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Special YES!/PNS Report - George Floyd Anniversary & Reimagining Public Safety

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Friday, May 21, 2021   

Atlanta-based journalist Anoa Changa and Laura Rosbrow-Telem out of Oakland, CA reported and produced this special report with YES! Magazine and Public News Service.

Minneapolis, MN - May 25 marks the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Floyd's death-captured on video that showed Chauvin's knee on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes-sparked a global uprising in defense of Black lives and against police brutality. But amid the coverage of protests in the wake of Floyd's death, media attention rarely focused on the ways communities impacted by police violence were organizing to keep each other safe, in Minneapolis and beyond.

Reimagining a Better World is a special report, from Yes! Media and Public News Service, that looks at two emerging strategies that communities are using to help redefine public safety.

Below is the transcription of the radio show:

This is Reimagining a Better World, a collaboration of YES! Media and Public News Service.

I'm Anoa Changa, and I'm Laura Rosbrow-Telem.

Anoa: Today we will be talking about reimagining public safety. Now this conversation around public safety has been something that's come up in some ways as an alternative, or for some people a more palatable or more preferable slogan to the refrain we heard last summer of defund the police. And today we're going to kind of dig into some of that conversation.

A lot of the focus last year was on protests that arose after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and Breanna Taylor by police in Louisville. There hasn't been as much emphasis on how communities themselves have been looking at creating alternatives and talking through what it means to keep them safe.

Laura: What do you think of when you hear public safety and police? Like Anoa, when was the first time you ever thought about public safety? Or the police: when was that first on your radar?

Anoa: Yeah, so for me just thinking back to when I first really paid attention to police. I mean, I've always grown up in black and inner city communities. So I've always seen and notice the police, police are always present. We moved to Chicago, around fifth, sixth grade, and that is when I can really remember thinking about being safe. I want to say maybe it was high school, we got metal detectors my senior year later in the year after Columbine happening. It just didn't seem like it actually had anything to do with our actual reality and actual concerns for our safety and just to respond to something that happened to people in other places. And now, you know, when we think about gun violence, we talk about how to keep students safe. There's a really rich conversation that actually does take into consideration of violence that happens in different types of communities And what are some of the alternatives that need to be a part of conversations around gun violence prevention? That did not exist 20 plus years ago.

Laura: Yeah, yeah. It's so frustrating what you're saying. Just to like reflect, for example, say you're mentioning about Columbine: mostly white High School, white Kids shoot up the school. Right? And at that moment in time, I was in middle school, and I went to a private Middle School. Mostly white. No metal detectors, right? Also didn't have any security that I remember at my high school. So, this thing happens. Totally different ramifications just because I lived in this higher income, mostly white community.

Anoa: Yeah, I definitely appreciate you sharing that reflection, Laura. And so, specifically for this conversation today, I mentioned to Laura, that there were these two issues that really resonated with me over the summertime, when I was covering the protests. And I wanted to talk about block by block organizing, and participatory budgeting. Because these were two conversations, these are two opportunity points, that I didn't see as many connections being made to the protest thing and the work that people were doing, because folks would focus on the protest. But you would also have people showing up virtually, at city council meetings and making demands of local electeds. You also had people who were doing a form of mutual aid and a sense of helping each other out in their communities to keep each other safe.

Block by Block Organizing

Laura: So the first thing that we're going to look at is what's called block by block organizing, or community defense. And this specifically, was going on in Minneapolis, during the protest this summer. And some residents wanted to create networks in their neighborhoods, as alternatives to police. I think it's really interesting, because it's, this grassroots effort of people really trying to create alternatives to police on their own, like without the government without anything, and there are obviously pros and cons to this, and we're going to hear more about it.

Anoa: And later in the episode we're going to talk about participatory budgeting or PB as some folks call it, which began in Brazil in 1989. Participatory budgeting is a way for communities to have a direct say in spending priorities. So it's not just the vote yes or no, on whether spending should happen It is really digging in and being a part of the process of setting the agenda. And there are 1000s of cities and government institutions and agencies, including schools across the world that have utilized this practice.

