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Watch the extended Q&A:
In the face of the national movement to defund police and economic losses because of the coronavirus pandemic, Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin—who ran on a promising platform with support from Bernie Sanders and a historic progressive grassroots movement—released plans last week to increase the city's police budget by $11.2 million.
Announcing the city's 2021 operating budget, Woodfin said his office had to make major cuts to offset an estimated $63 million business tax revenue shortfall. Those cuts include city-wide furloughs and salary decreases, while slashing funds to public transit, youth programs, social and economic services.
Activist Celida Soto, who campaigned for and served on the mayor's transition team, said Woodfin's policymaking has been "a slap in the face."
Soto said she wants community-led initiatives and mom and pop stores backed over corporate incentivizing, which continues despite COVID-19 cuts and includes $5.6 million for redevelopment incentives with $50,000 going to Applebees.
"Right now we're not actually putting people first," Soto said, referring to the mayor's motto.
"We're putting corporations first."
Two volunteers register people to vote at a Juneteenth rally in Birmingham, Ala. Photo by Webb-Hehn
The public health crisis we're ignoring
In June, as an organizer with Alabama Rally Against Injustice, Soto led a protest in Homewood, a wealthy Birmingham suburb known as one of the "over the mountain" communities where white people first fled to during the Civil Rights Movement.
Soto asked the crowd gathered in a park to lay on the ground in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in honor of the time George Floyd begged for his life while police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd's neck, killing him.
The crowd was silent as the Afro-Latina mother of two Black teenage boys read Floyd's last words into a megaphone, bellowing: "Mama!"
Videos from the protest went viral. But Soto is hopeful this moment is about more than anti-racism as an internet trend. She wants people to pay closer attention to policymaking.
"I really do feel like George Floyd made a call to his deceased mother, and when he did, he activated all black and Brown mothers globally," she said in a recent interview.
A hunger advocacy coordinator with the nonprofit Alabama Arise, Soto lives in West Birmingham, a neighborhood with a reputation for "being dangerous." Pointing to the city's gun violence, some Alabamians applauded the decision to ignore calls to defund the police, even though doing so would mean reallocating those dollars back to the community-led organizations addressing the root causes of that violence.
From her own front porch, Soto witnesses a different kind of violence than the crimes making nightly news—a public health crisis much quieter and more pervasive.
Protesters in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham on Juneteenth. Photo by Webb-Hehn.
Her neighbors deal not only with hunger, she said, but with insecure housing, inadequate health care, underfunded schools and unreliable public transit. She says her work won't stop until there's equitable access to basic rights for everyone in this state.
As part of a series on the movement to defund police in Alabama, I spoke with Soto about her activism before the budget was released. What follows is part of our conversation, edited for clarity.
Webb-Hehn: When did you begin organizing in your community?
Soto: I've been an activist and community organizer since college at Rutgers, but I'd say I was truly activated when they assassinated EJ Bradford.
[Editor note: Emantic Bradford, Jr., a 21-year-old Black man was shot and killed by police in a shopping mall in Hoover, Alabama, another over-the-mountain suburb of Birmingham, on Thanksgiving Day 2018.]
I remember getting the call. A friend said, "Are your sons okay?" My teenage sons always went to that mall. I remember that feeling of fear: My sons could have been involved.
I remember saying: We're going to fight. And we're going to protest. And we're going to chant. And we're going to shut the mall down, cut off their financial streams. We're going to get their attention. That's what we began to do.
Webb-Hehn: You're still protesting in Hoover. Did the city leaders, who are mostly white and Republican, ever respond with meaningful action?
Soto: At that time, they said, "We'll let you craft the new policing policy." Which of course is arduous labor, you know? And I knew there was no truth to it.
And then they offered to change a street name. But both of those offers were removed.
It was always just a way to pacify, to get the protests to stop. Then, of course, they started to arrest protesters.
[Since our interview, Soto and many others have been arrested during protests calling for the release of the video of police shooting and killing Bradford.]
