What do you want for your community? What would it look and feel like? Where would your kids play? How hard would you fight? What would you sacrifice? Members of the New London Connecticut People’s Budget have had to deeply consider these questions and more. Come listen to their story.
Shared on WPKN, Mic Check, July 2, 2023
Maya Sheppard: [00:00:00] Countless Sunday meetings, which — it’s not my favorite. Sunday, you know, it’s a chill day, but everybody sacrificed their Sunday, you know, to do the work.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:00:13] Hello beautiful WPKN and listeners, I’m Isabelle Barbour. I’d like to welcome you to WPKN’s mic check which comes to you on WPKN every Sunday at 5:30 p.m.. Our diverse roster of hosts presents a wide range of topics for discussion, focusing on global, national and regional issues that affect our local community. Just as the phrase mic check mobilizes people to create a human microphone during public demonstrations and protest actions, this weekly program amplifies our community’s many voices and brings them to the airwaves. This show will be posted on WPKN’s archive site for the next two weeks. Go to archive WPKN.org. Choose the air date and click on the show. Mic check and boom, you’ll have access to this recording. If you want to contact me, I can be reached at IBWPKN@gmail.com.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:01:24] What do you want from your community? What would it look and feel like? Where would your kids play? How hard would you fight? There are communities around this country that are looking at their city and town budgets and really asking those questions. Here’s Kris Wraight, a community member who lives in New London, Connecticut, talking about her vision to the New London City Council.
Kris Wraight (public testimony): [00:01:54] If you want to imagine for a minute a truly equitable budget, let’s do that. An equitable budget could fund a dirt bike park in Bates Woods for our young people who love their dirt bikes so much. It would quiet our streets and center their needs. An equitable budget could build a youth center that we’ve needed for decades. An equitable budget could fund a mental health department able to respond to the 60% of New London calls for mental health services that go into 911. Can you picture it? Can you feel what it would be like to live in a city where we take care of our own?
Isabelle Barbour: [00:02:40] You’ll hear Kris’s voice again as our story continues. Communities from Seattle, Washington to New London, Connecticut, are taking a look at their budgets and creating what’s called People’s Budgets. A People’s Budget is designed by a democratic process. It’s a participatory budgeting process in which community members directly decide how to spend part or all of the public budget. As community members look at their budgets, one thing often stands out, and that is the amount of resources that are devoted to public safety — much of this is in the form of police department budgets. Hearing Youth Voices is a nonprofit in New London, Connecticut, that has been doing a lot of work to limit the negative impacts of policing in both schools and the greater community. Here’s Maya Sheppard, the executive director of Hearing Youth Voices.
Maya Sheppard: [00:03:45] Hearing Youth Voices is a political home for young people to come and sort of like bring their bring and bear their whole selves without judgment. Walk through the hard questions. Make mistakes without being disposed of — and we are very curious about power and how it gets built, why it gets built — what’s the roots? How do we share power and build communities of dignity and safety for all the people that don’t have it right now.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:04:35] In 2018, the American Public Health Association passed a policy statement around law enforcement violence as a public health issue. The finding was that while public safety is essential for public health, as a society, we’ve delegated this function almost wholly to law enforcement. And there is there’s a lot of evidence that law enforcement violence in US policing has failed to equitably deliver safety, placing an inequitable burden on the mental and physical well-being of socially and economically marginalized populations, i.e. people of color and poor people are disproportionately impacted by police violence. But of course, community activists have known this for a long time.
Maya Sheppard: [00:05:29] One of the demands since, you know, the inception of Hearing Youth Voices was like, how do we get police out of school? Right. So end of 2019, we decide, okay, let’s let’s go for it. Let’s start talking about it. So we do some strategic planning and we’re like ready to launch. And then, you know, 2020 pandemic hard launches, hard launch pandemic, and like we halt and we’re just like meeting the needs of our people. We’re like, we open up an emergency fund we like, we’re getting food to people and we’re just like holding a lot of space. And then George Floyd is murdered and before that. Breonna Taylor. Right. And there’s this — there’s this welling of despair — Right? — of anger — of frustration and of like, conviction to act. Like young people are like, okay, like we can’t ignore what’s happening. So young people do their thing that they do, which is organize each other and like organize the adults to say, this is what we want to do and like, y’all are with us or not. And June 6th, we lead a protest. Thousands of people in the street and saying like, it’s time to put our money where our mouth is.
