Urban Planning, Police Brutality and Communities of Color

Tamika Butler on the importance of making connections

Tamika Butler at NACTO
Photo Credit: Photo: NACTO

| January 22 2017,

03:34 am

Tamika Butler is the executive director of the LA County Bike Coalition. Prior to leading LACBC, Tamika was the Director of Social Change Strategies at Liberty Hill Foundation, where she oversaw the foundation’s boys and men of color program and the foundation’s LGBTQ grant strategy. Before Liberty Hill, Tamika worked at Young Invincibles as the California Director. She transitioned to policy work after litigating for three years as an employment lawyer at Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center. She received her J.D. in 2009 from Stanford Law School, and in 2006 received her B.A. in Psychology and B.S. in Sociology in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Tamika currently serves on the Boards of Directors of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Literary, T.R.U.S.T. South LA, New Leaders Council - Los Angeles, and is an advisory board member for the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center’s Fair Play for Girls in Sports program.

Tamika also recently gave the keynote speech at the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) conference. Tamika's speech, titled "Planning While Black" reverberated throughout the planning world making local governments and non-profit professionals of the ways in which their professions are inextricably linked to issues that communities of color face. 

Tamika spoke with us about her speech and its nuances. Read the interview below: 


Blavity: Your NACTO lecture has gained a lot of traction in the planning world, but I'm not sure if the people applauding your speech are also understanding what it means for them. Tell us more about the work it takes to engage with the communities we try to serve.

Tamika Butler: Me and some of the folks of color who were at the conference and talking about it afterward were saying how there’s a really interesting issue about the speech. Everyone kept saying “this is so great” but how many people are internalizing that and understanding that it's about them and how many people are then doing their own work. If you want to be good at engaging with other communities, you have to do some work internally before you get there. No one would go to Europe for 6 months, without reading about the countries or learning about the customs, and the intricacies of the cultures. Most people put in the work to understand the countries they are going to.  I think its a horrible analogy. It's not at all the same. Low-income communities of color are not tourist experiences, they’re not something you can dip into and dip out of. It’s not to say those experiences are the same. You can think about almost anything people want to try that they’ve never done before and rarely do they just say “I’m going to show up and do it once and if it doesn’t go well, it's just too much.” When something’s worth it and when something’s important, that’s not what people do. If it's something you decide that is important to you and if you’re committed to it, you figure it out. After my talk, I asked myself, “Are people really going to do their own work? “Are they really going to look internally and realize that’s an excuse when  you say it's “too hard?” 

The other side of this is that you want people to do their own work, but you also want them to honor people already doing the work. So when these folks say, “We want to do better because we are inspired”, do they then start investing a whole bunch of money and saying we are the ones who do equity or do they realize they should invest those resources in people who are already doing phenomenal things. 

Is this weighing of how you make an impact?  You both want to honor and respect people who have been doing and putting in the work and not ignore those communities that have so much knowledge, while also doing what you have to do so when you interact with those communities, you’ve put in a little time in to make sure you’re right for those conversations. 

B: In your speech, you used the Eric Garner case as an example of why planning and race are linked. As an example of the Politics of Planning and how people interact with their built environment,  you took into account that Garner had asthma, he had nowhere to stand but a sidewalk, and you drew some really important parallels about why police brutality and urban planning are inextricably linked. Why do you think people aren't making these connections more often? 

TB: This is why I love talking to folks who are a little bit more woke on stuff because I think in many respects, I’m getting a lot of positive affirmation from the speech, but I’m also getting a lot of negative pushback. For folks who are just awakening, if they listen to my speech a second or third time they will probably start to make some of the same connections you just made. The Eric Garner example is so deep. It's not just an example I use because a lot of people knew about it. It's an example because it is just what you said, he is a man who personified so many of the struggles our communities face, that when it goes down when the murder happened people want to say “I’m not a cop” but when you look at the air quality, the lack of green space, when you think about the white neighborhoods you go into in NYC that you can hop on a subway and a few stops away you can be in areas where there are people on sidewalks congregating doing their business and no one's bothering them. Because it's the seniors, or it's the young hipster startup people, and it's one of those examples that I think maybe only a small percentage of people actually get the layers of the work that really are tied to how we plan our cities. And, really tied to the fact that you can’t punish people for living in an environment that you poorly planned for them. If you don’t want this man standing on the sidewalk every day, then make him a parkway. Make him a bench. If you don’t want people jaywalking and running across the street every day to catch the bus then realize that at the bus stations in low-income communities of color, you don’t have the sun or a rain shelter. You don’t have anything. So they’re across the street where there’s a tree. Where they can escape the rain, where they can escape the sun, and the heat. So don’t write them that jaywalking ticket if you’re not setting up an environment that is conducive to them living full and happy lives, in the way that folks in other communities have. 