Webb-Hehn: Is the Democratic leadership in Birmingham engaging with you differently?
Soto: Government-wise, it really is comparable.
And it's extremely disrespectful to take exactly what you knew that people needed and wanted and just make it a soundbite over and over again. [Woodfin] talked about 99 neighborhoods, and most of those 99 are still neglected and still abandoned.
[Woodfin gained national attention by running on a progressive platform of providing resources to all 99 neighborhoods in Birmingham, not just the 5 majority white neighborhoods.]
He speaks as though he is still this progressive mayor, and that's how they address them. And that is not true. Just come to the West Side of Birmingham. Just come to North Birmingham [where the EPA has tested toxic air and soil].
People literally cannot breathe and it's not because of George Floyd.
We're going to show what is actually happening in most of the city of Birmingham: deprivation and hunger.
Webb-Hehn: Are you comfortable saying more about that betrayal?
Soto: I served on his social justice transition team: hours of non-paid work, drafting budget proposals, making recommendations, solutions, cross-pollinating existing resources in our communities.
We did this because we had this young, Black mayor run on a progressive platform. And we were so hopeful for the change that he actually said he was going to make.
I've attended all these extravagant parties that they continue to invite us to, costly events. And I always sit there and I think: Gosh, this could have gone to Smithfield Dynamite Hill [Land Trust]. This could have gone to Sweet Alabama. This is sustainable water and energy and economic transition. This could have gone to the organizations that are doing the work.
It's a complete betrayal because residents are here doing the work, doing the diligent work— feeding our street neighbors, picking up the trash, doing the work that the government could do for little to no funds.
Webb-Hehn: What policy or support are you seeking from local governments?
Soto: We need investment.
When you invest in organizations like the Smithfield Community Land Trust, you are investing in a correction of our housing issues, of our access to food, of land and food sovereignty— endowing our people with their right to your land and healthy food.
It really comes with removing the capitalist lens, removing the lens of avarice and replacing that with a lens of true humanity.
That's what our elected officials and our so-called leaders need to begin to do, because right now we see them. We see this pacifying song and dance. We see the superficial gestures. We see them.
Webb-Hehn: Why did you want to meet here in Railroad Park in downtown?
Soto: I see events right here at this park, and I wish my neighbors and the children that live on my block had access to this, but it would take them about three hours just to get here. Public transportation is huge here.
[The park is a 10-15 minute drive from Soto's neighborhood.]
Protesters on Juneteenth in Birmingham, Ala. Photo by Webb-Hehn.
Birmingham is not very large land mass wise. It's three quarters African American, and that doesn't include other communities of color.
Most of our communities of color are isolated due to red lining and have very little access to proper education, public food, public transportation.
When one comes to Birmingham, they typically will visit these areas, right? Railroad Park. Avondale. They're aesthetically pleasing to the eye. They have beautiful cafes and shops. And few people actually go into the depths of the city.
Ironically enough, that's where the people are most beautiful and glorious. With a love so profound and brilliant, the level of community and interconnectivity is so impeccable.
Webb-Hehn: We're also standing by the new Black Lives Matter mural. Would you say this mural is a superficial gesture?
Soto: We are standing in front of very powerful, yet somewhat broken symbolism. Of course we need to understand that until communities of color have significance in our world, no lives can really matter.
The term itself is beautiful. The fact that it comes untethered to a strong policy, a revolution of our public policy system, is discouraging.
So it's acts like this, in my opinion, that serve to just merely make it look like they're actually doing something
Webb-Hehn: What do people get wrong about this movement or the people you're advocating for?
Soto: People of color are peaceful people. My people don't need much.
They know their land. They know their communities. They know their people.
They have assets that can be tapped into—not exploited—but just asked: "Hey, what do you think about how you live?" Simple questions and real conversations, not unilateral town hall meetings where the officials will receive a few questions and then control how they answer.
Why not listen to the people?
We don't want to settle for crumbs when we deserve loaves.
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.