Kela Parker (singing): [00:07:03] Lift every voice and sing till earth and.
Youth Speaker 1 (at protest): [00:07:11] Read our first demand. We demand that 35% of the New London Police Department 2020 budget be invested into services that support New London residents who are black, brown and poor.
Youth Speaker 2 (at protest): [00:07:24] We demand an additional $760,000 be immediately reallocated from the New London Police Department 2020 budget to New London Public Schools. We demand that New London public schools immediately sever their relationship with the New London Police Department.
Youth Speaker 3 (at protest): [00:07:42] Number four. We demand that the New London Police Department demilitarize immediately.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:07:56] Maya and Kris Wraight, who you heard earlier, are very clear about youth being in the driver’s seat for the development of a campaign that became known as Fed Up New London. Fed Up New London really informed the creation of the People’s Budget campaign.
Maya Sheppard: [00:08:18] So it was 35% of the police department budget to be reallocated to youth services, human services, education.
Kris Wraight: [00:08:28] And young people decided that number. I remember that conversation where we were trying to figure out like, what — what’s the right percentage? And the young people leading the movement decided on that number, not not because that was necessarily an end, but that felt like. At least 35% needs to be moved.
Maya Sheppard: [00:08:54] It was just a moment where a ton of things lined up, right? Like all of our alum were home. Right. Because college had closed down. Right. And like they’re meeting, they’re talking with each other and they’re like, listen, like we came to be a part of this organization to do to do something. And so then launches Fed Up New London. We launch a petition, we get 8000 signatures. We started talking to other community based organizations like like Cultured AF, which was a previous black owned cultural center across the street like Madry Temple, FRESH, Step Up New London, Green Party. And everybody was like, okay, like this aligns with both our organizational values But just like the vision we have for our community, it took a ton of relationship building, like it took a ton of us like just agreeing to come to the same table, sort of put aside the the differences that the nonprofit industrial complex can create around scarcity, around like the competition for funding and like, you know, like we had to put a lot of that on the table and say we agree to disagree in some in some spaces, but we agree that like, we can do this.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:10:21] Part of what reinforced this feeling that the nonprofits could come together is because they had been coming together to meet a lot of community member need that came up during the pandemic and they had been doing this without a lot of support from the city.
Kris Wraight: [00:10:39] There’s a real commitment by those elected officials currently to abdicate any responsibility around the public’s and New London residents — sort of innate needs, right, for housing and food and health care. And that that abdication of responsibility gets put onto the nonprofit system. So the nonprofit system then does its best to provide, in this case, a variety of different opportunities for folks to access food with all these sort of pop up food distribution sites and largely made up of volunteers, right? And then out of those nonprofits and volunteer efforts, needs arise like needs for refrigeration to make sure the food doesn’t get bad, go bad before you get it to the people. But then you’ve got multiple nonprofits asking for funds for refrigeration and the city sort of response to them. When folks show up in significant numbers to ask for funding, the city’s response is, it seems like a redundancy of services that you’re asking for. So that is what prompted the city acknowledged at some point that if there were a coordinator that perhaps we could eliminate some of the redundancies and requests for funding, but takes no leadership in providing the finances for that for that leadership.
Maya Sheppard: [00:12:13] Yeah. And in fact, continuously, like all of every single council meeting that we’ve been to this year and have talked about this, there is this narrative around like the nonprofits need to work together. Like if we work together, we’ll be strong and like it all will get done. And you know, to that we say like we are working together and like we’re working together for People’s Budget so that, you know, we could actually meet the need instead of just putting out the fires. It was a really beautiful process actually, to see like people like tapping into their their own like personal networks, like people calling their parents saying, hey, like, will you come to the city council meeting?
Reona Dyess, New London City Council President: [00:13:03] We are here at City Hall — the council chamber. And we’re here — this meeting is held to receive comments from the community pertaining to the budget. You will have up to three minutes.
Kris Wraight (public testimony): [00:13:19] Good evening, all. Kris Wraight. I think it’s important for you all to know that communities across the state with similar population sizes to New London spend dramatically less on their police and fire departments: Cheshire — we’re looking at 6 million, East Haven, 6.5, Newtown, 7 million. Millions of dollars those communities are saving could go to other needs. You have the opportunity tonight to make changes to the mayor’s proposed budget. And as your constituents, you have a responsibility to listen to us and to act.
