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Dallas Activists Host Town Hall To Discuss Police Budget

The City of Dallas recently began a series of virtual town halls to discuss the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The meetings are a way for residents to weigh in on how their tax dollars are being spent, but some residents say the online meetings have been full of “shenanigans,” like people getting muted and written-in messages being ignored.

“They don’t want to hear us,” activist Tiara Cooper shouted to a crowd of about 70 people outside of Dallas City Hall on Friday evening. Chairs were arranged with each council member's name on them, but none attended the event. “They don’t want to listen! But we’re gonna make them feel us today. This is the People's Town Hall. We want to give everyone a chance to speak tonight. To share their thoughts.”

The People's Town Hall was planned and hosted by members of the In Defense of Black Lives coalition and the Texas Organizing Project. Those same groups have been lobbying the Dallas City Council to cut $200 million from the Dallas Police Department’s proposed $500 million budget. They want the city to reinvest the money into housing, health care, job training and other social services.

“We have these budget town hall meetings that city hall is hosting, supposedly for the public, but they haven’t been an example of what a democratic process is supposed to look like,” said anti-police organizer Lula Villa, 27. “People have not been allowed to ask questions verbally, so that means they have to type [their questions] into a chat box, so there’s all kinds of digital literacy barriers.”

Additionally, Villa said the online meetings have had “countless” technical difficulty issues, which she called "ridiculous."

“The In Defense of Black Lives coalition hosted the first ever People’s Assembly,and we did it virtually. We spoke to nearly 200 people over three sessions from all over Dallas, and we didn’t have any technical issues,” Villa said. “We just did it over Zoom. And so, [the city’s issues] really don’t compute.”

Carvell Bowens, an organizer with the Texas Organizing Project, agrees with Villa’s assessment of the technical issues during the city’s virtual town halls. He said there were other issues that have caused digital barriers too, like meetings being hosted on different video platforms.

“Man, each time it’s been different. We’ve used Webex and Microsoft Teams,” Bowens said. “And each time they have a different platform for a different budget town hall meeting, they have a different set of protocols for signing up to speak. Sometimes they don’t even have a video platform. It’s just a simple call-in situation. So, you’re at the mercy of them unmuting you and letting you speak.”

Sara Mokuria, co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, called the city’s virtual town halls “unequitable.”

“The [city’s] virtual town halls are the only opportunity for the community to share their priorities and concerns,” Mokuria said. “But each one has been different in different districts. Some people are allowed to speak and some people are not.”

Mokuria said the virtual town hall meetings she’s been able to attend have only had chat boxes available for people who want to pose questions about the budget. But even that is an issue, she said.

“We’re only allowed to ask questions. We’re not allowed to make statements,” Mokuria said about the way the city is hosting the virtual town halls. “But what you’re hearing tonight are people sharing what their priorities are. We should be allowed to share our priorities, not just ask questions.”

Tiara Cooper was one of the emcees of the People’s Town Hall. She’s from South Dallas and organizes for the group Faith in Texas. Cooper was formerly incarcerated and works to organize other formerly incarcerated people around causes like this. And she said participating in the city’s virtual meetings reminds her of the criminal justice system.

“It reminds me of going to jail. It reminds me of being powerless. Even just listening to the people who do get to ask questions makes me feel so powerless,” she said. “These 'conversations' aren’t conversations. People don’t have time to actually speak on the issues they want to speak on. They’re very limited. And there isn’t enough access to the meetings either.”

Cooper said the sentiment that isn’t being allowed to be voiced at the city’s virtual town halls is that police don’t make everyone feel safe.

“Police never have made us feel safe,” Cooper said. “And I’m not surprised when I see crime in my over-policed neighborhood, because there’s a lack of resources. We need our needs to be met in order to be safe. And that’s what I feel isn’t coming across in these meetings.”

The In Defense of Black Lives coalition has a planthat members hope city leaders will take into account during the city’s budget planning process. It was put together by a group called Our City, Our Future, and it provides a guide for spending the city's money on social services instead of policing.

Members will continue to push to have the ideas in that plan talked about at the city’s town hall meetings throughout the rest August. After the town halls, council members will host a series of workshops and hearings. The council will then approve the budget on Sept. 23.

Hady Mawajdeh has been a reporter, producer, and digital editor at KERA since 2016. He is the creator and the co-host of KERA's first narrative podcast, Gun Play. And prior to his work in engagement, he also reported on arts and culture, social justice, and gun rights for the newsroom.