Someone posted an article about my lecture, and because I’m a glutton for punishment I read the comments, and a person said, what the speaker failed to mention is that he had drugs, or he broke the law. If you are a person who thinks the world is flat, the world is not flat, I don’t know what else to tell you. We will never have a productive conversation. I think we are getting there and we should be getting there with race. If you start a conversation with me saying these people of color broke the law, you are equivalent to a person who thinks the world is flat and I can’t have a conversation with you. First, we have to acknowledge that there is racial bias and we have to acknowledge that historical and structural racism has led to segregation in our communities that make it such that people doing the same things anyone would do in other neighborhoods are facing different problems. It may be as a deadly as the police force, and it may be as preventable as asthma. but when you allow zoning that allows for toxic plants to exist in some communities but not others, that’s zoning. And that’s something we have to talk about. When folks try to say “but I’m just planner” or “I’m just an engineer” “but I just work at the transportation agency”, we all need to be responsible for what can be done differently. 

B: Something you also addressed is how planners determine people lives, and that happens through segregation leading to disparities in life expectancy. Across the country, there are Vision Zero efforts going on but those efforts are tied to enforcement. What are your thoughts on how policies like Vision Zero can be deadly for some people and what are ways planners can be more aware of this? 

TB: Certainly, Vision Zero is exciting, it’s great, you’re never going to get someone who does the type of work we do. Like no one is going to say that a goal of zero deaths is bad. But at the same time, we have experienced enforcement, personally, or people we love and care about have, or we grew trauma of seeing bodies that look like ours be disregarded. Again, don’t write me that jaywalking ticket unless you have educated folks in the community that this crossing they’re doing isn’t safe until you’ve engineered to make it better and put it on a sidewalk when you’ve done an evaluation and looked at the data to show what's happening. And not just the data that you’ve collected which is coming from an institution, and we know that institutions are racist whether or not they intend to be. So are you also using data you’re ground truthing from the folks who actually make up the community, and experience the community every single day? Are we doing all of those things before we get to this point of “let’s write this ticket.” Let’s talk about the fact that for some people writing that jaywalking ticket means they can’t pay rent, mean’s they can’t buy food for their families, means they have to work that extra shift. When we look at enforcement I think what makes Vision Zero so different is that when its been explained to me as being this new transformative idea, what everyone says is, this is the first time we are getting all of these different departments together in the same room. It's the first time we are having all these different folks from all of the different disciplines talk to each other. If that's the case, and if folks are no longer in their silos, and we are looking at things more comprehensively, then why should that stop when it comes to enforcement. If you’re looking at things from a broader lens then you also have to do that with enforcement, if you do that with enforcement, you cannot ignore what's happening in our country right now. So I just want that consistency. 

If what we’re saying is we’re going to look at all the factors, we’re going to examine how education overlaps with engineering and we’re going to see how the department of aging overlaps with the department of public works. If we’re going to do that overlapping and intersectionality, and context setting, then you have to do that around policing and enforcement and you have to know what policing and enforcement means for folks of color in this country. Until we do that, I think it really does Vision Zero a disservice and it does people a disservice because it lets them put on their blinders and not look at the reality of what’s happening. 

B: You mention the mental and emotional effects that the constant daily fight takes on you. How do you fight apathy and powerlessness? 

TB: That vacation to Hawaii I'm bout to take. I think as young folks of color, we’re really bad at self-care. I think it's something we all say to ourselves and friends all the time, but we don’t realize we are doing it for us, and that’s really hard, and I’ve noticed that about myself. I’m exhausted. I’m so tried and I think what is it? If one more person comes to me and says to me “I don’t understand X.” like I can’t do it anymore. However, if someone comes to me and says hey “I listened to your speech and I have these very specific questions” or “Yo I’ve been reading about this and this is where I think I am, but here’s something I'm struggling with.” That's a piece of it that I know would help me cope. But I know I would be better at coping if when folks came at me, they were coming at me only after they had done some of that stuff on their own. Spent their time digging in and figuring out where they were on their own journey. The reason I use the term journey, something one of my friends helped me realize, is we can be change makers, we can be out on the frontline, for so many of us just showing up and being ourselves in predominately white spaces, those are acts of rebellion, of renaissance, bravery, and social justice. When we do that, we just have to be honest with ourselves that sometimes just showing up is enough. We put so much pressure on ourselves to show up AND make a change, and really change people’s minds, but at the end of the day, we have to get in the space where we are comfortable being ourselves. But some days, just showing up makes us successful. 

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