Laura: Now, let's get to block by block organizing in Minneapolis. We talked with two people who were right up in it. The first person we spoke with was Magdalena kaluza, who's a climate organizer with the nonprofit Take action Minnesota.

Magdalena: I live, let's see about two blocks from the George Floyd Memorial square where George Floyd was murdered at the hands of the police and in a neighborhood called Powderhorn Park.

Magdalena, who uses they and them pronouns, says collaborating with neighbors in the summer led to people being more connected on a regular basis.

Magdalena: We've had many neighborhood gatherings, many are just celebratory and relational, a place to get to know each other. And last night, we had a Solstice one in the alley. And so the alley for two blocks has been decked out with tinsel and Christmas lights. People were grilling and sharing teas, sharing bonfires, candles. And what that looks like is that we know so many more of our neighbors than we did before the uprising.

The Uprising

The uprising, of course, was the nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Local Black, indigenous, and POC-led groups were already organizing against police violence, and responded to this crisis.

Jamie Schwendesl, co-owner of Moon Palace Books and Cafe in South Minneapolis, describes seeing the immediate aftermath unfold in real time.

Jamie: I just ended up spending three days and nights virtually without sleeping in front of our building on the roof of the building, just watching police shoot tear gas grenades at customers who were lined up to pick up pizzas from us that they'd ordered online or drive their cruisers at high speeds with no headlights on during the night across our lawn and seeing, you know, ultimately, all the buildings being burnt down. And it was it was just like a pretty traumatic few nights and days.

People set a number of businesses on fire and burned down a police station. Jamie says it was a confusing time.

Jamie: There was this feeling of like the police are out here and doing harm to our community. And then at the same time, our community is being harmed and the businesses and buildings that our community operates out of are being burnt down. And it's unclear who's doing that.

Jamie texted a friend to figure out what to do.

Jamie: And I was like, you know, if somebody's going to be doing something to help people since the police have essentially evacuated the city except to shoot tear gas at us and grenades. Is there anybody that's organizing some sort of way that we can actually coordinate our efforts to defend our blocks and each other. So this friend of mine was like, Yeah, well, our city council person Alondra Cano, who we both know, he's like, yeah, Alondra and I are going to have a meeting in the park, you should help us facilitate it.

So Jamie, along with many others, helped facilitate one of the first meetings. This gathering was at Powderhorn Park, a central point for community groups over the summer.

Gathering at Powderhorn Park

Jaime says it was the first time some people talked to their neighbors.

Jamie: I got to the park and 1,000 people showed up. And before the meeting started, I saw a dear old friend of mine, who I've known for 20 years, who we both used to live near each other in New Orleans and kind of have already been through watching a city that we were connected to be destroyed. And it was five minutes before I was supposed to help facilitate this meeting in the park with 1000 people, my friend and I were both just fell on the ground sobbing for five minutes. And then I got up and was like, Okay. Hello. So...

Magdalena, who you heard from earlier, was also at that initial gathering at Powderhorn Park.

Magdalena: There happens to be a hillside across from the stage, almost like amphitheater seating. So it was really a phenomenal space for people to gather and talk about what was happening and how we were going to solve it.

Jamie: And we just tried to figure out a way to have some kind of decentralized way that everyone could connect with their closest neighbors and also all with each other, we came up with the idea of like, create sort of like a physical representation of the neighborhood in the park, where we're like...

Organizing by Neighborhood

Magdalena: People who live north of the park went to the north end of the park or south of the park, you know, Southwest, so using the park as almost a map, and then talk with their own neighbors and figure out what they wanted their solutions to be at a more specific geographic level.

Jamie:...and just trying to get a thing where people could then find a group of 10 people who live the closest to them of anyone at the meeting. And then we were just like talking amongst yourselves, exchange information, exchange emails and pick a contact person and come up and come to the stage.

Magdalena: What we saw a lot of WhatsApp loops, signal threads, Discord server, an email chain set up so that people could have each other's contact info, be able to ask each other for help and offer each other support.

