Local Current Blog

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter: ‘The difference is in what we do next’

Mayor Melvin Carter at The Current, 2019. (Nate Ryan/MPR)

After the police killing of George Floyd, Morning Show host Jill Riley has been inviting community members onto her show in order to share their perspectives on the events that have since unfolded. On Wednesday morning she connected with Melvin Carter, the current mayor of St. Paul and also the first African American mayor of St. Paul, to talk about what has been happening in the Midway neighborhood, how the community has been responding, and what defunding the police could look like.

Jill Riley: Good morning, Mr. Mayor.

Mayor Carter: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

You were on Conan. I know Conan O’Brien has been welcoming a number of guests to make sure that he’s getting a lot of voices from the black community on TV. You guys talked about some really serious things. We’re a couple weeks out from the death of George Floyd. What are you feeling in the community right now?

We did just do Conan. That was a surprise. He’s been doing a great job of using his platform to lift other voices and make sure that people are hearing from voices of [our] community. You’re doing the same, and I appreciate that. Right now, our community has gone through a traumatic cycle these past couple of weeks. It started, of course, with the trauma and horror as we watched that video play out. That Tuesday morning, we all woke up to that terrible, terrible video of George Floyd’s murder. It started with that deep anger and rage that was caused by how horrific that murder was. I think it’s caused by the haunting, calm way in which Officer Chauvin knelt on his neck until he died. I think it was caused by the disturbing illustration of police culture, when you see the other three officers just sit there and watch, and it was caused by the fact that this was so predictable and such a cycle that we’re stuck in.

We’ve said, “How egregious does it have to be before someone’s held accountable?” We know that we live in a country where we can see something that disgusting and that obvious and not be sure that anybody will be convicted for it. I think that rage is still there. I hope that that anger is still there. I think that we have developed a conviction to channel it in constructive ways that will help us keep this from ever happening again. As others lamented, the looters and the rioters…and I make a distinction between rioters and protesters. We had lots of people who protested beautifully and peacefully and in healing ways, but we had to address the folks who came to create destruction and violence. It seems like those protesters have won the day, and the energy to say, “We’re going to channel this energy not into destroying our neighborhood, but into building a future for our children.” That’s the prevailing side.

People are calling for disbanding and defunding the Minneapolis police. From your point of view, as the mayor of St. Paul, what are people really getting at?

It’s a great question. My dad is a retired St. Paul police officer, almost 30 years on the force. I got to see him, in particular, as an officer who lived in the neighborhood, who had grown up in the neighborhood, who was raising his children in the neighborhood, and when he went to the library or grocery store, it was right in the neighborhood that he was patrolling. I got to see him solve problems in ways that nobody else could. If you weren’t an officer you probably wouldn’t be able to, and if you weren’t from the neighborhood, you wouldn’t even know that they were problems. I got a chance to see that. I also got a chance to grow up driving while black, around St. Paul, around Minnesota, and around the deep South when I went to college in Florida.

I think the frustration that we’re hearing is, when you look around the country, and we spend $100 billion on policing across the country, and we spend another $80 million on prisons across the country, and we can afford to do that, but we can never afford to clear the Section 8 waiting list. We can never afford to establish universal childcare. We can never afford to make sure that all our families in our communities are just living with the type of peace, stability, and dignity that, frankly, would help boost public safety outcomes incredibly. I think that there’s a frustration that we can spend so much money, and there seems to be never any shortage of money when it comes to law enforcement, but things like making sure that families can afford stable housing and food for their children always feels like a fantasy that we can never get to.

I think that’s the frustration that people are speaking out on, as well as the frustration that we call 911 for a lot of reasons, and sometimes it’s because someone is harming us imminently and we need help. Sometimes it’s because someone is in crisis and needs a different type of help. In St. Paul, we’ve got social workers, for example, embedded in police cars, so we’re responding to people in crisis right alongside our police officers. In St. Paul, we’ve established a restorative justice circles as a substitute for criminal prosecution for non-violent offenders. I think people are really saying, if we value people, if George Floyd is important to us, not just because of the way he died, but if we’re committed to investing in a new way for people like George Floyd to live, then we’ll commit ourselves to a broader set of investments. Not just to chase crime, and not just to show up as fast as possible after a crime occurs, but to invest in families, invest in children, and invest in neighborhoods in ways that can help us minimize the amount of times we find ourselves calling 911 in the first place.

We’ve been talking a lot about the community and cleanup in South Minneapolis around Lake Street. Here in St. Paul, what are those efforts looking like along University Avenue? What is the sense you get from that community?

It’s heartbreaking. If you go down these stretches that were the centers of destruction, we have buildings that have just been burned to the ground. We have about 170 buildings, in one night, that were either damaged or completely destroyed. It’s stunning. We had a chance to walk legislators down University Avenue the other day, like Senator Klobuchar and the governor, just showing them what happened and introducing them to some of those business owners.

I’ll tell you what gives me hope is – we were in our house the other day and some loud music came on and we said, “What is that?” We looked outside and literally an army of neighbors walked down the streets with shovels, brooms, and trash bags helping to do this clean up. We had one business owner this past weekend who outside of a still boarded up store, that they hadn’t fixed their windows yet, they transferred their parking lot into a supply drive so that they could collect formula, diapers, food, and things like that for families to come and get. It was just this amazing showing of community as families came to bring stuff and families came to take stuff. This business owner did that before even fixing his own windows, which were broken.

I was talking to a business owner just the other day who said, “Look, Mayor, my building is burned completely down. It’s completely gone. I have to rebuild completely, and there’s nothing I can do right now.” I said, “I know. We’re here with you,” and she said, “No, what I meant to say is, I’m here to help. I can help if you’re raising money.” This affirms that even when people are suffering in the way that they are right now, there’s a passion about helping. There’s a passionate about rebuilding the community both physically and socio-emotionally.

Would you say that the average person in the Twin Cities is starting to understand what exactly “Black Lives Matter” means?

I think it is entering more of the conversation, and that’s really helpful because at some level, it’s not surprising that I’m speaking up. I am a young African-American man. I do know what it feels like to be pulled over for driving while black, and we don’t have enough time on your show today to tell you about all of those experiences that I’ve had. It’s not just about police killing. It’s about human dignity. I was sharing with the governor the other day that for every time a life is wrongfully taken, there are literally a million microaggressions that play out that helped to negatively impact the relationship between community members and law enforcement. It’s pretty incredible to see this national polling that says something like 80% of Americans now believe that the peaceful protests around George Floyd’s killing are justified.

We’ve sort of asked that horrible rhetorical question, “How egregious does it have to be?” When Eric Garner was killed, we kind of went, “Is that enough?” When Philando Castile was killed, “Is that enough?” Now that George Floyd has been killed, I’m hoping that it’s enough for us to both find the competence in our justice system to hold these officers accountable, but also to find the conviction in ourselves, as a country, not just our African American community, but ourselves as a collective, to say, “We’re not going to abide this. We’re not going to let this continue to happen.”

That word hope, it’s coming up a lot, Mayor. When I talk to musicians, community members, organizations, talking with you this morning, that word hope has come up a lot, and hope for the momentum to continue.

The last thing I’ll say is that there is that hope, but there’s also a profound sense of deja vu. We’ve been here before. We’ve been to these funerals before. We’ve shouted before. We’ve had hashtags before. We’ve said “never again” before. There is an amount of hope, but the difference hasn’t happened yet. The difference is in what we do next, not just African Americans, but what all of us do, what our senior citizens, our elders, what our white community does. That’s where the difference lies, and I’m hoping that we can prove that this moment really is.