ending qualified immunity, which would ensure police are not held to a lower standard than other citizens when they do harm someone.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin told the media in mid-July he has plans to ban deadly chokeholds and mandate officer intervention for excessive force in alignment with "8 Can't Wait," a popular campaign intended to reduce police violence. Other Southern cities have also adopted all eight policies. In Atlanta, Georgia, and Jackson, Mississippi, progressive mayors have spoken in support of defunding the police without much follow-up action.
But because the Birmingham Police Department policies already cover what's outlined in "8 Can't Wait," including not using chokeholds, Soto said Woodfin was "reaching for optics."
When cops sign up for their annual 12 hours of continuing education in the state, they "can play 12 hours of new gun training, because that's fun" instead of de-escalation tactics or bias training.
What activists want is funding to train social servants to respond to nonviolent crises and civilian review boards made of community members, not government officials.
"If you're going to serve me, you've got to know me," said David Baker, chairman of the Police Citizen's Advisory Committee in Anniston, a city 60 miles east of Birmingham. Both cities are majority Black.
When majority white police forces are in majority Black cities, community members need a chance to hold cops accountable, Baker said. He pointed to investigations by the FBI and media that have outed white supremacists working in law enforcement.
A few years ago, Baker spearheaded efforts to have two white police officers in Anniston fired for ties to white supremacy groups, including the neo-Confederate League of the South. One of those officers is working for the county now, he said.
"The city knew he was racist," Baker said. "And he's policing the same neighborhoods as he was before." Recently, the Anniston City Council voted to send a letter to the county sheriff to prohibit the deputy from patrolling within city limits.
If every policing body had a citizen review board and those boards were connected, Baker said, that kind of loophole would close.
Jacksonville Police Chief Marcus Wood. Photo by Trent Penny for The Anniston Star.
Chief Wood also said police needed "Big Brother," or a larger governing body to ensure all police departments in the state follow the same rules and require the same training for officers.
As an example, he said, when cops sign up for their annual 12 hours of continuing education in the state, they "can play 12 hours of new gun training, because that's fun" instead of de-escalation tactics or bias training.
Without statewide regulations, Wood said, every police chief is responsible for individual departments, which is challenging when cops move city to city and leaders have opposing ideas.
That kind of reform requires more money, Wood said, doubling down on his stance against the calls to defund police. Social programs need more money, too, he said, but we don't have a magic wand to wave and fund everything.
Imagining a better way
Meanwhile, the state is "utterly failing" social service programs for the most vulnerable, said James Tucker, the director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program in Tuscaloosa. As an example, he said the state defunded mental health care by $20 million for all 67 counties during the 2008 recession and has never refunded that loss.
"Our state is in such a quandary that you almost could propose any rational funding mechanism for a needed service, and it's hard to say we don't need it," he said.
Two volunteers register people to vote at a Juneteenth rally in Birmingham, Ala. Photo by Webb-Hehn
"I know we can imagine better worlds than this. What type of community does everybody deserve?"
That's the question people should be asking right now, according to Martez Files, an activist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he studies diverse populations and works at the intersection of police accountability and racial justice.
Files grew up on the west side of Birmingham and was radicalized as a teenager.
"I was slammed to the ground in my own backyard by Birmingham police officers who believed I had robbed a Burger King," he said.
Files began doing what he calls "helper work," assisting the most vulnerable people in society to gain access to basic resources—those same resources Soto saw lacking in her community. Studies have long linked living in disenfranchised, impoverished neighborhoods to chronic stress, where structural violence shapes individual actions. By meeting people's needs through community-led work, activists like Files are also addressing the root causes of crime.
"When we think about who the criminal is, the person who is stealing is not a wealthy executive stealing multimillions and committing white-collar crime and actually hurting folks but the parent who goes to Walmart to steal a stroller because they can't afford it."
One such group is already working to end gun violence and was tracking improvements in community health before the pandemic. Led by resident activist Onoyemi Williams, who worked 14 years as a parole officer, the "peacemakers" of Faith in Action are a collective of ministers from more than 60 churches. They go on door-to-door for weekly "peace walks" in the West End on the blocks with the highest rate of homicides, helping connect residents with resources more readily available in higher socioeconomic areas: mental health services, grief counseling, job training or drug rehabilitation. Often, the volunteers simply talk to residents to find out what's needed.
"When people start seeing that someone else sees their self-worth, they start to see their own self-worth," Williams said.
Protesters on Juneteenth in Birmingham, Ala. Photo by Webb-Hehn.
The group Be a Blessing Birmingham hands out hygiene and clothing essentials to homeless people and will soon be constructing mobile showers. The Birmingham Free Store is just that: a storefront where people can pick up free essentials like a box of pasta, toilet paper, soap or contraception. The Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Community Land Trust organizes around affordable housing, land ownership, and sustainable agribusiness. The trust is resident-led and located in the historic neighborhood nicknamed Dynamite Hill for the bombs white terrorists planted at Black residences.
Files said the U.S. has failed to have the collective imagination to see how programs like these deserve sustainable funding. Doing so, he said, would be a step toward repairing the harm to Black communities.
"When we think about who the criminal is, the person who is stealing is not a wealthy executive stealing multimillions and committing white-collar crime and actually hurting folks but the parent who goes to Walmart to steal a stroller because they can't afford it," Files said.
"Let's talk about the through line to policing and the overcriminalization of particular communities," said Stef Martinez, a community outreach organizer with the ACLU of Alabama.
Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rates in the U.S., the country with the highest incarceration rates in the world. Nearly 49,000 people in Alabama are in detainment. Black people make up more than half the prison population but only a quarter of the population in the state, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Kayla Houk and Kirsten Phillips hold signs in a group that gathered on the Jacksonville Square to protest for BLM Monday afternoon. Photo by Stephen Gross for The Anniston Star.
All that is enough to consider a different way to spend tax dollars, and law enforcement can't spearhead violence reduction in predominantly Black neighborhoods where people have a living memory of police violence during the civil rights movement, Williams said.
"As long as they overlook the recommendations of grassroots organizers, we're always going to have this level of violence," Soto said. "And that is extremely saddening to me because the solutions are so simple and basic, basic human rights."
After leading the people through the streets on Juneteenth, Soto said there's really one question people should be asking:
"Why not let the people tell us what they need?"
This story was produced and co-published in collaboration with The Anniston Star. Research and assets for this article were made possible by the Center for Sustainable Journalism, which publishes Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Support is provided by The Kendeda Fund.