Magdalena: And we saw more communication and coordination between race and class than we normally do. There was massive mutual aid. So people were gathering baby supplies, sanitary supplies, personal protective equipment, foods, tons of food, and there were so many pop up pantries for people to access because a lot of the grocery stores in the area were closed and people couldn't, if you didn't have a car to get to the suburbs, outer ring suburbs, you couldn't get food.

Jamie: It was a pretty amazing, decentralized way to organize people. And it was a great thing that could happen quickly.

This decentralized aspect was a key element to organizing -- each block made its own rules.

Jamie: there were things about it that were really challenging. Like, there's some people who just like, had to go check on an older relative or deliver food to someone because this was during COVID.

Jamie says his neighborhood is very typical for South Minneapolis: mostly single family homes with yards, many about a hundred years old. A classic Midwestern grid layout, rectangular, with an alley between each block. Detached garages.

On his block, they had a few people sitting and watching throughout the night. When Jamie took a turn, he headed out with his big maglite flashlight late in the night and checked on the "guards," of his block.

Jamie: One block to the north of us. However they organized it there were just like three dad dudes standing out in the middle of the street all night with their guns strapped outside their shirts. And that was really different than what we were doing on our block. And one block to the south of us people had just pushed giant puppets into the intersections that night. So you know, there's like every block was really different.

"Competing Concerns"

He shared some examples of competing concerns.

Jamie: So there are people trying to travel through the neighborhood for very legitimate important reasons who would then come to a block where the people on the block would be shouting at them, you know, who are you What right do you have to be here, things like that. And it was really beautiful and amazing. And also there were some definitely some problems with it.

On this episode of "Reimagining a Better World," we've been talking about reimagining public safety and hearing from two Minneapolis residents who protected their blocks as an alternative to police last summer.

During this time, Magdalena coordinated with a number of neighborhoods.

Magdalena: We're all on a WhatsApp loop together. And during the summer, those people were meeting in a church parking lot. They set up some small working groups, one was asset mapping for the neighborhood. Another one was de escalation training and resource sharing for the neighborhood.

They ended up focusing on something pretty intense.

Magdalena: I joined this very ad hoc fire squad, essentially, which I call on some friends who are firefighters and said, What are like a few basics you would say, we need to know obviously, we can't learn the extremely incredible trade of firefighting in a night or two. But what are some things you think we need to know? Because we were seeing accelera nts planted around the neighborhood, we were seeing fires popping up. And so we wanted to have a network of neighbors who were prepared to address small emergencies, at least and predominantly, for the protection of people. I was on signal threads with people, coordinating supplies. And then we also had a dispatch so that we could, you know, know, well, there's something happening here. There's something happening there, and we could coordinate who, who's closest to us. To go there, and do we need multiple cars of cars full of people to go? How big is the emergency?

Magdalena was inspired by their neighbors' resilience.

Magdalena: At 11pm, I would show up at Chicago and, and 38th excuse me, because we had been told there was an accelerant at the gas station. And there's, you know, a whole bunch of other friends and neighbors that I know from different parts of the community are also there to address the emergency. So how incredible is that to, you know, in the middle of the night, and it's really scary time you come somewhere. And you see that so many other people are also being courageous and stepping up for their community.

Laura: What you're saying in terms of, you, like, for example, helping out, put out fires, and you were talking earlier about de-escalation strategies. It's almost like you all assembled your own local government, on your own. What did that feel like?

Magdalena: I'm glowing as I talk to you. I feel chills in my body remembering, seeing people out on the streets, meeting so many community needs, and it was thrilling, and it was encouraging, and it was very affirming. We know what we need, and we know what our communities need, and we're having relationships that can weather storms, having relationships that can get through thick and thin, means that we can meet those needs.

Laura: that's obviously very positive. But I could also imagine you also being potentially pissed off, like the government abandoned you.

Magdalena: I'll be honest, I think our government fails to meet community needs. I'm a firm believer that government can do more to meet human needs. I'd love to see community continue to find our own solutions.

