As city leaders in St. Petersburg mull over their spending priorities for the next fiscal year, local activists rallied on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday, to demand the city divest from its police department, and funnel greater funding into housing and social programs.
“In St. Pete, we have no eviction moratorium, no rent control, and no good public option for housing,” activists with the St. Pete Tenants Union and Party for Socialism and Liberation wrote in a news release. “The only thing that will solve this housing crisis is a massive public investment and taking the profit motive out of housing—no more criminal profiteers in our neighborhood.”
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The Wednesday rally also marked the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020.
Floyd’s death, and that of countless Black lives lost to police violence, galvanized a global rallying cry for racial justice and an end to police brutality two years ago, building upon the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement years before, and decades of police abolitionist activism.
“It’s been two years since the murder of George Floyd when millions took to the streets to protest racism and police brutality, and to demand a system that works for the people and not for profit,” the news release added. “The proposed FY2023 budget from the [Mayor Ken] Welch administration can only be seen as an attack on the Black, brown and entire working class of our city.”
Addressing the city’s housing crisis
St. Pete Mayor Ken Welch, who was born and raised in the community, was sworn into office in January, as the first Black mayor in the city’s history. Since day one, Welch has named housing a priority of his administration.
But local activists with the St. Pete Tenants Union and PSL say the solutions the Welch administration has either proposed or implemented rely on a market-based framework that largely serves to boost profits for developers, and fails to provide immediate relief for residents who are today at risk for displacement or eviction.
“We’re having so many issues with housing,” Karla Correa, of the local tenants union and PSL, told WMNF on Wednesday. “Rents are skyrocketing.”
City leaders have shot down activists’ calls for rent stabilization, also known as rent control. That kind of measure, intended to prevent price-gouging, is prohibited under Florida law unless a housing state of emergency is declared.
The Sunshine State was recently described as the “least affordable place to live in,” and the Tampa Bay region in particular has seen some of the highest housing cost spikes in the entire U.S.
The city has earmarked $34 million in funds from the federal American Rescue Plan to go towards affordable housing initiatives, and has proposed additional funding within the FY2023 budget to address local housing issues.
But in the short-term, many residents across the state of Florida, and here in Tampa Bay, have been left scrambling, with limited financial assistance for rent to go around.
A budget boost for local law enforcement
Meanwhile, activists have expressed frustration with the city’s proposed increase for the city’s police department. Under the current proposal, the SPPD budget would reach a record $130.6 million. That reflects a six million dollar increase from the current fiscal year, and a $30 million increase since 2016.
According to city documents, the additional $6 million in funds would go towards:
- $1,269,635 for the department’s Community Assistance and Life Liaison (CALL) program, which dispatches unarmed crisis workers to nonviolent 9-11 calls in the community, instead of police
- $1,450,344 for body-worn cameras for officers
- $5,703,215 for salaries, benefits, and internal service charges
Activist William Kilgore told city leaders last week at a public budget hearing that, according to publicly available crime data, the St. Petersburg Police Department has a clearance rate – or, the rate of crimes solved by cops — that’s below the state and national average. That’s despite consistent increases in the city’s police budget over the years, seen not only in St. Pete, but across the U.S.
“I’m not saying oh, well, we just need to get a new police chief or anything like that,” Kilgore argued. “No, we need to defund. We need to take money away from them and put ‘em into the things that we need that actually work for people.”
Instead, Kilgore urged city leaders to look at housing and social programs that have seen success in other states. “Material benefits such as right to counsel, you know, which would help people. It’s proven in the places where it’s done to help reduce evictions, keep people in their homes. And when people can stay in their homes, you know, there’s less prone to crime happening because we have an economic system that’s based on competition,” said Kilgore. “Fund the people, not the police to crack down on people.”
Mayor Ken Welch, who supports the additional SPPD funding, has said that allocating funds for affordable housing initiatives and the St. Pete Police Department isn’t an either-or situation.
“Our police are accountable. They do a good job, we’re gonna hold them to be accountable. But it’s not an ‘either-or.’ We can do both,” Welch said last week.
The mayor added that while he’s open to having conversations with residents about their ideas for addressing the housing crisis, “What I’m not open to is defunding our police department.”
Calls to ‘defund the police’ dominated many racial justice demonstrations locally, and nationally, following the murder of George Floyd by police in 2020.
Police abolitionists argue that law enforcement agencies in the United States threaten public safety, not protect it, and systematically commit violence against Black, brown, and indigenous people.
Yet, despite the popularity of ‘defund’ chants during 2020 protests, national opinion polling shows ‘defunding the police’ is not a particularly popular policy, even among many Black and brown Americans. And despite growing momentum within the ‘defund’ movement two years ago, most cities in 2021 moved to increase funds, not defund their police departments.
Republicans and most prominent Democratic politicians argue that police departments need more funding, not less to address systemic issues in policing.
“I’ve said it before, the answer is not to defund our police departments, it’s to fund our police and give them all the tools they need, training and foundation and partners and protectors that our communities need,” President Biden said in March, while unveiling his federal budget proposal. Local mayors Ken Welch and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who is herself a former police chief, have said the same.
Karla Correa of the St. Pete Tenants Union and PSL described this kind of messaging as “copaganda.”
“The corporations and, you know, the capitalists, they have a strong interest in making sure that the people believe that the police are legitimate and that they keep us safe and that we need them,” Correa told WMNF.
On the two-year anniversary of Floyd’s death, President Biden signed an executive order aimed at reforming policing practices. Among other things, the order bans the use of chokeholds by federal agents, directs the attorney general to create a new national law enforcement accountability database, and further restricts the transfer of military equipment to local and state law enforcement agencies. Biden described it as “the most significant police reform in decades.”
But the Movement for Black Lives, which describes itself as a coalition of over 50 groups representing the interests of black communities in the U.S., wasn’t impressed.
In response to Biden’s executive order, the group wrote in a statement, “President Biden’s executive order is a poor excuse for the transformation of public safety that he promised the Black voters who put him in office. It’s also a shameful way to mark the memory of George Floyd, who died two years to this day.”
Re-imagining public safety
Karla Correa of St. Petersburg argues that what could go further in reducing crime rates would be to invest in housing and social service programs, to ensure basic needs, such as housing, healthcare, food security, and transportation are met. “We see crime as a reaction to poverty and to unmet needs. You know, people don’t just rob a grocery store because they are bad people.”
A number of factors, including very localized issues within communities, can affect crime rates. Economic conditions, like poverty rates, and cultural factors.
In order to address underlying risk factors, or predictors, of crime, St. Petersburg activists say they’d like to see the city take the $6 million increase proposed for SPPD and invest that in the city’s mental health crisis responder program.
That program, known as the Community Assistance Life and Liaison (CALL) program, sends unarmed crisis workers to respond to nonviolent 9-1-1 calls in the community, regarding issues such as truancy, domestic disputes, and mental health crises. “It’s barely being funded,” Correa said on Wednesday, noting its current budget is just under $1.3 million.
That program, which has responded to over 3,000 calls in the community since its creation last year, currently operates within the St. Pete Police Department, but activists would like to see it eventually operate independently.
They’re also calling on the city to consider investing in programs such as a pilot social housing program, a tenants’ right to legal counsel program, universal access to free public transit, and a city-funded and operated grocery co-op on the majority-Black South Side of St. Pete.
May 25th, Correa said, “is a very important day in our history.” It marks a day that sparked an international reaction, an uprising, and greater consideration for what community safety does, or could, look like. “We’re trying to continue that struggle.”