Maya Sheppard: [00:13:55] And, you know, when I think back, like those are the moments that really, like, sustained us. You know, when things were getting hard.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:14:05] One of the things that made things hard was that the residents of the city of New London had some different feelings about the importance of the police.
Maya Sheppard: [00:14:18] One of the things that we didn’t originally — it wasn’t an original demand, but it started to become clear. Once we started to do the research was like the, the actual like presence of police in New London. And that’s when the when the 80 officer ordinance, you know, fight started.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:14:40] Part two of the City of New London’s Code of Ordinances; Chapter 15 Officers and Employees; Article Three Police Department; Section 15 – 62 Size of the police force: It shall be the policy of the City of New London to employ a police force comprised of a minimum of 80 full time patrolmen and officers excluding a chief and deputy chief.
Maya Sheppard: [00:15:10] Where did this even come from? And our research told us it was just a number like that someone had thrown out and put onto the charter, which, you know, 80 officers was high. It’s high for this region.
Kris Wraight: [00:15:25] Communities our size across Connecticut with similar populations have more like 50 or 60 officers.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:15:33] I want to clarify this piece around 80 officers. So it was removed through people power and then it was brought back when other folks on the right pushed for it to be brought back.
Kris Wraight: [00:15:52] Yes. It was a referendum that was deliberately excluded from the November regular election. It was a referendum that was put in the summer deliberately to exclude many voters who were not going to show up to a single issue referendum vote, as opposed to it could have been included in the general election, and it was moved to a separate election on purpose, deliberately to sort of manipulate electors and lean heavily on those who always turn out, even if it is for a special election.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:16:34] When did this happen?
Maya Sheppard: [00:16:37] 2021
Kris Wraight: [00:16:37] Yeah
Isabelle Barbour: [00:16:38] Okay. So we’re we’re also in a really rough space pandemic wise, like a really high mortality space pandemic wise.
Maya Sheppard: [00:16:48] We learned some hard lessons about organizing, right? Like we severely underestimated the commitment it that the Republicans, you know, south of the hospital like, you know, were really committed to getting that ordinance back in effect. Right. And we underestimated like how quickly they could move. Right? Like how quickly like that could be organized. And we could like sort of walk back what we saw as some progress.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:17:25] I was a little confused by the use of the term Republican for these voters that wanted the 80 officer ordinance back. New London is really known as a staunchly Democratic city. And we had a discussion about, you know, the difference between party and how people govern.
Kris Wraight: [00:17:45] We’ve got about 15-16,000 registered voters in the city of New London of 27-28,000 people, but only like 3000, 3500 vote. And those that vote. You know, the saying here is row A all the way. The Democrats show up on line A — row A. Power is so tightly held within the Democratic Party, the only the only way to win is to run as a Democrat.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:18:19] There have been some relatively high profile issues with the New London Police Department that have been reported primarily in The Day newspaper. And I was interested to learn from Maya and Kris about community and police relations in the city.
Kris Wraight: [00:18:38] As in so many communities there’s a long history of police abuse within the community. I served on the Police Community Relations Committee as a resident volunteer. For, I believe, seven years. In the 70s, some police brutality happened and the citizen took it to the courts and a consent decree was passed that required New London Police Department to have a process for residents to file complaints against police officers. This committee was then created a decade or so later to sort of supervise this complaint process. When I read in 2011 an article about this committee, this committee was deliberately created in a way that was supposed to have representative a broad span of representatives across the community. So there was a dedicated spot for someone from the education community. There was a dedicated spot from someone, for someone from the NAACP, someone from the Latino and Latino community, gay community and on. When I read the article at the time. There was a white woman sitting in the Latino seat and the chair of the committee, a white man, had been sitting in the seat as chair for 20 years without any sort of reelection. So there was just a whole host of sort of corrupt issues taking place on this one committee that was supposed to provide oversight for residents who were filing complaints against the police department. And that was just sort of just the beginning of a whole host of, like, awful experiences being a volunteer resident on that committee. Of being both on the Union police website and on social media. I mean, my experience personally was just being sort of having my character denigrated and both attacked in meetings and again on social media and websites for just calling into question police misconduct.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:21:11] Kris wasn’t the only member of the Police Community Relations Committee to face abuse. Here are some public testimony from the May 3rd New London City Council meeting.
