A 2017 report from the Center for Popular Democracy examined the percentage of major municipal budgets allocated to policing. Of the cities analyzed, Oakland spent the most, investing more than 41 percent of its budget on law enforcement. Milwaukee, which wasn’t part of the CPD study, spends even more. Nearly half — 47 percent — of Milwaukee’s 2019 budget went to policing, according to data from the City’s Budget Office.
On June 18, 2019 — Juneteenth — Milwaukee’s African-American Roundtable launched a campaign to shift money from the city’s policing budget into community services. Just six months later, the campaign’s efforts are already showing an impact.
The Liberate MKE campaign now includes 45 different organizations, that have coalesced around the mission of creating the kind of Milwaukee that residents envision.
Two amendments to the city’s 2020 budget reflect the effort to shift money out of policing and punishment and into violence prevention. One focuses on creating a Universal Basic Income program while the other will convert tax-foreclosed homes into emergency housing for the city’s most vulnerable.
To find out how residents wanted the city’s money spent, the Liberate MKE campaign surveyed them. Over the course of the summer, the coalition’s partners surveyed more than 1,100 people across the city and from each district. The results showed three priorities: non-police-based violence prevention; affordable housing, and youth employment.
Once the campaign had identified these priorities, organizers undertook the work to help residents advocate for their priorities. “After launch, we really knew in order for us to win and to for us be effective, we had to root our people and do political education around the budget,” says Devin Anderson, the lead organizer with the Liberate MKE campaign.
The coalition invited Milwaukee’s Budget and Management Director, Dennis Yaccarino, to hold a couple of community workshops to help people understand the budget and the budget process. He accepted and conducted two community workshops with between 50 and 60 people at each.
“In a way I thought it was good people were interested in the budget,” Yaccarino says. “It’s all the stuff the city does.” Yaccarino says such sessions are important “especially if [the public feels] there’s something missing that we should be doing, or they want to talk to us about how we prioritize things because our budgets are getting tighter and tighter.”
Yaccarino recalls that many questions focused on alternatives to funding the police department and aimed to better understand how the city develops its budget. For example, one issue that has received local scrutiny is the way the city is hemorrhaging money. In 2013, the state legislature overturned the city’s residency requirement for its workers. Since then, nearly 30 percent of municipal employees have moved out of the city. When it comes to police officers and firefighters, that figure jumps to 45 percent. This means that while those workers are earning city dollars, they aren’t contributing to the city’s property tax base, thus reducing its overall income.
The ultimate goal was to “shift the narrative around public safety,” says Rick Banks, Political Director for Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC). “We were doing a lot of phone calls, a lot of emails and Facebook posts, and a few ads … as well,”Banks says. Recruiting people to budget trainings was just one goal of this outreach. The idea was to highlight how city resources could be invested in services to help prevent violence, like parks and after-school programs, moving resources away from punitive policies. Along with email lists and social media, Banks and Markasa Tucker, director of the African-American Roundtable, also used traditional media such as radio and newspaper op-eds to reach different audiences.
Armed with a greater understanding of how the budget process works, Anderson and other organizers set to work to pressure public officials to integrate participatory budgeting practices so that residents’ views would carry direct weight.
Donna Baker, a Milwaukee native and a homeowner, was one of the people who attended the budget training. The knowledge motivated her to get more involved in the campaign’s advocacy. “I started really supporting them because it was a lot of money going toward one entity. Whereas, I can see all the ills in Milwaukee, and if we would start addressing those ills, we wouldn’t have to spend so much money on the police department,” she says. Among the budget proposals that the Liberate MKE campaign supported were funds to support a participatory budgeting process; increased pay for city internships; increased representation of historically under-represented neighborhoods in those internships, and a Universal Basic Income program.
“It’s clear there’s been a significant shift in the conversation,” says Anderson. In the city’s 2020 budget, 60 officer positions within the police department will be eliminated by not filling vacancies left by retirements. That will result in a savings of $575,000. Anderson also pointed out that while a number of amendments were proposed to restore portions of this spending, they all failed, bolstering his thesis of a shift in attitudes.
Still, while the police department savings represents progress for the Liberate MKE agenda, those dollars aren’t necessarily being directly funneled into the kinds of community services the campaign is advocating for. For example, the Universal Basic Income program that Liberate MKE endorsed found support in the Common Council, but not with money saved from the police budget.
Alderwoman Chantia Lewis, who represents Milwaukee’s Ninth district, introduced the amendment providing for a pilot UBI program. It was modeled on the one Stockton, California, rolled out in 2018. As in the Stockton program, Lewis proposed providing needy families with $500 per month to spend as they wished.
In Lewis’ initial UBI proposal, the seed money for the program was slated to come from the police department’s computer budget. But she didn’t have enough support in the Common Council to pass the amendment with that design, so she revised the text to drop that source of funds. The UBI amendment passed without funding, but Lewis says her office is working on an “aggressive plan” to raise the roughly half a million dollars needed to make the program successful.
Lewis says that she had been interested in rolling out a program well before the Liberate MKE campaign launched, but the testimony she heard at public hearings convinced her that it was feasible. One testimony came from a young father with three children who was doing construction work for a city contractor.
“He was essentially saying, he was a single father, and he needed his community to step up and help him just as he did every single day for his community. So, that really tugged at my heart,” Lewis says.
She aims for the UBI program to serve low-income and working poor families. “Coming from a low-working-class family, I understand that when you have a [two-income household], you just barely are scraping by, and you don’t qualify for anything, so you do not get any type of assistance,” she says. “Sometimes you are pulling doubles and triples and you can just barely afford to live comfortably.”
Lewis says the aim is to launch the program in the late spring of 2020 and that the pilot will serve 50 families. Along with providing the cash, Lewis says the program will also support recipients with financial coaching, business coaching, and other resources so that they can come off the program after its 18-month course and be self-sufficient.
Along with introducing the UBI amendment, Lewis also collaborated with another councilmember on a proposal that would convert tax-foreclosed homes to emergency housing. Under that provision, examples of the situations in which people could seek emergency shelter include victims of sex trafficking and families with a new baby whose home has unsafe amounts of lead.
“If we are saying your house is no longer safe for you to live in and raise your children,” Lewis says, “there is a certain level of responsibility that we, as the city, have.”
For Anderson, the budget amendments represent victories, but he acknowledges that passing the Common Council doesn’t guarantee implementation. “The city’s a bureaucracy. Sometimes you think you have a win, and a few years later, nothing comes of it,” he says. As a result, the Liberate MKE campaign has included an accountability element. Anderson says he hopes to ask for input from community members about what these programs look like. Armed with that, he says, “we can have conversations with different departments and make sure these are wins that are rooted in what the folks who’ll be using these services really need.”
Zoe Sullivan is a multimedia journalist and visual artist with experience on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and Kenya. Her radio work has appeared on outlets such as BBC, Marketplace, Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News and DW. Her writing has appeared on outlets such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera America and The Crisis.