After the police killing of George Floyd in May of 2020, the idea of defunding the police swept across the country. But well before that in the summer of 2019, the African American Roundtable, a Milwaukee social justice organization, launched LiberateMKE — a campaign to convince city leaders to do that very thing.
The group asked Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to divest $25 million from the Milwaukee Police Department and invest that money into community programs that advance safety and crime prevention.
Markasa Tucker is executive director of the African American Roundtable. People think that the word defund means tearing infrastructure down, she says it’s really about using those resources to build.
“We have to continue to remind people in these contexts that we're not just tearing down. We're building up. We want to build up alternative organizations, there's tons of organizations that are already doing alternative type work in our city,” she says.
For Tucker, reimaging public safety is about addressing people’s needs and creating Black and brown communities that have access to the same resources of other communities in Wisconsin.
“Meeting folks’ basic needs, making sure people have access to the things that we know people in the suburbs have access to, and where policing is not what it looks like in our communities,” she says.
Even with a new president, Tucker is not expecting much help from the Biden administration on this work. She says to change a system like public safety in Milwaukee, the change needs to come from within the community.
“We can't expect the feds to save us, we can't expect them to change what they do. It's hard to change systems. And I'm not saying just because Biden is there, things won't change. What I'm saying is we have to take power here in our own city around what we want to do,” she says.
One example of what Tucker sees as a failure in public safety policy in Milwaukee is the recent federal COPS grants that was accepted by the common council after an earlier decision to reject the grant. The money is earmarked to help bring 30 additional police officers to the Milwaukee Police Department.
Tucker says there is no evidence that bringing in more police officers actually helps create a safer city.
“We know that 30 cops are not going to produce more safety. ... We say this over and over again, there’s no reports that say more training, more safety, more, you know, more cops, are actually going to give people what they need,” she says.
Tucker says LiberateMKE’s goals for the future are to continue to educate people about public safety, as well as, asking people from across Milwaukee what they want to see change in the community’s approach to safety. In that education, they are hoping to introduce people to local political processes like engaging with an alderperson or organizing communities around neighborhood issues.
“To just bring in more people to do the work that is most precious to them, that is important in their neighborhood, that is important to their families here,” she says.