SERIES: Q&A With Robin Wonsley on Minneapolis Policing, Housing, and Socialism

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Although Minneapolis City Council member Robin Wonsley is running unopposed in Ward 2, other than a declared write-in candidate, we had a lengthy conversation with her for her perspectives on two of the primary concerns in the Minneapolis race: public safety and housing. She has been a strong voice advocating for major changes in both issues. As one of the state’s few Socialist candidates elected to office, we also wanted to unpack ideology with her.

Robin Wonsley, speaking at a “Celebrating Badass Women” event hosted by Minnesota Women”s Press and Changemakers Alliance in 2022.

What are you proud of so far in your tenure on the Minneapolis City Council?

One of my proudest accomplishments is the substantial increase in funding that we’ve allocated to the city’s public housing in this past year alone. Our city is facing a growing housing crisis caused by the lack of affordable housing and rising rents. Public housing offers the most affordable housing in the city, but due to underfunding, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) has a 7,000+ person waitlist and hasn’t had the resources needed to expand its housing portfolio. My office knew that if we wanted to seriously combat our city’s worsening housing crisis, we had to champion investments into our public housing to both preserve and expand it. 

Prior to my tenure, I believe the city averaged about a $1 million dollar investment to our public housing authority annually. By collaborating with my colleagues last December, we secured funding to replace all of the fire sprinklers in four of our public housing towers. I worked with  statewide leader Rep. Esther Agbaje, as well as Board of Estimate & Taxation President Samantha Pree-Stinson, to get a first-time direct state allocation of $5 million to the MPHA. We worked together to get a public housing levy passed at the municipal level, which will yield an additional annual allocation of $5 million. This $10 million increase in funding will ensure that thousands of residents will remain housed. It will also help with growing our public housing stock so that we can extend real affordable housing to thousands more. 

I was also very proud to work with council members on a $700,000 investment for economic development initiatives that have supported East Lake Street recovery efforts. 

I was happy to champion the city’s robust climate equity plan. Through collaboration with residents and local climate justice groups, the city now has one of the strongest climate equity policies in the country. However, a policy without funding renders it meaningless. This fall, the council passed the Climate Legacy Initiative Fund, which will annually dedicate $10 million dollars towards advancing climate equity work. My office is taking legislative action to identify grants that the city can apply to at the local and federal level. 

My office plans to advance a policy that will increase fees for corporate polluters. Resources generated from these fees could be used to support reparative climate work that needs to happen in BIPOC communities that have suffered horrible health outcomes due to concentrated pollution. 

I am especially proud of our student outreach and engagement. Last year, we had students testify at the budget hearing, which made a big difference in helping us secure funding for increased street lighting around the University of Minnesota. I worked with State Senator Omar Fateh to advocate for the free tuition legislation that passed for students from families who earned less than $80,000. I am excited to continue bringing students into our civic process.

My office is working with student leaders at the University of Minnesota and Augsburg University to address a multitude of issues, including housing conditions with predatory landlords. Many students have identified food insecurity, so we will look at how to bring fresh, affordable produce to students living off campus.

What is a frustration in terms of where you want to see the city and where it is currently?

We are not where we need to be when it comes to public safety. The city has primarily focused on traditional policing. Public safety does not start or end with our armed officers. There are a multitude of ways in which we can be responding to the crises our residents experience and we should be creating a workforce chain to be responsive to those diverse needs. 

Focusing solely on MPD has resulted in alternative safety services being neglected — investments in programs like Behavioral Crisis Response (BCR) teams, violence interrupters, neighborhood safety, 911. They are accomplishing the impossible on shoestring budgets. My charge next year is to make sure that the city develops a plan for a comprehensive safety system, and to advocate for substantial investments into alternative safety programs. 

One of the city’s most successful programs has been the BCR program — our mental health responder program — which has been lauded by constituents, the federal Department of Justice, and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. I’m proud to have worked with council members [Jeremiah] Ellison and [Elliott] Payne to renew the program’s contract for at least another two years. 

[Editor’s Note: A MinnPost article in 2017 explored the results of a New York University research project that found that the rise in community-focused nonprofits in cities across the U.S., including the Twin Cities, might have contributed to the decline in violent crimes including murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assaults since a peak in the 1990s. The story indicated that many external factors, such as tough-on-crime laws and regulations on lead paint — which can lead to aggressive and impulsive behavior — are theories for the drop in crime, but “ignore the role communities themselves played in tackling crime. … In more than 20 years across 264 cities, for every 10 additional nonprofit organizations focused on things like reducing crime, mitigating violence, and building community per 100,000 residents, murder rates went down by 9 percent.”]

Two years ago, there was a ballot item in Minneapolis about creating a separate department about public safety, to increase accountability to help all residents who experience crisis. The measure did not pass.

In effect, do you feel like the city has accomplished some of the intention of that ballot question even without passing that amendment to the city charter?