As Magdalena mentioned toward the beginning, her neighborhood network is still pretty active. Jamie, the bookstore owner, his is less so -- he says a bunch of people are burnt out. But, things are shifting in the city.

In early December, the Minneapolis city council unanimously approved a budget that diverts $8 million away from the police department towards violence prevention, mental health, and other services. That's about a 4 percent reduction from the police.

Beyond Minneapolis, a number of cities around the country are re-allocating some money from police departments, including Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, New York, and Austin.

As we continue our journey of re-imagining public safety, we wanted to explore other community centered strategies. One process we came across was participatory budgeting.

Participatory Budgeting

With calls for re-imagining municipal budgets,including defunding the police, we reached out to Shari Davis and Kristania DeLeon from the Participatory Budgeting Project to help shine some light on how the process works.

Shari: Alright I'm going to hit record on this voice recorder. {Clears throat}. I'm ready to rock.

Kristania: Same here.

Shari explained the basic function of participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting is a process that allows community members to directly decide how a portion of government funds public funds, tax dollars are spent.

Shari and Kristania help governments and other groups involve community members so they have more power to choose funding priorities.

what's the role and voice of community in facilitating that, not just in testifying and saying, Yes, I agree with this bill, please pass it, but in shaping the actual intervention, the purpose of the legislation, and being really centered in how we message how we advocate what that looks like.

Kristania saw participatory budgeting (or as she calls it PB) as another means of encouraging community leadership.

At the core of PB as a practice is community leadership that is supported by others, but is really dictated by frontline communities. And so I learned about it, I wanted to bring it to my organization, I wanted to bring it to my community.

Shari explains the difference between traditional budgeting processes, with varying levels of community input, and participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting creates an opportunity for community members really to identify vision, radically imagine and reckon with what they need, what has happened and what has not happened yet that should. A lot of Chris's work right now has been talking to communities across the country to really understand how participatory budgeting can be used as a mechanism that allows community and government to break down barriers, really understand what needs are, and move away from continuing to invest in things that have proven to cause harm, and instead, invest in things that promote health and safety in a way that centers equity, really what community identifies as equity.

Shari describes the general phases of a participatory budgeting process.

How "PB" Works

Shari: Generally, here's how participatory budgeting works. The first phase of PB looks like a group of folks come together to write the rules that govern the process. That group of folks is community members.

Shari shared the importance of having people from marginalized communities playing key roles in drafting the rules that guide the process.

Shari: Once the rulebook is written, we enter the next phase of PB, which is idea collection. This is where community members bring forward hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas on how to spend a pot of public funds.

The next phase is Shari's favorite. Proposal development.

Shari: Then we enter this next phase, it's my personal favorite: proposal development. This is where folks take all of the ideas that came in, we vet them based on need, equity, feasibility, work alongside agency staff to understand what can really make it onto a final ballot and to vet and review every idea that came in and give folks a response.

Then they vote on the proposals. Shari says participatory budgeting votes typically extend over a week or two and meet people where they are -- including sometimes online. Ballots have also gone into detention centers.

Shari: The projects with the most votes happen for real until that pot of funds runs out. We call that the implementation phase. And unlike some other government process, when we do the implementation phase, community has an opportunity to come along and make sure that the project has the integrity that they intended from the very beginning.

But Shari says the first step to starting a participatory budgeting process is to ask for it.

Shari: There's a chance that it could exist in your community and needs to be strengthened. There's also a chance that it doesn't exist yet.

You're listening to "Reimagining a Better World." We've been talking about the role participatory budgeting can play in reimagining public safety.

Participating in the budget process would be a game changer for some communities. It's a way to address historic disinvestment and persisting inequity.

Many folks may have heard this expression that folks closest to the pain or closest to an issue are going to be closer to the solutions. And that's a big core tenant of what we're talking about with appropriate and deep community engagement that centers participatory democracy decision making that as equitable, significant and accessible, is ensuring that folks with expertise like lived experience, that have been able to be resilient change, and tap into their own radical imagination to solve problems have demonstrated some ability to have experience that we can learn from experience that we can integrate more broadly, and experience that we should follow.

