You may have seen this photo: a police officer sprawled on an armored vehicle appearing to aim a rifle at an unarmed protester. The photo from Ferguson, MO is shocking, not only because of the police brutality implied but because of the costs of the weapons involved.
I can think of a dozen better ways to spend $301,500 of taxpayer money, including helping people like Ruth*. I met Ruth on my evening run two weeks ago, slogging my way up a hill from South Lake Union, near the Amazon campus in Seattle. Ruth had fled an abusive relationship and asked for help finding a safe place to sleep. Together, we called the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
The man who picked up the phone quickly shared the number of a local shelter. We called: they were full. We called another shelter. They could not take Ruth that night, but they would do an intake over the phone for the next night.
Sitting on the sidewalk, Ruth began to tell her story, one form-field at a time. Gender: female. Need: shelter.
Two thousand miles away, local police used hundreds of thousands of dollars of military equipment to intimidate protesters and arrest journalists. According to media reports, they may have received the armored vehicle and rifle pictured above for free.
USA Today reported the county surrounding Ferguson received 12 5.56 millimeter rifles and six pistols from the Department of Defense from 8/2/10 - 02/13/13 as part of the 1033 military surplus program. They may also have paid for rifles and vehicles with grants from the Department of Homeland Security, according to CNBC 25. Seattle PD has also received tens of thousands of dollars in equipment through this program, according to data provided by Jennifer Reynolds, Communications Consultant for the Washington Department of Enterprise Services.
Local law enforcement may not pay through this program, but the U.S. taxpayer did when those weapons were first bought and then declared surplus. As the daughter, granddaughter, cousin and niece of men and women who served in the armed forces, I want soldiers and police equipped to do their jobs and stay safe. But as someone who has worked with survivors of violence, I know how much further $301,500 could go toward promoting community health and safety if given to a domestic violence shelter.
Taxpayer money makes up vital wedges of many shelters' budgets: in 2013, government grants covered over 60% of our local YWCA's budget. That is how I want my tax dollars spent. I believe our community is safer and healthier when local survivors of violence and homelessness have safe places to sleep at night, counseling and job training to rebuild their lives.
Ruth slept on the street that night. She is resilient and resourceful, like many of the survivors of violence I know. Tomorrow she can start calling shelters again. But it is obscene that my government is willing to spend millions sending military equipment to communities who should not use it while survivors of violence scramble for safety each night.
We should spend more money helping survivors of violence and less on militarizing local police. This needs to be a priority for elected officials and civil servants at the national, state and local levels. Join me in letting our representatives know where we stand and, if you can, consider donating to the YWCA.
*I changed Ruth's name to protect her identity.