Across the country, the SURJ network is organizing towards abolition. We know the vision set by Black movement leaders is a path towards a world where human life is valued more than systems of punishment and control. The road away from prisons and policing, away from the Right’s racially coded “law and order” framework is long, but we can begin that work wherever we are. SURJ members in Buffalo are tackling a key area of this fight: their local Sheriff’s office.
From serving local evictions to targeting Black & Brown communities under the so-called “war on drugs” and enforcing racist immigration policies to aligning with the dangerous militia groups that stormed the capitol on January 6, sheriffs’ offices are a critical site of struggle. Historically, they played a powerful role in suppressing the Black Freedom Movement and today are at the helm of oppressive immigration policies. They remain integral to the expanding county jail systems in both rural and urban areas. In 2019, 31% of killings by law enforcement were by Sheriff Departments.
We know we can’t cede these offices to the Right. Nationally, sheriffs are elected through countywide elections, and that means white voters in majorities of counties have a disproportionate amount of influence over those results. SURJ’s work organizing in white communities as part of a multiracial coalition is critical to winning.
Erie County jails are deadly – over 30 people have died in the jail system under the watch of Sheriff Tim Howard, yet he refuses to change the conditions that even the state identifies as substandard and out of compliance. Like many sheriffs across the country, he has aligned himself with the far-Right, including white supremacist groups.
Alongside local partners, SURJ Buffalo has been fighting back against Sheriff Howard and to decrease the power of the Sheriff’s Office for years. In 2017, SURJ members reached out to 20,000 white voters in Erie County. We knew if we didn’t talk with white voters, the Right would. SURJ Buffalo’s work dramatically decreased Sheriff Howard’s margin of victory and made it clear that white people could be organized out of the Right’s base.
Today, Buffalo’s political conditions have shifted dramatically – a Black progressive woman, Kim Beaty, is running for Sheriff. The November election provides a clear next step towards racial justice and accountability in Erie County.
Once again, alongside our partners and as part of a multiracial movement the SURJ Buffalo chapter is organizing to defeat the Right’s divide-and-conquer strategy. Buffalo chapter leaders took part in the Justice Now training cohort held by SURJ National to build their mutual interest storytelling skills and recruitment skills followed by launching a recruitment phone bank to get more members calling voters. And soon, they’ll be knocking on the doors of white working-class voters to talk about the lives that are at stake under the status-quo Republican control of the Sheriff’s Department.
Tuesday night, SURJ Buffalo members disrupted Republican sheriff candidate John Garcia’s fundraiser to remind voters of what’s at stake if another Republican is elected to office. Their action coincides with a week of national actions coordinated for the launch of Communities for Sheriff Accountability, a national coalition SURJ has joined alongside many partners including the Working Families Party, VOICE Buffalo, New Georgia Project Action Fund, Reform LA Jails and Detention Watch Network.
Come November we want to know we did everything we could to stop the deaths in the Erie County jail system, resist white supremacy, and put someone in office we can continue to push well after election day.