THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Crisis Response To California’s Carceral State

One bill’s attempt to provide alternatives to policing

by Rose Houglet

Illustration by XingXing Shou

published December 4, 2020


As this summer saw skyrocketing donations to bail funds and widespread uprisings in support of Black liberation, 24-year-old Los Angelean Elizeth “Ellie” Virrueta continued the organizing toward prison and police abolition she had begun years prior. With conversations about divesting from the police and investing in community alternatives proliferating, Virrueta and other organizers experienced a complex set of hopes and challenges. Surges of people were spurred to action, but mainstream portrayals of abolition often misrepresented the transformative objectives of the movement and increased activists’ burden to “clean up the scraps,” as Virrueta explained in an interview with the Independent. Activists advocated for legislation like the CRISES (Community Response Initiative to Strengthen Emergency Systems) Act that would create alternatives to policing, but they grappled with the limitations that accompany state involvement, like regulations around how funding can be used.

Nevertheless, interactions with her community—including the Stop Terrorism & Oppression by Police (STOP) Coalition, a group of families who Virrueta explained “had loved ones killed by law enforcement”—kept her motivated. In particular, Virrueta, whose teenage cousin was killed by law enforcement in 2012, found hope in the expanding imaginations of the “little ones” around her.

“I see five year olds, little kids, talking about how they don’t trust the police—and they understand what that means,” she explained. “Even my own little brother Diego—he’s nine years old—when the pandemic first hit and there were folks who were getting released out of prisons, he heard it on the news.” 

Virrueta then narrated the following exchange:

I was sitting next to him and he was like,“They’re letting people out of prison?”

And I was like, “Yeah!”

And he said, “That’s so good!”

It caught me off guard, and I asked him, “Why do you think that? Why is that?” 

And he was like, “Yeah, I don’t think there should be people in cages,” and going on and on. 

And I was like, “Damn—you know? This is a nine year old. Like, woah. That’s my little brother.”

This simple interaction became one of many that Virrueta observed this summer between organizers and their “little ones,” children of all ages who visualized and vocalized alternatives from the systems they saw violently impacting their families.

 “They’re growing up in a very different world where law enforcement is not normalized or legitimized,” she said. “We’re paving that road so that they’re able to take 10 steps forward. We shook shit before, but right now the government has realized that communities and the people really do have power and that we will run amuck if we need to.”

A coordinator for the STOP Coalition, organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition, and member of the autonomous space, Community Alternatives to (CAT) 911, Virrueta found herself at the intersection of several critical organizations who coalesced around direct actions and legislative advocacy at the local and state level. In addition to protests and trainings, these groups collaborated on a California-wide bill which proposed unprecedented policies at the state level: AB 2054, or the CRISES Act.

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First introduced in January 2020, the bill was formally authored by California Assembly member Sydney Kamlager, a Democrat representing portions of West Los Angeles. After passing unanimously through the state legislature, the bill was vetoed by Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. But Kamlager is preparing to re-introduce the bill, verbatim, in the upcoming 2021 legislative session. A self-described abolitionist, Kamlager emphasized that the bill was drafted and co-sponsored by an activist coalition largely led by women of colorlike herself and Virruetaand made up of organizations that center people impacted by the criminal-legal system, including Virrueta’s STOP and Youth Justice Coalitions, as well as others like the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and Anti Police-Terror Project. These groups, Virrueta explained, “have already been doing the work,” creating “organic infrastructures” of care and mutual aid during and beyond the pandemic.

The CRISES Act aims to create a three-year pilot grant program housed in California’s Office of Emergency Services that would expand state funding to support community-based alternatives to policing. It would also mandate that grantees receive a minimum award of $250,000 per year. 

“We’ve been surviving with scraps, and we’re still surviving,” Virrueta said. “So this bill is really just trying to get folks funding.”

The text of the bill notes “mental health, intimate partner violence, community violence, substance abuse, and natural disasters” as areas in which community organizations can respond more safely and effectively than law enforcement. These community organizations can be interpreted loosely but must incorporate established presence, expertise, and capacity to address emergencies, Kamlager explained in an interview with the Independent. Social workers and nurses, for instance, might respond to crises relating to substance abuse. Artsor exercise-based programs may also qualify as preventative or transformative community tools. 

