Local activist group protests potential law enforcement center

Erich Schweitzer, News Reporter

Less than two weeks ago on Monday night, Feb. 7, the Winona City Council met to decide if future plans for the East End Recreation Center would include merging it with a brand new law enforcement station.

While City Council no longer allows public comment at their meetings, citizens of Winona stood outside City Hall in cool winter weather to host their own session for public comment on the topic.

Those citizens included local parents, children and seniors, as well as students and staff of Winona State University. The subject of their organizing was to protest the proposed plans for the merging, which have begun to move forward despite the public opposition.

City Council has since hired consultants for the project, which is estimated to cost more than $20 million.

On Jan. 31, the Winona City Council announced the proposed plans to demolish the East End Rec Center in order to replace it with a new law enforcement center, which would include a new shared recreation space for citizens and members of the police and firefighting force. Some in opposition have begun referring to it as a “cop shop,” a term used to express distaste for law enforcement institutions.

The Monday evening protest outside of City Hall was organized by Community Not Cages (CNC), a grassroots community group dedicated to “building the power of people and families impacted by mass incarceration.” According to CNC, the recreation center is “one of the only sites for kids to play” in Winona. They are against the idea of children in Winona having to share “what was once a safe space” with law enforcement.

One of the group’s main concerns is that the proposed new center will mean that children of color will be forced to interact with law enforcement in the shared space.

According to CNC’s website, in 2018 “black students were 8.5 times more likely than white students to experience suspensions at Winona Area Public Schools, linked to the racial discrimination and policing at schools.” One of their speakers at the event said police discrimination could be associated with worse academic performance for students of color.

Winona State students who were present also contributed to the conversation.

Rowan Larson, a student at the university, expressed how the Winona community should focus on protecting family spaces like the recreation center from being demolished. Rowan said she does not support the idea of the center being replaced by a police station either, stating “police and public safety are not synonymous.”

Larson has also witnessed a similar situation in her hometown, she said. Larson told the crowd gathered on Monday evening that in her hometown, the community had built a police station in front of a playground and now very few children are seen there at all.

Taylor Laur, another student at Winona State who studies psychology, also expressed her distaste for a new police station. Laur said she does not like the idea of children being forced to share a recreation center with cops because, “[we live in] a country where Black children are shot in parks.”

Racial discrimination in the police force could make children of color uncomfortable when being forced to interact with them, which could cause psychological problems for them later in life, Laur said.

Laur also believes the Winona area needs an alternative to police for various situations. According to Laur, “police never make the situation better when called in for mental health crises.”

According to one of the group’s members, Katie Mueller-Freitag, Community Not Cages also supported the idea of the Alternate Response Team, which would provide people with another option besides the police for specific situations, such as a mental health crisis. This would mean individuals could call a responder who would not be armed.

Initially, Winona’s City Council voted unanimously in favor of the Alternate Response Team. Only months later, however, the council cut the plan due to a “budget deficit.”

While the discussed plans for the new law enforcement-community recreation center are not concrete yet, some Winona individuals still maintain hope they will not lose the current East End Recreation Center.

For more information on Community Not Cages and City Council’s discussion, visit their respective websites at www.communitynotcages.org and https://www.cityofwinona.com/319/City-Council-Mayor .