To Grow Real Safety and Liberation, We Must Divest from Police and Invest in Community in St. Paul

Art by Alex Dresdner. Photo by Sally Pemberton

We all want to feel safe in St. Paul. No matter what we look like or where we live, we all deserve a city that cares about us, that makes us feel like we belong.

In 2020, we have faced compounding crises that have exposed the deadly impact of racism, police brutality, homelessness and poverty in ways that no one can ignore. We have witnessed our capacity to show up for each other as neighbors and we’ve seen glimpses of our city prioritizing programs that meet the needs of families hardest hit by the epidemics of injustice. But Saint Paul’s claim to be “America’s most livable city” will continue to be a hollow marketing slogan until Black lives truly matter and communities of color have agency and ownership in creating systems of safety and wellness that actively diminish the terrorizing power of and redirect the out-sized resources of the St. Paul Police Department.

Our path forward is clear. Thanks to generations of fierce and loving leadership from Black and brown communities, there is broad and growing consensus for a life-affirming approach to public safety. But St. Paul’s 2021 budget proposal fails to meet this moment of urgency and opportunity. As a multi-racial, city-wide collective that believes in proactively funding human well-being instead of investing in failed, racist models of policing and punishment, Root & Restore St. Paul and the signatory organizations call on the city to divest from the St. Paul Police Department (SPPD) and invest in community in the 2021 city budget.

More and more people across St. Paul have a shared vision for our beloved city. We believe a just budget that funds a community-centered approach to wellness is not just possible but necessary to achieve public safety.

To Solve our Challenges, We Must Accurately Name Them

The challenges our communities face are embedded in generations of intentional policies and insidious systems that have actively excluded communities of color from access to basic human needs like housing and livable wages, and inflicted terror and intimidation when communities have organized themselves and claimed power.

The problems we face are not solved — and, in fact, they are amplified — by police.

  • Police do not solve poverty, housing instability or homelessness, and, in fact, their racist enforcement of laws compounds economic injustice and entrenches housing instability by subjecting communities of color to the immense costs and consequences of being ensnared in the criminal justice system.
  • Police do not solve the staggering rates of unemployment in our communities of color and lack of investment in BIPOC-owned businesses, and, in fact, police create a culture of surveillance and intimidation in both public and private spaces and, as we saw during the uprising with, for instance, the massive presence outside the Midway Target, violently protect corporate wealth while abandoning community businesses.
  • Police do not solve the fatal and racialized gaps in access to healthcare, and, in fact, police intentionally instill fear and trigger generational trauma in communities of color, inflicting physical harm and emotional harm that keep our neighbors in constant states of stress and anxiety that destroy their quality of life on a daily basis.
  • Police do not solve the massive educational gaps and lack of resources and opportunities for youth, especially youth of color, and, in fact, police routinely scrutinize, harass and criminalize young people for simply being in public space or embodying the energy of children.

These are not new revelations. Even the police themselves, acknowledge that they are tasked with responding to the predictable outcomes of root problems — poverty, homelessness, lack of economic resources, mental health crisis — that they have no capacity to resolve.

As Danielle Sered, founder of Common Justice, wrote in her book Until We Reckon: “We should not be asking whether there is an appetite or opening for something new. We should be asking whether there is any moral or practical basis whatsoever for continuing with the old.

And, yet, once again, our city leaders have proposed a budget that holds the line for police while allowing steep declines in programs and resources we know are necessary to address the real challenges we face. This is both immoral and impractical if we are serious about addressing the real and persistent challenges we face in St. Paul.

DIVEST FROM POLICE

This summer, 1,200 St. Paul residents and 500 others with ties to our community signed our petition calling on the City of St. Paul to divest from police and invest in community by cutting $20 million from the St. Paul police budget, disbanding the police’s K-9 unit, creating a medical and mental-health dispatch system separate from police and prioritizing investments in community in line with our 2019 call to #FundTheVillage.

The proposed budget does not align with — or even move us closer toward — any of these goals. While we understand the challenges our government’s face given the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we reject the deficit mindset that is so pervasive among our policymakers. We do not lack the resources; our leaders lack the political will.