I was supportive of that ballot, and also was super excited, as were many of my constituents, to see the city move forward with a comprehensive public safety system. Our current policing system is not working, and having a racist, violent police department has been costly to our residents. There will be a substantial price tag coming along with consent decrees from the federal Department of Justice and the state’s Department of Human Rights — tens of millions of dollars every year for at least  the next four years to make sure we’re in compliance with both legal agreements. [Editor’ Note: See also the report on improving police responses to domestic violence.]

We’ve had to spend more than $100 million since May 2020 for PTSD claims and misconduct legal settlements for victims of police violence. All of these expenses are in addition to MPD’s existing $200 million budget. 

In some respect, people were worried that ballot two would eradicate the police workforce. But in many ways, the department itself has self imploded. I’ve said this publicly a number of times.

Many officers saw the direction that our residents wanted the city to move towards, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder — wanting to see something very transformative with our public safety system. Unfortunately, MPD had many officers not dissimilar from Derek Chauvin who I think recognized they would not be able to stay [in a new model] and decided to leave. 

Many people who want to do good policing recognize that the Minneapolis Police Department is not the place to go. Good officers [will want to see] actual culture change within it before applying. Prospective officers do not want to work in a police department with a culture of racism and violence.

While the ballot measure did not pass, tens of thousands of residents made it clear that they wanted the city to move forward with a comprehensive public safety system. Many community members were most concerned about the city actually taking this work seriously. This means funding it so it has the foundation it needs to be successful, with investments in qualified leaders and staff. This also means doing consistent and authentic engagement with the community around co-building this new system. Residents will continue to push the council and the mayor to deliver on this need. I’m excited to advance this work in the next term.    

Accountability wise, with the city charter as it stands, is it oversight from the mayor, the police chief, or the city council that can hold policing accountable?

In 2021, with the government restructure proposal, proponents claimed that it would streamline accountability and oversight over the police department. The number one argument for the restructuring was that the police shouldn’t have 14 bosses, when in actuality the city charter has always mandated that authority lie between the mayor and the police. The council has never had operational authority over the police department. 

The new government restructuring has actually further blurred those lanes because now people hear about the Office of Community Safety Commissioner being a decider in how our police department is being managed — but in reality, nowhere in our city charter does it say that this person has any authority over the police department. 

What the city council does is checks and balances over the city enterprise, making sure no corruption is happening, that bills are paid on time, money is being appropriately and legally accounted for and allocated. When we suspect things are not happening in the way they should, we can raise the concerns — but we’re bringing that to the attention of the mayor’s office. It is still the police chief and the mayor who have to execute on and reconcile those issues. 

Some people think of socialism as a negative. Can you describe what socialism means to you?

Socialism is essentially a political ideology that has been around for centuries. As a Black socialist, I am keenly aware that I live in a society that revolves around profits for a few at the expense of the rest of us. This type of society is not conducive towards creating thriving and healthy communities.

Average people want to see their neighbors earning above livable wages to take care of themselves, and maybe even go on a vacation sometimes with their children. Everyday people want to see folks not going into debt for pursuing a dream of going to college, or having to pay off medical expenses. 

In Minneapolis, something as simple as sidewalk snow removal is grounded in a Socialist politics. Neighbors have concerns that many of our residents during the winter aren’t able to get around the city because of worsening climate conditions — our sidewalks become ice rinks. People are hurting themselves. Our current system of hoping that people will plow their sidewalks voluntarily is not working. A municipal sidewalk plowing program ensures via collective responsibility that our sidewalks are safe. That’s part of public safety. The socialist approach is about recognizing that communities have many shared values — and that we want each other to be taken care of.

In understanding socialism, you quickly realize it is in conflict with a society that is organized around profit. You can’t have health care for everyone because it’s privately owned by a few companies. If something is not lucrative, or if it’s too expensive, private health care executives are not investing in it. 

We are in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and Minnesota is one of the wealthiest states in the U.S. right now. We technically should not have any underfunded schools. But private school education is lucrative [and drawing resources away from public schools].

Socialism is about creating systems, policies, and infrastructures that supports our collective well being. It is about believing that no one should be able to get abundantly wealthy —like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musks — while the rest of us wait for their wealth to trickle down. Trickle-down capitalism is not working. So what can we do to reverse the effects of that? How can we fully fund our public infrastructure so no one loses their housing, or chooses between paying rent or paying a medical bill?

Minneapolis is a pretty wealthy city yet we have some of the grossest racial and economic disparities in the country. It’s not a question of resources. Our residents shouldn’t be priced out of housing and have to live in tents on the streets. People shouldn’t be forced to bus their kids all across the city in order to have access to quality schools. We should be able to fund our public infrastructures and make sure our streets are paved and our sidewalks are well lit, and cleared during the winter months. 

That is literally the vision of what we’re rooting for, where humanity is honored and everyone has what they need to have fulfilling, productive, and healthy lives. For some reason, there are a lot of folks who want to make that a scary vision. 

We see that with what is happening with Palestine and Gaza, we saw that in the uprising. People band together in moments of crisis and do what they need to do in order to make sure their neighbors are taken care of. It shows we have a deep connection to one another and want the best for one another. That is what socialism is.