Abolitionists Win Big-ish in Sleepy College Town

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Last fall, 10 years after Davis, California, became infamous for a photo of UC Davis security police pepper-spraying seated, nonviolent Occupy Wall Street protesters, Davis activists won a yearlong abolitionist campaign to create a seven-person public safety department. This new department will take on tasks previously assigned to the city’s police department and is a significant step toward delegitimizing and hacking away at the police state.

In this sleepy, majority-white and Democratic college town of about 70,000, Davis’s biggest selling points are its quaint farmers’ market and pervasive bike culture. Although socialist and other leftist organizations exist, they are small and suffer from student turnover. The non-student organizations gravitate around the Democratic Party.

It is in this unpromising environment that an organized effort to transform policing grew and won.

A Winning Coalition

In early winter 2020, a coalition of groups concerned with issues of public safety developed between Yolo DSA, a local progressive group (Yolo People Power), UAW 2865 (the union representing UC academic student workers) and, later, UAW 5810 (representing UC postdocs). This coalitional effort was made possible by individual DSA comrades’ participation in those organizations, as well as their interpersonal relationships.

The coalition settled on one shared demand: the creation of a Department of Public Safety independent from the Davis Police Department. Tasked with traffic and code enforcement, welfare checks, homeless outreach, mental health crisis response, and more, the proposed department would divert up to 44% of dispatcher calls away from the police.

When Yolo DSA took on the campaign, efforts around public safety had already started. Yolo People Power had recently rallied people to make public comments on a “reimagining public safety” report commissioned after the George Floyd protests. A staggering four hours of public comment followed. Davis res- idents wanted change.

Over the next seven months, Yolo DSA led a series of Socialist Night Schools on policing, held numerous phone banks, did door-to-door canvassing, and co-organized protests with coalition members. The national nature of DSA allowed the chapter to call in more knowledgeable speakers from across the country, while the coalitional nature of the local effort allowed unionized DSA phone bankers to call thousands of union members.

This combination of weekly night schools and phone banks helped grow DSA members’ political knowledge and confidence. The chapter had only been founded in March 2020, and strategic leadership development was crucial to both its growth and the campaign.

We quickly learned how to flood the City Council with emails, make public comments, and circulate and deliver publicly an open letter signed by hundreds of residents. Coalition members wrote op-ed articles, scheduled coalitional meetings with individual City Council members, and had ongoing conversations with elected officials. This pressure won the campaign’s first concession: Outreach to those living on the streets was removed from the police department. Our central demand, though, was ignored. Not one City Council member would commit to an independent public safety department. So, we took to the streets. Protest followed protest, keeping the campaign in the public eye and mind.

On the day of the budget vote in June of 2021, a caravan of 30 decorated cars; bikes; and a six-person, pedal-powered vehicle drove slowly through down- town Davis to City Hall. Honking cars surrounded the Council chambers as coalition members gathered in front to chant, rally, and dance. We did not win, but the mayor was clearly uneasy, and the city manager apologized for the “appearance” of an increased police bud- get and full-time police positions after several officials had promised that there would be no increases.

We kept up the pressure. After a chalking outside the mayor’s house and publication of another critical op-ed piece, the mayor’s inner circle began to consider the coalition’s demands. Concessions finally came by autumn, when the the City Council voted to allocate $1.17 million over three years to a mobile crisis program in partnership with the county. A few weeks later, it voted to create a new Department of Social Services and Housing, incorporating several functions of the coalition’s proposed public safety department.

Lessons Learned

As a result of the campaign win, four positions will be moved from the police department to the new Department of Social Services and Housing to do outreach to those living with homelessness. In addition, the new department will coordinate code enforcement and mental health crisis response with the county, with the aid of two new city staff. Suicide calls to 911 will be dispatched to trained mental healthcare professionals, not the police. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but now that the precedent has been set, it will be much easier for activists to push for more resources and staffing down the line.

There is still much work ahead.

Traffic enforcement cannot be removed from the police department because California law currently prohibits automated speed enforcement and hinders municipalities from enacting civilian traffic enforcement. Tensions surrounding the role of police defunding existed even within our chapter, as initial demands to freeze police hires later shifted to a 10% decrease in the police budget.

Our inability to arrive at a shared funding consensus, both internally and with coalition partners, meant that the allocation of $790,000 to the new department came from American Rescue Plan funds rather than as a reallocation from the police budget. And, as we write, Davis City Council is hiring two more sworn police officers and an additional dispatcher. This stark reversal from elected officials’ initial reassurances against future police hires emphasizes the importance of continuous, escalating pressure on progressive elected officials, even after concessions are won.

We are not alone in learning this lesson the hard way. Many cities have faced backlash. In Austin, Texas, a “refund the police” campaign emerged in response to local slashing of police budgets. This reactionary effort was defeated by the coalition No Way on Prop A in November 2020. Be aware that if you’re not organizing, you can be assured that your opponents are.

Our participation in Davis’s public safety campaign shows how transformative even a small win can be. Not only can organizing lead a handful of people to change local government, but that handful can become smarter, nimbler, bigger, and more rooted in their community in the process. Holding tight to one’s principles, having the courage to speak up against power, intentionally building leaders and organizers, working alongside labor unions and activist organizations to reach as many ordinary people as possible while learning from each other—that’s how we will build a socialist future on more solid ground.


DECEMBER 2020 • Yolo DSA helps mobilize public comments for police reform.



ABOVE: Distribution of public comments before the City Council

FEBRUARY 2021 • YOLO DSA public safety campaign launches: night schools, phone banking, & more.

APRIL 2021 • Coalition delivers an open letter to mayor of Davis.

City Council votes to take homeless outreach responsibilities away from police.

“Marginalized people in our community, people with mental health issues, and all of us are being hurt by the policing system that exists today” – YOLO DSA member comment at Council meeting

MAY 2021 • Escalation: a panelist discussion and protest co-hosted by YOLO DSA.

JUNE 2021 • YOLO DSA leads a car caravan to disrupt Davis City Council meeting.

SEPTEMBER 2021 • City Council votes to give $1.17 MILLION for a “Crisis Now” program.

OCTOBER 2021 • City Council votes to create a department of social services and housing.

DECEMBER 2021 • But the fight isn’t over—two new police hired.