(Photos: Emmy Freedman)

Hours before the City Council’s vote on the 2021 fiscal year budget, thousands of people took to the streets in front of City Hall to call on council members to make bigger cuts to the New York Police Department.

The Occupy City Hall movement first began a little over a week ago, and it had grown in size leading up to Tuesday’s midnight deadline to vote for or against a $88 billion budget. The City Council pledged to cut roughly $1 billion from the NYPD, but many people say that’s not sufficient. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, among others, has said that the budget slash doesn’t do enough and called shifts in funding a “disingenuous illusion.”

Other council members were opposed to cuts to the $6 billion police budget. Pointing to a recent uptick in gun violence, Council Member Chaim Deutsche, who represents neighborhoods in South Brooklyn, tweeted, “As we voted on tonight’s budget (to cut the NYPD’s budget by $1 billion), five separate New Yorkers were victims of gun violence, including an 11 year old child.”

Per the budget, some 1,160 incoming officers will no longer be hired, and the NYPD will no longer be responsible for monitoring street vendors, public-school students, and homeless people. The city also aims to save $350 million in overtime pay for officers.

A 21-year-old who participated in the Occupy demonstrations supported the move to shift oversight of school safety officers back to the Department of Education, and wanted to see more funding allocated to educational programs. “I believe that education should be much higher because we have so many students struggling to get by, even with free breakfasts and free lunches,” she said. “And the presence that the NYPD has in schools is unnecessary. There should be social workers there instead.”

During Tuesday’s early hours, two Occupy City Hall protesters were arrested after officers removed barricades that closed off the park behind City Hall. Just before 6 a.m., officers clashed with the crowd as they used batons to push back demonstrators.

As the day progressed, people moved from the makeshift tents and tarps strung up around the park into the streets surrounding City Hall to dance, chant and listen to speeches.

“Go out and be artists, go out and be politicians, because we need young minds and young people fighting in the House, in the Senate, Congress, mayors,” said performance artist Qween Amor, who has started a petition that aims to protect transgender people from violence. “This is how we change shit.”

The budget assigns $1.9 million for trans equity programs and $2.8 million for LGBTQ curriculums at city schools and universities.

With the morning’s two arrests in mind, protest leaders asked people with bikes to block off the streets to protect protesters from potential police interference, and arranged another line of protesters to link arms and line the periphery of City Hall.

“If you are holding this line and you are afraid of the police, get the fuck off this line,” said one protest leader. “We are here to protect everyone and keep these police out.”

Around 9:30 p.m., City Council members reconvened to discuss and defend their decisions and cast final votes for or against the budget. Many remarked on this budget’s difficulty and imperfection, but expressed gratitude that they were able to allocate significant funds toward youth programs, such as the Summer Youth Employment Program, and affordable housing initiatives, given the negative impact the coronavirus had on the economy.

“Our youth don’t need more policing,” said Council Member Deborah Rose, who voted “yes” on the budget. “They need support, guidance and opportunity. That’s what this budget provides.”

Other council members, like Jimmy Van Bramer, say that this budget does not do enough to serve the public and cuts too much money from art programs in schools.

“Systemic and structural racism and police brutality will not end as a result of polite requests,” Van Bramer said. “The young people out there — yes, activists — are angry because we haven’t listened.”

Thirty minutes past the deadline, Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced that the budget had passed, with 32 people voting in favor and 17 voting against it. “We are proud of the work we did to save the types of programs and initiatives we need to rebuild post-COVID, including the Summer Youth Employment Program, community food pantries, domestic violence programs, money that will go directly into school budgets, senior services, and alternatives to incarceration,” Johnson was quoted as saying in a press release that outlined the budget’s spending proposals. 

Aside from shifting funding from the NYPD, the budget also supports criminal justice initiatives, allotting $2.9 million to a Crisis Management System that uses “violence interrupters,” job training and mental health services to discourage gun violence among high-risk individuals.