Editorial & Opinion

Providence DSA: No, Mayor Elorza, you shouldn’t take advice on policing from Walmart

“Providence gains nothing by allowing Walmart oligarchs to direct public policy,” writes the Providence DSA. “The working class of our city can’t depend on the good will of a few wealthy individuals and their think tanks. Essential social services have already been set aside in favor of the cheaper, crueler practices of incarceration and policing. There won’t be any progress toward racial or economic justice as long as politicians like Mayor Elorza collaborate with the elites who caused our problems in the first place.”
Photo for Providence DSA: No, Mayor Elorza, you shouldn’t take advice on policing from Walmart

For months, the people of Providence have taken to the streets to protest police violence and to demand our elected officials act. Yet Mayor Jorge Elorza isn’t listening to his city’s residents. Instead, he is taking advice from a Walmart billionaire who wants to gut our city’s fire department.

On April 29, Elorza presented a critical budget analysis of the Department of Public Safety. He did not want to disclose the funding of this report and other projects, even with The Boston Globe hounding the city for months. Instead, the mayor kept the fact that the money came from James Walton’s Wend Collective a secret. Only recently has it come to light that the Elorza administration partnered with Walton’s group to produce a “truth-telling” report on Rhode Island’s history of racial injustice, and fund a modicum of Covid relief, along with this commissioned budget analysis.

The purpose of the analysis appears innocent at first: “re-examine funding for public safety and consider alternative structures” and “address the challenge of systemic racism in a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty.” Providence DSA agrees that the modern system of policing and mass incarceration reproduces old patterns of racist violence and oppression. We even support certain policies mentioned in the report, such as scaling back “community policing” and introducing a separate system of unarmed first responders in the manner pioneered by Eugene, Oregon, and Denver, Colorado. Yet we also understand that the brutal police state must be replaced by a government that meets people’s needs for housing, jobs, and healthcare. Walton isn’t interested in government working for the people; he is focused on stripping workers of their rights, gutting government services, and getting himself more tax cuts.

That’s why half of this document is not dedicated to the police at all, but rather to the fire department. The objective is “efficient deployment of scarce and costly resources in local government,” with “no sacred cows” when it comes to what’s on the chopping block. In keeping with Walmart’s virulently anti-union history, the report urges a reduction in minimum staffing requirements while lamenting that such cost-cutting measures “are explicitly or implicitly prevented by State law, the IAFF [International Association of Fire Fighters] collective bargaining agreement, or both.” The report even goes so far as to suggest “full-civilianization [sic] of EMS” – that is, firing firefighters and using poorly paid non-union staff for rescues and emergency medicine.

Billionaires like the Waltons say that we can’t afford good wages and well-funded public services, but this is an illusion. Rhode Island’s budget has been hobbled by decades of tax cuts for the wealthy. Instead of attracting “job creators” and spurring economic growth, low taxes on the rich have resulted in billions of dollars in lost revenue, property tax hikes for middle-income residents, privatization of public goods, economic inequality, and expansion of prisons and police surveillance to manage the poor. This money could have funded roads and bridges, housing, public transportation, schools, parks, and healthcare. Yet the rich are allowed to hoard wealth at the public’s expense. In fact, the Walton family has hoarded so much wealth that they have more money than the bottom 42 percent of all Americans combined.

The Wend Collective is one of many efforts by billionaires to obscure this reality and offer a false vision of social justice that is compatible with their bottom line. They claim that equity is one of their guiding values – a shibboleth echoed by city spokeswoman Theresa Agonia, who says “all of our efforts have been focused on equity and access,” and “we can’t lose sight of the work.” It’s a mystery what exactly this work is. But among corporations and their politicians, “equity” is liberal shorthand for equal access to the market, and certainly not economic equality. An equitable system could be one in which the top one percent is demographically representative of the population as a whole, but where there is still poverty and hardship for most people. This is the limited conception of justice that billionaires promote through their philanthropic foundations, which shovel money into nonprofits and local governments in order to keep politics within safe bounds.

While the Waltons have offered some of their pocket change to the poor, these charitable donations – including the new “guaranteed income” programs – pay people just barely enough to remain consumers and not fall into the deepest destitution. The social funding that the Wend Collective provided to Providence is wildly inadequate. For example, Walton’s group donated 450 VISA cards with a total value of $50,000 to residents facing food insecurity, which is $111.11 per card. That one-time payment may feed a person for a week, but not much else. Ending hunger requires permanent investment, paid for by taxing the rich – not the fickle generosity of billionaires.

Providence gains nothing by allowing Walmart oligarchs to direct public policy. The working class of our city can’t depend on the good will of a few wealthy individuals and their think tanks. Essential social services have already been set aside in favor of the cheaper, crueler practices of incarceration and policing. There won’t be any progress toward racial or economic justice as long as politicians like Mayor Elorza collaborate with the elites who caused our problems in the first place.

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