Meet the Wedge: Mitra Jalali Nelson

Last Sunday, I had the opportunity to speak with Mitra Jalali Nelson, who is running for City Council in St. Paul’s Ward 4. I came to St. Paul loaded with the ultimate gotcha question, which turned suddenly into two gotcha questions. By the end of the interview Mitra had got gotten. Below is that portion of our conversation (read my endorsement of Mitra here).

Mitra Jalali Nelson

Can we end on a gotcha question?

Mitra: Oh god.

This is a style of question that got a lot of candidates in trouble in Minneapolis last year. Remember the question about a “city without police?” This is a similar style of question, but not on police. Can you envision a city without single-family zoning? What does that look like?

Mitra: Yes. I really see potential for a whole diversity of ways people could live. I’m really interested in housing cooperatives. I’m really interested in more mixed use apartment buildings. I’m interested in multi-family zoning.

Single-family zoning as a traditional way of life is organized around people’s access to wealth and that status has been organized around people’s racial and ethnic background. When you start to unpack that, you understand that it’s a form of organizing our economy that has meant lots of people don’t have access to the same things as others. For some that’s hard to unpack and fathom, but for my family that’s just been a reality that we’ve had to understand about the world — and for a lot of families.

What’s more important to me is that everyone has a place where they can have a concept of home, whatever that looks like for them. And be able to build off of that. What we’ve done is said the only true concept of home is that type of zoning and that type of living situation. Part of this is just my psyche as someone who is from a really complex family, and has had a really specific life experience navigating the world. 

Being racially vague and ambiguous kind of changes your brain chemistry. You’re always thinking what do I have in common with other people? What is home? What does that mean for me? There’s a lot of first-generation immigrant kid issues going on with that too. This concept of home for me has never been just what the traditional American concept has been. There’s just always been more abstract forms of it. 

Speaking in real terms about right now, 2018, in our city: what we need is as many ways as possible for people to have a dignified way of life and a way to actually live and save and build — not just survive, but do well in our city. When we are taking entire sections of our communities and not maximizing them for the benefit of everyone, we’re fundamentally taking away from other people’s ability to do that.

I gotcha.

Mitra: You’re not gonna ask me the police question?

Uhhhhhhhh, ok. You want to answer the police question?

Mitra: Well, I mean, yeah, I can envision a world without police.

Is that going to get you in trouble in St. Paul?

Mitra: I don’t know. I actually don’t know. Because I think we’re in an interesting moment for public safety in our city, in that we are trying to shift the culture and say, public safety starts with investing in people’s lives. Police are the biggest part of the budget. When you take the city budget and break it down and see how much of it is emergency response services, and how much of that is fire vs. police — I think that it at least warrants a reevaluation.

And there also was a world without police, already. That already existed. Thinking about what modern community safety looks like, now, is the kind of imagination that helps us get to a better community. We’re in a moment as a community, people want to have that conversation. That’s what I’ve learned.

And I’m running in a ward that’s — my ward is not generally who’s being disproportionately policed by SPPD. It’s not like it’s not happening here and there, but this isn’t the part of the city that experiences as much aggressive, disparate policing. And yet the amount of people who care about it, that I’ve talked to, it’s probably the number three thing that people ask me about [when doorknocking]. There’s just a desire in our city to see real change and feel like it’s actual change and not tweak a thing here, tweak a thing there.

What I’m scared about is — there’s so much trauma in our community from the death of Philando, and the death of Marcus Golden, and different names in our community — I’m really exhausted from going through this cycle of tragedy and marches and feeling like nothing is changing. Having people and politicians just wring their hands, saying “it’s just so complicated.”

I feel like we are really racked with a struggle that doesn’t feel like it’s evolving right now unless we’re willing to go further and say maybe we actually just start to reinvest in other things. Maybe we just figure out what aspects modern police offer right now that can only be offered by them vs. something else — and be willing to think that way. I know it’s complicated and that it’s really sticky for people.

I am different now because in the last two years I’ve supported people whose relatives have been killed by police and watched their lives go on after the activism has stopped and after the public response has stopped. When you actually see someone privately going through it in that way, they don’t just check out and say “ok, I’ll wait until the anniversary of that comes around again to post something about it on Facebook and then it’s out of my mind.” Those people are still living their lives, or trying to, and feeling re-traumatization and psychological impacts. There’s too many public health concerns about it for me to not be willing to imagine it.