By Imma Gene
Inspired and informed by the Stop Cop City movement in Atlanta, a grassroots coalition in Winona, MN was able to save their town’s recreation center from being replaced by a three-story police/fire complex after months of organizing culminating in September, 2022.
Community Not Cages (CNC) is a consensus-based, horizontal community network of artists, students, researchers, teachers, parents, and dreamers. We have built mutual aid sites at reclaimed spaces, like the site of a county jail, and have committed to public research for the purpose of political education and to demand investment in our community and divestment from the prison industrial complex. Winona has a population of ~27,000, and its governance will not stop prioritizing carceral visions. Cops in our schools, a jail, a juvenile detention center, and a new police station are all priorities that have been met by our neighbors with resistance. Community Not Cages is a primarily working class femme and mother-centered network that aims to build narratives around abolition. In 2020, in coalition with other racial justice organizers, we removed cops from schools. In 2021, we stopped plans for a regional juvenile detention center, planned for construction alongside the 98-bed jail (panopticon). We hope that our most recent rural abolitionist win to stop cop block motivates other small-town abolitionist communities to attempt similar feats.
Stop Cop Block: A Timeline of Resistance
In February 2022, after the city council unveiled a plan to build an overpriced new police station, CNC hosted a “People’s Public Comment” event on the steps of city hall with more than sixty community members. This direct action was necessary, because public comment was not allowed at city council meetings at that time. The key demands at the People’s Public Comment were:
- An Alternative Response Team (ART);
- Affordable housing NOW;
- Keep cops out of community centers.
The multi-million dollar project would have demolished our town’s only free rec center in a working class neighborhood and replaced it with a three-story police/fire complex, with a gun range, a gym, and indoor parking for the Winona Sheriff and WPD’s Mine Resistant Armored Vehicle (MRAP). Cop block was branded by the city as a “public safety” building, and simultaneously we had to contend with the local nonprofit industrial complex’s liberal reformism, which manifested in tone-policing of righteous anger and cooptation of movement language. CNC reminded our neighbors that the rec center is already a place of public safety. The rec is the only free, indoor space for children, making it an integral resource for working families. It also hosts the winter farmers market, vaccine clinics, youth and adult sports, and other programming. It acts as an emergency shelter, and it maintains a space for community gardens. Preserving this space and keeping cops out was a win for our collective care!
The most historic moment of this fight was the July 5th, 2022 public hearing. Despite an attempt by some city council members to discourage attendance by scheduling the hearing directly after a holiday, more than 200 people showed up at city hall, filling the council chambers and spilling out into the hallway. During the almost three hours of public comment, 68 testimonies were made to save the rec, while only three supported the proposal. Children, moms, grandmas, farmers, teachers, and artists spoke truth to power.
Throughout the summer, we hosted multiple pop-up community events. Members of our community shared food and educated neighbors about the campaign to stop cop block and save the rec. Nearly 150 community members were fed this summer, and together we dreamed up a people’s budget! After this sustained pressure and solidarity, we stopped cop block in September 2022.
Community Not Cages is committed to ongoing political education, as the best praxis is grounded in the strategies, wins, and pitfalls of other movements. We learned from the campaign to Stop Cop City in Atlanta, GA, which provided an analysis of the prison industrial complex’s interconnected state violence via policing, militarism, and settler colonial environmental injustices. Stop Cop City and defend the Weelaunee Forest in Atlanta.