Community Member 1 (public testimony): [00:21:25] But I do have a pending CHRO case against Michael Passero. They stemmed from my citizen’s complaint from June 2021 against police officers who stalked and harassed me, my fellow PCRC Members, other police officers and NLPD brass on social media and the police union website in staunch opposition to the ethics code of our beloved city.
Kris Wraight: [00:21:49] I think there’s just been report after report of police dogs attacking residents, obviously predominantly black and brown residents. Drugs being planted on citizens. Local police officers taking pictures of people who’ve died and texting them around. I mean, the list of the list of abuse within the New London Police Department is — it’s impossible — we would need we would need days to talk through it all.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:22:25] I always think about like, what is it that would exact change in this place?
Kris Wraight: [00:22:30] I mean, I think real long term sustainable change. Requires us to like reignite the voter base that doesn’t vote, like to reignite the 10-11-12,000 people who typically don’t vote but are registered to and and give them hope that the system can do something different for them and turn out those people so that we can elect different people and we can take back control of the city. I mean, I think the People’s Budget talks about like we need to base build, like we talk about what does it mean to base build. And we also talk about what does it mean to escalate in such a way that those in power are forced to make different decisions. But until we have the power – any escalation, even if it does create change — and our movement has created change — to me will only be short term until we have we have folks in the positions of power who are actually committed to New London serving New Londoners.
Maya Sheppard: [00:23:43] Yes, I think the short answer is yes. The longer answer is I think people are like desperate for something to believe in. Right. And need to, like need to feel like the vote will matter. And, you know, that’s part of the work that we’ve talked about. And like I think we’ve also considered long term. What does it look like to work on a few different tiers? Like what does it look like to go for a state, you know, statewide legislation that would then impact districts? Right. But we also know like the real you know, the fights are won locally.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:24:26] On May 23rd of 2023, the New London City Council approved a 102 million city and school budget. This included 56.2 million in city government spending. 43% of this comprises the majority of public safety, which includes police and fire budgets. It was very similar to what the mayor had put forward. There had been some last minute attempts on the part of two councilors to add money to both the Public Works Department and to Education, but both of those attempts failed. The People’s Budget demands for increased dollars for Youth Services and the Human Services Department budget and for the Department of Education and Public Works were not met either. What was very clear at that hearing, though, was how deeply personal this process had been for both the councilors and members of the People’s Budget. Here’s how one community member describes her experiences.
Community Member 2 (public testimony): [00:25:35] Having built relationships with almost all of you. I can’t even get you to have a conversation with me on the street. So I think that it’s time for us really to come together and realize that again, once you all are no longer elected or you decide not to run anymore, we’re still going to be neighbors. We still need to be cordial and the work still needs to be done.
Kris Wraight: [00:26:01] We keep at it. We keep speaking and we keep organizing and we keep base building and we start campaigning and we we find community members who want to run to truly represent new Londoners needs and we fight to get them elected and then we fight to hold them accountable once they’re elected.
Maya Sheppard Public Testimony: [00:26:29] Good evening, everyone. My name is Maya Sheppard. As a proud resident of New London, I’m the executive director of Hearing Youth Voices and a member and a proud member of the People’s Budget Coalition, advocating for not only an equitable and dignified budget, but a fair and participatory budget process. My mother and all of the young people that sit behind you and that I’ve had the pleasure of working with are why I sit here today. I’m not sure the source of all of your stories and how you got here tonight. Whatever the reason, we urge you to remember it tonight and in a short time. When you announce your campaigns and urge your community to support you and your cause. We’ll see you there and we will remember.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:27:11] I asked Maya and Kris how other people could help New London with the People’s Budget, and this was Kris’s response.
Kris Wraight: [00:27:21] I think getting involved in their own municipal budget process, in their community, I think the more People’s Budget Campaigns spread across the state and country, the more our individual efforts will sort of power and ignite the others. I think we are strengthened by the efforts going on across the country.
Kela Parker (Singing): [00:27:43] Voices sing till Earth and Heaven ring. Ring with the harmony of lib. . .
Isabelle Barbour: [00:28:00] Well, beautiful listeners. That’s our time for today. I want to give a special thanks to Maya Sheppard, Kris Wraight and the whole Hearing Youth Voices team, as well as all the people supporting the People’s Budget. A special thank you goes out to Kela Parker for singing the Black National Anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing, composed by James Weldon Johnson. See you next time. Thanks.