Defunding Police and prisons: What is our work as Food and farm advocates?

by Nicole Sugerman, Policy Manager

The biggest story of the past month is the police and extrajudicial murders of yet more Black people, resulting in global uprisings in the midst of a pandemic. My heart is heavy for the families and memories of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. The subsequent calls to value Black lives and defund the systems that oppress them have touched every aspect of our society. While the current movement focuses on defunding police and prison systems, the food system is implicated in the wholesale need for change. Black people and other people of color cannot access the food they need under the constant threat and often reality of police violence. Incarceration of oneself or one's family has significant effects on individual and family health, affecting food access and security, income and wealth, housing stability, emotional health, and much more.  

I’ve spent the last few weeks assessing the policies I advocate for within the food system to make sure they aren’t undercutting or co-opting the demands of Black frontline organizations. Following the lead of those most affected by systemic racism and police brutality is critical, and those groups are supporting policies that shrink, decrease funding for, or take power away from police and prison systems. Food systems advocates should support the policies and frameworks advocated by #8toabolition, Movement 4 Black Lives, and other frontline groups directly-- yes, we can and should use our voices to speak against policing because we care about human life in and out of the food system, and because we cannot end racism in the food system without ending racism in every system-- but there are also direct intersections within our sector. 

Here are a few places where NESAWG network’s food system policy work intersects with police and prison systems. As a White person who has never been or had a loved one incarcerated, I don’t have the answers on how to do this work, and must figure out policy solutions in concert with those who are most impacted by police and prison violence, especially incarcerated people themselves. If your food systems work involves prisons, policing, or racial justice, start educating yourselves and making connections locally to groups who you could align with to ensure equity in this critical time.

  • Within the Northeast region, New York, Massachusetts, and Maine are using prison labor to manufacture hand sanitizer and Personal Protective Equipment for the agricultural sector.  Prisoners in New York State are paid as little as $3 per week for their labor, and many prisoners nationwide lack access to PPE or even soap in prison. Prisons are some of the biggest hotspots for Coronavirus outbreaks, and very little is being done to ensure inmates’ safety. 
    • If your farm or organization benefits from or plans to use prison-manufactured PPE (or even if you don’t!) consider asking your state’s department of corrections to let all the prisoners go for whom this is feasible. Those that they will not let go, ask them to ensure that the inmates themselves have access to PPE, social distancing, sufficient medical care, and other health protections as well as a living wage for their labor. 
  • Does your garden, farmers market, or local organization have safety policies that include calling the police? We have seen over and over again the dangers Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) face at the hands of the police. Involving the police in disputes has very real safety implications for BIPOC, queer and trans, disabled, and other marginalized people who are routinely over-policed and subject to disproportionate violence by police.
  • Farmworkers are often from communities that are heavily targeted by police violence and high rates of incarceration
    • Do you work with farmworkers or farmers who employ farmworkers? Support just immigration reform, worker protections, and living wages for farmworkers to reduce their vulnerability to police and prison violence. Advocate for ICE to release all detainees in consideration of COVID's health threats.

This list is just a start, and I know there are many more intersections throughout the NESAWG network. Do you have an example from your work to share? Reach out to me at [email protected].

If you have or are considering supporting or creating a policy that overlaps with policing or prisons, consider the following framework from Critical Resistance.

Does the policy:

  • reduce funding to police? 
  • challenge the notion that police increase safety? 
  • reduce tools / tactics / technology police have at their disposal? 
  • reduce the scale of policing?

If the answers are ‘no’, consider using your energy toward a different policy that helps people get free and decreases opportunities for police and prison brutality. While this framework is explicitly about policing, we can ask similar questions of other oppressive systems when evaluating policy choices; replace the work ‘police’ with ICE/fossil fuels/extractive economies/etc. Assess whether your policy is addressing root causes by shrinking that sector or cutting their legitimacy.

In our quest to end racism, we cannot separate calls for racial justice more broadly from those within the food systems specifically-- as food systems advocates, police and prison abolition is our work, too.

Photo by Thomas Hawk