Unpacking a misplaced response to calls for police abolition in Hartford
On the anniversary of Juneteenth, hundreds of mostly young, Black protesters went directly to the Hartford mayor’s brownstone house in downtown with a simple demand: abolish police. Despite their demand, the mayor’s response was a mismatch. Instead of defunding, abolishing, or even tangibly reducing the size of the police, the mayor recommended building more affordable housing in the suburbs. Rather than racial and economic justice for the Black and Puerto Rican people in Hartford now, the response was clear: I will not help you change policies, but I will help you leave.
In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic depression, the video of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd sparked a national uprising. Like Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by Louisville police, the people killed by police in Connecticut such as Aquan Salmon, Jashon Bryant, Kyron Marcell Sands, Zoe Dowdell, Jayson Negrón, Anthony Vega Cruz quickly become nameless. Nobody is ever held accountable. This moment feels different.
Rather than simple reforms, protesters want to decrease the scope of policing and redirect public resources. In places like Hartford, police are directly accountable, in theory, to elected officials. Yet, protesters and others question whether elected leaders are able to control the police they directly fund and supervise. For example, Hartford Council members Wildaliz Bermudez and Joshua Michtom were soundly defeated when they modestly proposed a decrease in the police budget and redirecting of funds towards more housing inspections, school technology resources, arts and cultural programs, Early Childhood centers, and other services. This shift in spending away from police would more closely address protest demands.
But in the face of protesters, the Hartford mayor deflected. He insisted on two things essentially beyond his purview or control: changing zoning laws and more affordable housing in the suburbs for people now in Hartford. Despite past opposition to school desegregation and supposed emphasis on “neighborhood schools”, the mayor now calls for protesters to, “…stand with us also when the legislature convenes and fight for suburbs to do their part when it comes to affordable housing, and homelessness, and equity in education….”
The mismatch in response raises questions. As one protester named Marcus Washburn, a resident and graduate of a desegregated magnet school in Hartford, stated: “Why is it the responsibility of our surrounding communities to fix what’s happening in Hartford? He (mayor) says he listens, he’s here with us. But all we’re hearing is it’s the responsibilities of other people. He’s not really here with us.”
At least two things are happening here.
First, this focus on affordable suburban housing at this moment minimizes the justice claims by the Black and Latino protesters. In this context, this alternate focus shifts the discourse away from making the city more livable for Black and Latino people. As the Chair of Hartford’s Planning and Zoning Commission (and the mayor’s wife) notes, the campaign to “Desegregate CT” will “deconcentrate poverty” in the city, not end it. Unlike past and presents activism, City Hall’s push for more suburban “affordable” housing is not about Black and Latino community justice, it’s about planning their further push out of the city.
Second, it obscures a development project happening now in the city. In 2013, former Gov. Dannel Malloy, the mayor’s old boss, began rebooting downtown renewal and pushing for public funds to help double the number of residents in Hartford’s whitest neighborhood: downtown Hartford. As explained by a critique in the Hartford Business Journal, that project intends to use public funds to help fix old factories or office buildings to convert them to private housing and other projects.
According to state documents, 80% of the apartments are reserved for “market rate” and 20% “affordable” renters. These “market rate” apartments are geared towards people making more than $22 an hour, roughly the median income for white people in Connecticut. With a median income of $14 an hour, very few Black and Latino people in the state can afford the “market” rate units. In addition to downtown development came much ballyhooed zoning changes that involved things like bike parking minimums, which are symbols of gentrification.
This problem of luxury housing projects happening now in the mayor’s downtown neighborhood are hidden amidst a single media and political focus on suburban affordable housing. In the city, downtown development has led the conversation in Hartford at the expense of neighborhood housing development or refurbishment. Sustaining Hartford police at the current level is part and parcel of maintaining a defense force to make the affluent newcomers in downtown more “comfortable.” These public funding priorities have tangible consequences.
As the CT Mirror’s reporting over the last year has emphasized, people should be able to live wherever they desire and affordable housing must be in every community. But this is no substitute for addressing the critical concerns of over-budgeted, violent policing and austerity in other city services right now. A choice to move should be for family, employment, lifestyle or scenery, not a municipality’s failure to be responsive to residents’ needs. Put together, the evidence suggests at least two fronts in the battle against racial exclusion in housing: Hartford’s downtown and its suburbs.
The exchange above showed Hartford’s leadership will continue paying for police, downtown development, and your ticket out of the city. But it won’t prioritize the needs of families and children here in Hartford now.
Robert Cotto, Jr. resides in Hartford. He is a scholar of education policy and a former elected member of the Hartford Board of Education. Brendan Mahoney resides in the Tariffville section of Simsbury. He is an attorney practicing consumer law and is a former Hartford City Council aide.
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