“You shouldn’t solve level two problems with level ten force,” Kamlager asserted. “You don’t want someone who is primarily trained to manage violent emergencies to respond with those kinds of tactics and adrenaline to other issues.”

The bill also prioritizes projects in locations with historically high levels of police violence as well as communities who face particular harm from the criminal-legal system: young people of color, disabled people, people who are gender nonconforming, people with uncertain immigration status, and people who are unhoused or homeless, among others.

Kamlager noted the ingenuity of proposing this bill at the state level when most police funding comes from local budgets. “The state is not involved in funding police departments, but we are involved in helping to fund and make scalable solutions,” she explained. “This is an opportunity to use the state’s dime to fund groups that are already doing the work.”

An 11-member Advisory Committee—which, according to the bill, must explicitly include members involved in community-based organizations—would establish grant selection parameters and metrics of success to select grantees over the three-year period. 

“If the state is going to be collaborative and fund community-based organizations, then it should be collaborative, empower, and work with them to help define the metrics,” she said. Kamlager hopes that the data collected from this pilot program will reveal cost-savings, improvements in health indicators, and decreases in incarceration and family separation—all of which might motivate the state to endorse alternatives as a long-term strategy.

According to the bill’s language, community organizations offer a space of “deeper knowledge” and “trusted relationships” that rely on de-escalation techniques rather than punitive measures. These kinds of groups have long been central to visions of abolition, redefining how we conceive safety and working to undermine our reliance on the carceral system.

“I believe the criminal justice system is doing what it was designed to do. I believe that it crushes so many populations,” Kamlager said. “In that moment, it is the role of legislators to step in, reconsider what we are doing because the status quo is really not helping, and use our ability to appropriate the purse-strings from the state.”

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Two organizations, Virrueta’s CAT 911 and a San Diego-based ‘Fight Club,’ provide insight into the diverse possibilities for violence prevention and community transformation that this bill would subsidize.

Based in South-Central Los Angeles, CAT 911 hopes to “build up an LA County-wide network and autonomous zone where we are the first responders to crisis in our communities,” Virrueta explained. Through training, the group builds up de-escalation skills among members of the community to ensure people feel comfortable turning to each other rather than the police. 

“How are we going to take down prisons,” Virrueta asked, “if we don’t know how to have open conversations with our friends or tell neighbors that their tree branch is in our yard? Transformative justice starts really small at the individual level, where we all have the ability to change the internalized policing mindsets within our own circles as we work toward policy-based or structural change.” 

In San Diego, the Jonathon Coronel Fight Club supports “the wellness and empowerment of people who have lost a loved one to state violence, particularly but not limited to murder by police,” said Rocío Zamora, another member of STOP Coalition, in an interview with the Independent. Here, grieving families—who Zamora described as “already fighters”—can mobilize against state violence. More literally, the Fight Club offers a space for boxing, an outlet that Zamora used to cope with the death of her cousin, Coronel, whom the group commemorates.

“I want to sponsor systems-impacted youth to use that as a safer space and way to promote wellness and channel that grief,” Zamora said. She also hopes to subsidize free memberships for families and start a team of de-escalation interventionists.

Right now, Zamora and her fellow organizers rely primarily on GoFundMe campaigns. “You have to pay people for their labor, especially because this project will probably be primarily Black- and brown-people-led,” Zamora said. “It’s important that work be compensated because we’re already over-extending ourselves, and a lot of us are in poverty.”

She hopes that increased state funding would bolster the reach and attainability of these visions. A secure resource stream would also grant Zamora more space to focus on political education, exercise classes, and intervention workshops rather than on fundraising strategies. With this time, she could collaborate with CAT 911 to bring their model to San Diego.

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Activists—and even Kamlager herself—expressed reservations over the structural aspects of the pilot program. Permitting this funding stream, some feared, might paint the state as a benevolent actor in ways that ultimately undermine the movement’s vision. 

“As an abolitionist, I’m always going to think there are limitations to state intervention,” Virrueta said. “We are working within the system that upholds oppression, so there’s always going to be limitations. It’s crucial to continue the work on the ground because that’s where real shit happens, but at the same time we do need funding.”

