Dovere: You have been part of the protests at all sorts of moments. And it seems like we get to these explosive moments after Ferguson, Occupy Wall Street, Eric Garner. Does what’s happening now really feel different?
Williams: I feel like this time is for several reasons. One indication is when NASCAR said they’ll no longer fly the Confederate flag. That was to me like: All right, there may be something a little different happening. On top of that, the rainbow of colors that are now screaming “Black Lives Matter” is a lot different than even just a few years ago. We’ve always said: If we’re going to attack the systems of privilege, the people who feel the privilege the most need to be out there.
Dovere: It took New York more than five years to fire the officer whose choke hold killed Eric Garner. Minneapolis fired the four officers who were responsible for George Floyd’s death the next day. They are now facing charges. Is that progress?
Williams: I would say it took Bill de Blasio five years to do this. And I want to point out that there are officers who are responsible for Eric Garner’s death that have never been brought to account. There are officers who killed Delrawn Small and others who were never brought to account, so there are a lot of things that we have to get done.
If you want to say things in certain areas are better, you have to say that. But when people say we’ve made progress, it’s usually to pacify, to say “Stop pushing for more,” as if people are simply not deserving of equity and justice. The police department I came in with as a city-council member is different than the one that we have now. And I have to admit, there are some things that are better. But the parts that we haven’t moved much on are really bad: transparency and accountability.
Dovere: You have pushed through police reforms in some measure, and it’s obviously not to the extent that you want them to be. If you were to give advice to people around the country who are now starting this process, what would you say to them about how to actually go about getting reform done?
Williams: I try to not use the word reform as much as possible. We need an entirely new system because the system laid out now is working how it was designed to work. You look at how the system of policing was born in this country, you look at how this country was formed, and it’s not coincidental that these problems are going on. If the forefathers woke up, they might ask, “Why did we have a black president?” or, “Why are the women voting?” But other than that, they would say, “Pretty good job of pushing forward the system that we began way back when.”
And so we need an entirely new system. We have to rethink what public safety is. “Reforms” are great and we have to have accountability and transparency. But if we’re not rethinking fully and totally what public safety is, then it’s going to manifest some other way, because we have to address the issues that we keep sending police to deal with. Sending police to solve everything in a society is not fair to the police officers and certainly not fair to the communities that the police officers go into, because they’re not equipped to solve everything. If we keep equating public safety with policing, we’re not doing that great.