Investing Resources Removed from "Systems of Harm"

Kristania explains that these conversations around reimagining public safety are really about investing resources that are removed from "systems of harm."

Kristania: We know that folks that are interested in radical imagination, reimagining public safety, aren't just thinking about what we dismantle or what we, where we offer disinvestments from our current budget, but are really focused on what are we building? What are we trying to replace these things with? Where are the gaps? How are we actually going to use this process to meet community needs, and so creating more transparency in the process, creating more community leadership and really listening and following community guidance. around their demands, their agenda, their needs is a way for participatory budgeting doesn't just support in thinking about where we're divesting from, but really how we're investing and how the investment process is community-led and community-centered.

Kristania says this conversation has opened up new ways for people to consider what safety even means.

Kristania: People within this conversation are reimagining public safety, but looking at how safety manifests in a whole host of ways. And so if you go to communities and maybe do surveys and ask, 'Who keeps you safe?' People may say, 'Well, I guess law enforcement, I guess, maybe this community member or that community member.' But if you ask them, 'What makes you feel safe, what are the things that make you feel like your community is a safe community for you?' You get very different responses. You get responses that say, 'Well, you know, having access to affordable, healthy food actually contributes to me feeling like I'm a valued member of this community, that I'm safe in this community.' Green open spaces allow me to feel safe in this community.

Kristania notes that some communities, often higher income, feel safer and less policed. She says one reason is they invest a smaller percentage of their budget on policing and a larger proportion on areas like education and parks.

But those ratios -- and priorities -- shouldn't be exclusive to wealthier areas...and participatory budgeting, or PB, can help.

Kristania: It might be mental health, it might be housing. It could be any number of things. But those are really where people are identifying their needs and are starting to think about how does divesting from, you know, systems of harm. Open up room to look at root causes of violence, root causes of poverty, legacies of disinvestment in community needs over time. And PB is a way for folks to identify how they want to invest those resources.

Shari and Kristania say that participatory budgeting processes can be big or small. Kristania says participatory budgeting, or PB, can happen at any level within a government or community.

PB happens in schools, PB habits at county levels, PB happens within organizations, for people who want to think about how they start to live those...

Participatory budgeting also happens worldwide.

Shari: PB has happened all over the globe. But honestly, participatory budgeting is a new concept in the United States, it's 10 years new. And yet, in the last 10 years, we've seen over 30 cities empower more than 739,000 people to directly decide how to spend over $400 million in public funds. And for me, that's just a good start, for what the promise of PB and participatory democracy can look like in the United States.

Shari encourages those who want to learn more to reach out to her team at the Participatory Budgeting Project.

And so there are so many opportunities for folks to learn more and build together. And I think the first thing you have to do is ask some questions, the next thing you can do is reach out to us for some support. And then the third thing is just to sign on, make a commitment that you want to build a world that is democracy beyond elections. Sign up so we can support you in doing that.

In December, Seattle cut funding to its police department by 20 percent and shifted money to help fund a $30 million participatory budgeting process.

Since we first recorded these interviews, the country has gone through yet another series of changes. Most notably, the January 6th attack on the nation's capitol added a new layer to the conversation on public safety, as well as systemic racism. And, in an historic verdict, former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of the murder of George Floyd.

Now more than ever, people across the country are concerned about keeping their communities safe. But what safety looks like, and how it should be invested in, depends on who you ask.

I'm Anoa Changa and I'm Laura Rosbrow-Telem. Thanks for listening!

Credits

Atlanta-based journalist Anoa Changa (@TheWayWithAnoa) and Laura Rosbrow-Telem (@lrosbrow) out of Oakland, CA reported and produced this episode. Editors were Lark Corbeil and Zenobia Jeffries Warfield. Sunnivie Brydum fact checked the piece and Cole Hemstreet mixed the audio.

The theme music is from Podington Bear and the music throughout the episode is from Blue Dot Sessions.



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