Others worried about the stringent restrictions and requirements that would come along with state funding in contrast with grassroots financial contributions. Kamlager anticipated that her legislative colleagues might try to “water down” the bill or that the governor might restrict funding due to COVID budget tightening. “A symbolic win means nothing if someone else dies because you haven’t changed your practices,” she stressed.

Disability justice advocates called for careful attention to the bill’s limited focus on “law enforcement” as the defining method of policing. Kamlager acknowledged their fears that the bill might inadvertently push responses to mental health crises away from ‘policing’ without addressing the ways that social workers and emergency services constrict choices and incarcerate people within the walls of psychiatric facilities. Advocates urged the Advisory Council to fund programs like Sacramento’s MH First, which removes punitive models altogether and prioritizes peer support, as opposed to ones like CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon, which receives calls through police phone lines and involves medical or crisis work professionals. Similarly, Zamora expressed concern about the failure to analyze the role that immigration systems, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement specifically, play in upholding punitive institutions like jails and detention centers.

“Just because this bill passes wouldn’t mean that all our problems would be solved,” Zamora said. “We need to point out those flaws so that we can organize and fill in the gaps.”

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Some of these fears came to pass as the bill faced its fate-defining encounter with the Governor’s Office early this fall. Throughout the summer, Kamlager worried that Newsom, whose signature is required to ratify state bills, would restrict funding or veto the CRISES Act due to the tighter COVID-year budget. Instead, Kamlager’s communications director, Alina Evans, said that the final negotiations came down to much more insidious disagreements.

“The Governor’s office had been reaching out with various concerns, the primary of which seemed to be the agency in which the bill was housed,” Evans detailed in an interview with the Independent. “They wanted the bill to be controlled by the Board of State and Community Corrections (SCC).”

For abolitionists like Kamlager and the activists who worked on the CRISES Act, this proposal was inconceivable. If the purpose of the bill was to detach crisis response from policing structures, why would the pilot program be selected, evaluated, and overseen by California’s carceral apparatus? 

“It would be antithetical to the intent of the bill,” Evans continued. “What we quickly realized is that it wasn’t about the specific agency [the Office of Emergency Services] not having the capacity to give out the grants, but that the Governor’s office wanted this to be controlled by law enforcement.”

Kamlager and her office offered to think through housing the bill under “any other agency,” like the Department of Social Services, for instance. Days before the final Senate vote, Newsom’s team presented a stiff response: “Only the SCC,” Evans recalled. This inflexibility cornered Kamlager into a tough choice between modifying the bill’s language before it went to its final Senate vote—which might have caused the bill to go unheard due to tight deadlines—or leaving it unchanged. 

Kamlager ultimately stuck with her vision, hoping that broad public support, unanimous legislative approval, and activist pressure might motivate Newsom to sign the bill regardless. The month ahead brought op-eds, public letters, radio shows, rallies, endorsements and still, to the coalition’s surprise, Newsom vetoed the CRISES Act in late September.

“People are tired, upset, and disheartened,” Evans said, referring to the coalition. “We had anticipated the CRISES Act to be the ‘easy’ bill to pass this year, relative to others we were working on.” 

Still, the dedication and imagination of advocates like Virrueta and Zamora—who have been intimately committed to this fight for years—persisted. The group is working to re-introduce the bill next year and re-negotiate with the Governor’s office and new legislative director. The number of interested cosponsors and advocates is expanding. On the federal level, US Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and US Representative Karen Bass (D-Calif.) introduced similar legislation in Congress entitled the “Community-Based Response Act.” 

Activists are continuing the critical work—one they have long performed outside of state confines and regulations—of spreading abolitionist ideologies within their communities.

“We’ve been conditioned to not believe in ourselves and our abilities to imagine a world without carceral systems,” Virrueta said. “Creativity and imagination have been stripped, and we need to tap into our capacity to think outside the box.” 

This bill’s path through the legislative process reveals the mechanisms used by the state to restrict creativity and community agency. Yet, these activists—fighting for the loved ones they lost and the little ones they raise—will clearly not be silenced by Newsom. As they fight “for the state’s dime,” as Kamlager put it, they will not cease to envision and enact change within their communities. Or, as Virrueta said, they will boldly continue “running amuck.”

 

 

ROSE HOUGLET B’22 hopes to raise little ones who don’t believe in prison.