Jalali and Yang only council members to oppose city budget that continues to fund cops over community

St Paul City Council

This summer, in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, thousands of Twin Citians protested police violence and demanded that public officials divest from police and invest in community, amplifying the powerful demands that Black and brown organizers have been making for generations. Motivated by these injustices, nearly 1,700 people signed a Root & Restore petition and more than a dozen community-based organizations signed a letter calling on our leaders to redirect resources from law enforcement to prioritize life-affirming services like housing, public health, and economic development.

As St. Paul officials prepared their proposed city budget for 2021, we had every right to hope that our elected leaders could not ignore the loud, clear calls for change. But just as in previous years, Mayor Carter and city officials proposed allocating almost one-third of the general fund budget to the St. Paul Police Department (SPPD), cutting cops by just 0.8% while slashing resources for libraries, community development, and public health, among other services.

In response to this shockingly status quo budget proposal, hundreds of St. Paul residents contacted city officials who, for months, have been espousing their support for racial justice and a community approach to public safety. Yet, at the December 9 city council vote on the budget, we saw our leaders embody the James Baldwin quote: “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.” Again.

While many invoked the name of George Floyd, only two council members — Mitra Jalali and Nelsie Yang — had the courage and conviction to put into action their values and commitment to community. In a 5–2 vote, only Jalali and Yang opposed a budget that continues to over-fund police, with the SPPD claiming nearly $105 million of the city’s general fund budget, a cut of only $800,000 from last year.

Watch the video of the budget vote here; for comments from CMs Jalali and Yang, fast-forward to minute 43.

“After a year in which Minnesota made national news — and continues to — for the police murder of George Floyd, and we spent weeks in a state of constant uprisings and civil unrest as a rightful reaction to that injustice,” Jalali said, “this budget does very little to change the police funding status quo.”

“What we did, what I’m seeing in the budget right now, is leadership acting from a place of comfort, and we cannot settle for that,” Yang attested. Reflecting on her first budget process as the council member for Ward 6, she said the city council had proven itself “undeserving of the people who came to testify, the people who we name are marginalized in our community, and that is Black and brown people, Indigenous people, folks from the working class.”

Jalali highlighted that policing doesn’t solve the root causes of violence and fails to increase safety. “Last year, even with reductions, we had the highest number of police officers in city history,” Jalali said. “Advocates for police funding who continually bring up crime statistics and fear-monger about cuts [to the police budget], make the case that with more resources than ever, SPPD is not effective at preventing crime.”

Councilmember Jalali also suggested at least two concrete, specific cuts that could be made in the St. Paul police budget to save $10 million: the controversial K-9 unit and the community engagement unit.

She pointed out that: “In just my time on the council alone, our city has paid out a combined $2.6 million in settlements for canine attacks that left people badly injured. Just last week we lived through the trauma of another community member being shot at and attacked by a K-9 by our police while naked and unarmed.”

Jalali also emphasized that if elected leaders are truly interested in violence prevention, the millions of dollars spent on SPPD’s community engagement would be far better spent on “community leaders who do neighborhood violence prevention on a shoestring budget” and “right now could do life-changing work” with adequate funding.

Despite the deeply researched and community-endorsed proposals from Jalali and Yang, other councilmembers openly demeaned and undermined the two women of color on the council for standing with organizations like Root & Restore and bringing forward a new vision for community safety and wellness.

While Council vice-president Rebecca Noecker professed that “all of us have been really clear that we know that the murder of George Floyd requires a complete rethinking of how we ensure safety in our community,” she implicitly attacked Jalali and Yang for what she characterized as proposals that are “indiscriminately hacking away at the police budget.”

Erasing the months of tireless work that CMs Jalali and Yang put in to listen to community members and negotiate with their fellow council members throughout the budget process, council president Amy Brendmoen criticized fellow council members who, as she put it, “show up the day of the vote complaining.”

While making a point about SPPD’s sworn force, Councilmember Jane Prince condescendingly implied that CM Jalali and Yang’s dissatisfaction with the budget was rooted in a lack of understanding of budget details, not in their justified and well-founded unhappiness with the continued over-funding of policing and under-funding of other priorities.

We stand with CMs Jalali and Yang in finding the reductions in the police budget grossly inadequate. But we also know that we, as a community, had an impact.

“If you have called us, if you have sent one of the hundreds of emails, calls, or gave testimony with an overwhelming message to divest from police and fund community safety,” Jalali said, “I want you to know that your advocacy has helped preserve our community-first public safety programs and it’s helped fight off increases to police.”

Thanks to that advocacy, officials did preserve funding for much-needed tenant protections and restored some funding for libraries, parks and recreation, and road maintenance, including $17,000 for library materials, $70,000 for library staffing, and $310,000 for Career Labs. But the library budget is still being slashed by $1.3 million in 2021, a reduction that will translate into reduced hours, reduced services, and reduced access for families who are relying on libraries more heavily than ever.

We will continue to work with community to hold police and public officials accountable on community-first public safety, push for more transformative approaches to violence and harm in St. Paul, and press for the kind of city budget we deserve in 2022.

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We are a citywide collaboration of individuals and organizations working to advance police accountability, community-defined safety, and racial justice.