  • We have the money — but prioritize the police over everything else. The police budget consumes 32% percent of the city’s proposed general fund. This means that, if implemented, St. Paul would spend more on policing than on libraries, financial empowerment, BIPOC business development, human rights, youth job development, arts and community gardening initiatives, citywide recreation programs, and winter street maintenance COMBINED.
  • When faced with choices, we starve other programs to serve police. The proposed budget released in August 2020 cuts the police budget by only 0.8 percent while cutting libraries by almost 7 percent, the city’s human rights and equal economic opportunity department by 8 percent, and the office of financial empowerment by 11 percent, while also cutting the city’s public health spending by almost 17 percent.
  • And yet the SPPD continues to be a source of harm and terror for countless residents. SPPD is among the worst in the nation. Its fatal use of force rate is almost double the national average and its deadly force rate for Black people is nearly three times the national average, with the SPPD killing Black people at six times the rate that they kill white people. From pulling over vastly more people of color during traffic stops to brutal attacks by an out-of-control canine unit, our police force has a track record as racist and cruel as the MPD.

As James Baldwin said, “I cannot believe what you say, because I see what you do.” Over the past year, more and more city leaders have said they are committed to Black lives, and racial justice. But the city budget is a blueprint for what our public resources will do in our communities. And so, once again, our leaders have broken trust with our communities by proving we cannot believe them.

INVEST IN COMMUNITY

Our path forward is clear. Year in and year out, we’ve packed City Council chambers asking elected leaders to divest from police and #FundTheVillage. Our call is not just visionary, the components are already here. Our communities know what systems of care look like — because we have been practicing them for generations to survive state violence, systemic oppression and intentional exclusion. We have already seen glimpses of our liberation in our collective action together.

We know that our beloved community is rich with healers, youth workers, and organizers who have deep roots in their communities and can offer support that’s grounded in history, shared life experiences, mutual respect, and embodied wisdom about the impacts of racism and trauma. These leaders and community members must be at the center of a new vision for community safety.

So what does a just and liberatory budget that prioritizes community wellness and care, over policing and punishment, look like?

Co-governance with Community

  • It looks like compensating a cabinet of diverse community members to co-govern alongside elected leaders and city employees in the earliest stages of planning and decision-making related to community safety in St. Paul.
  • It looks like less focus on compliance and conformity and a greater focus on humanizing systems and services to ensure all members of our city are thriving.
  • It sounds like the music, laughter, and conversations about love, respect, and belonging at trauma-healing and peace-building events organized by trusted community members — not police.

Community Wellness

  • It looks like a mental-health crisis response unit of trained mental health workers who respond separately from police and who have the expertise to de-escalate mental health and other trauma induced crises rather than responding to them with the tools of law enforcement.
  • It looks like funding credible messenger-led programs that take a community-oriented, public health-informed approach to preventing violence.
  • It looks like prioritizing wellness, safe and stable homes and households, access to affordable health care — including mental health care and addiction treatment — for every person in St. Paul.
  • It looks like funding community navigators, executive coaches and other trained professionals to respond to people dealing with homelessness and other related crises.
  • It looks like funding a robust program of restorative practices that offer people opportunities to repair harm, heal, and transform outside of the prison pipeline.
  • It looks like jobs programs for youth and adults that build community wellness through green infrastructure projects, growing and distributing food, cleaning up polluted areas, and creating art that enlivens the beauty of public spaces.

Commitment to Racial Justice

  • It looks like ending the state of structural violence that leads to the systemic degradation and premature death of Black lives in St. Paul.

It is time to confront the generations of deep systemic inequalities that have led to Black families in St. Paul living with much lower rates of home ownership, much lower household income wealth, and much higher rates of poverty than white families. This inequity lives through educational and social services systems that too often pathologize and criminalize Black, brown, indigenous, and poor people. It lives through a St. Paul police force that stops, searches, and assaults Black people at disproportionate rates and consistently blocks attempts to hold police officers accountable.

Now is the time to shift more money away from policing and into community investments that will, as Mayor Melvin Carter professes, “build a city that works for us all.”

Signed,

West Side Community Organization (WSCO)
30,000 Feet (formerly ANEW BAM)
Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL)
Cherokee Park United Church
Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence
Filipinx for Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice Minnesota (FIRM)
Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center
Jewish Voice for Peace-Twin Cities
Love First Community Engagement
Midway Rise Up
Minnesota Parent Union
Oyate Hotanin/IN Equality
Root and Restore Saint Paul
St. Paul 350
Saint Paul Encampment Support
Summit University Planning Council
The SEAD Project (Southeast Asian Diaspora)

Are you part of a St. Paul-based organization that would like to co-sign this letter? Please contact us at rootandrestorestp@gmail.com.