First, the city council refused to allow public testimony about the police shooting of Jamar Clark. Then, without notice to protesters and their supporters, a council committee voted to open its meeting to immediate public testimony about the Fourth Precinct protests. The people present and ready to testify? Opponents of the protest, of course, including Police Federation head Bob Kroll. This is not what democracy looks like.
Here’s the time line:
On November 20, protesters from Communities United Against Police Brutality showed up at the Minneapolis City Council meeting, to tell the council that police need to be held accountable for Jamar Clark’s death. Michelle Gross tried to speak, and was escorted out of the council chambers. Then Dave Bicking tried, and was also put out of the meeting. City council meetings do not allow public comment or testimony.
City council committees sometimes do hear from the public. Councilmember Cam Gordon is on the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Emergency Management Committee. He thought that was an appropriate place to hear from the public:
“Even if we just wanted to have a conversation about the situation at the 4th Precinct – and, as or more importantly, the REASONS that people are protesting – that’s something that would be very much worth our committee’s time. In fact, my staff, with my support, raised just such an idea at the Public Safety committee’s last agenda setting meeting, but it was decided that the committee would not do that.”
Then, during the December 2 meeting, with no advance notice to the public, the committee voted to allow public comment. Back to Gordon’s Facebook post:
“There was no general notice to the general public about the opportunity, although it appeared that a few people knew about it before hand. So, we allowed some members of our community, and the Police Federation president, to address the committee and have their views broadcast, without giving other members of our community any notice that this opportunity would be occurring.”
Writing that night, after the committee meeting, Gordon expressed frustration with the process that denied protesters a hearing but gave a platform to their critics. “The only way today’s committee meeting made any sense,” he wrote, “was as an attempt to provide cover for, or put pressure on us for, clearing the 4th Precinct by force.” But Gordon still had hope:
“I hope we avoid that, and I was glad to hear the Mayor this evening on the radio assuring us all that she has not ordered any kind of action to end the protest and that is she is not planning on doing that.”
A few short hours later, at about 4 a.m. on December 3, police moved in on the protesters. The Star Tribune headlined: “Police clearing Fourth Precinct protest site after neighbors bring frustrations to City Hall.”
Exactly as predicted, the rigged committee hearing provided a cover for the police action. This is not what democracy looks like.
Black Lives Matter, in Minneapolis and across the country, is focusing on winning hearts and minds, rather than collaborating with specific government officials or seeking specific legislation. Their strategy, according to a recent article in Dissent Magazine, is “symbolic demands that center the moral crisis at the heart of their struggle.” Waleed Shahid writes that:
“The numerous symbolic actions taken by Black Lives Matter—large marches, die-ins, blocking traffic, and even disrupting the speeches of presidential candidates—have shifted public opinion. These high-profile actions have not necessarily focused on receiving a concession from a particular decision-maker, but have instead tried to draw public attention to the issue of racism and compel ordinary people to take action—or at least choose sides.”
That strategy, according to Shahid, is working. In 2014, only 39 percent of white Americans believed that changes must be made to ensure equal rights. Today that number is 53 percent. (Take a look at the entire article for a thoughtful analysis.)
“I believe that we all benefit from an active and engaged electorate. Free speech and the rights of the people to organize and work for change have led to some of the greatest accomplishments and social reforms in this country’s history. Democracy is not always easy. It is not always convenient, efficient, clean or tidy. But I believe that there is no better alternative.”
The protests and the 4th Precinct encampment included not only Black Lives Matter, but also the NAACP, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, religious and labor groups, and any individuals who chose to be there in peace. Participants were diverse in every imaginable way. The leadership insisted on non-violence and repeatedly asked everyone to practice non-violence, to respect one another, to protect one another from harassment. Thousands of people participated in different ways: staying at the encampment, marching through the streets, bringing food and coffee and clothing and supplies, standing as witnesses. The cost — hours and dollars and sleepless nights — was huge, and still continues. Shahid puts the Minneapolis protests in the context of civil rights protests of the 1960s and, even further back, of Gandhi’s campaigns in India, concluding:
“Observers might question whether the personal sacrifices or disruptive activities are worth such a small demand [as release of the videotapes]. What activists are now proving is what many other movements of the past have already shown us. Creating momentum around a symbolically loaded demand is in fact how many movements have won, and will continue to win.”