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‘This is Our Money; This is Our City’

When it comes to the future of Milwaukee, LiberateMKE has a clear vision of what the city could be if only the city allocated its funds differently. Its current goal is to make others see it too.

LiberateMKE is a campaign movement, which began under the African American Roundtable in 2019. The organization relaunched the campaign earlier this year on Juneteenth Day. Like the previous years, the campaign’s overarching goal is the same: divest money from the Milwaukee Police Department and put it toward other issues.

“We know that the work we started in 2019 is far from over,” Markasa Tucker-Harris, the executive director of the African American Roundtable, said. “This is our money; this is our city.”

Recently, the African American Roundtable and LiberateMKE released a report regarding the Milwaukee Police Department budget and Milwaukee’s pension plan. The group worked on the report for nine months, Tucker-Harris said.

According to the report, the city currently contributes $71 million annually to its pension contribution. The Wisconsin Policy Forum reported that the pension contribution will increase by $78 million starting in 2023.

The report noted that if no changes are made, then the additional cost will be covered by property tax levy, which will reduce funds for other programs.

The report details four scenarios in which the City of Milwaukee can tackle its pension problem without raising revenue.

The four scenarios are as follows: proportional by department expenditures in which all department budgets decrease by 11.5%; proportional by pension contribution in which department budgets are reduced by the amount they contribute to the pension liability; keep things as is, which protects the police department’s budget; and finally, defund the police.

The fourth option is the preferred selection of the African American Roundtable. In this scenario, the organization suggests cutting the police budget by 26%. This would reduce its 2021 budget of $295,300,000 by $78 million.

The overarching goal of the LiberateMKE campaign is to divest money from the Milwaukee Police Department and put it toward programs that will support violence prevention.

People say they want the police, Tucker-Harris said, but increased policing doesn’t equate to violence prevention. Instead, the organization wants the funding to go toward housing and participatory budgeting.

When the group initially began the LiberateMKE campaign, its initial efforts saw a $900,000 reduction in the Milwaukee Police Department’s budget with $300,000 going toward an emergency housing program, $240,000 going toward a Birthing Moms Pilot Project and more. The following year, the group helped divert $2.1 million from the Milwaukee Police Department budget.

Tucker-Harris said the 2021 campaign’s three demands are as follows: divest $75 million from the Milwaukee Police Department, instate a participatory budgeting process among the aldermanic districts and ensure that money from the American Rescue Plan Act does not go toward the Milwaukee Police Department.

The group has been collecting postcards, which express support for the organization’s goals, with signatures to deliver to the Common Council and the Mayor’s Office. The African American Roundtable is also collecting signatures for its petition on participatory budgeting.

In participatory budgeting, the people get to decide where the money goes. It puts the power in the hands of the people, Tucker-Harris said.

Right now, the organization is working to educate people on how participatory budgeting works. It would be something new for Milwaukee, Tucker-Harris said, which is exciting.

It gives the community the power, she added.

“I think it’s important for our community to organize,” she said. “The voices of the people will shift the perspective of the alderpersons.”

Alderpersons should listen to the voices of their constituents, she said, and if they don’t, they may find themselves out of office.

The work that organizations like the African American Roundtable are doing needs to be done. If this doesn’t happen now, then the next generation will be doing it, Tucker-Harris said. In addition to advocating for participatory budgeting and defunding the police, Tucker-Harris encourages people to organize and have conversations.

To organize requires capacity, she noted, and it can be hard to get people to volunteer or to know where to start. Recently, the African American Roundtable launched its leadership development cohort, which gives people the tools they need to organize and to “create the community that we want to live.”

She also encourages people to reach out to organization’s they admire and seek advice from them.

Another key part in changing the status quo is relationships.

Talk to neighbors and family, establish relationships with them, she said. Imagine a world where a person doesn’t call the police on their neighbor, and instead they approach them to discuss and handle the situation themselves, Tucker-Harris said.

“I challenge people to go into their neighborhood,” Tucker-Harris said. “I challenge us as a community to simply have a conversation with someone.”

The African American Roundtable’s full report on its solutions for Milwaukee’s pension problem can be found at aartmke.org under the News & Media tab.

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