Preface: I buried the lede. If you don’t make it to the end, I want you to know about HF 322: “Governmental units allowed to sue to recover costs related to unlawful assemblies and public nuisances.” Also, this post has been boiling under the surface for me for over a year. The topic continues to remain relevant. One big stumbling block for me in publishing this has been in interest in being educated before attempting to educate. I’ve learned a LOT about race, class, activism, and civic engagement in the last few years, and even more in the last few months – but I feel like I have SO MUCH more to learn before I can publish this. I can write about road diets all day, but THIS topic? I don’t claim to be an expert at all. This is kind of scary for me to put out there, but I’m doing it anyway – it’s not doing anybody any good sitting in the drafts pile.
Perhaps, by virtue of my occupation, I am more sensitive to the significance of our built environment and transportation system than the average Minnesotan. Regardless, seeing reports of #blacklivesmatter protesters walking onto and shutting down I-35W last year brought tears to my eyes. I try my best not to cry at work. But the point of in-person protests is to express disapproval of or objection to something in a way that other people can hear. Since we have rebuilt our public spaces to dedicate them to the movement of cars – that’s where you now find people. On the freeway.
Since then, these freeway blockages have happened a few times, and these actions have, of course, caused a lot of conversation – which is the point. I heard the phrase “black lives matter” on commercial radio for the first time ever shortly after the first blockage. As an MPR member, I’m embarrassed to admit that I listen to commercial radio, but there it is. A lot of the conversations have centered around how inconvenient it was for people in their cars stopped on the freeway. Arguments include: What if someone is late to work and loses their job? What if there’s an ambulance that is delayed en route to save someone’s life? Our sense of entitlement to the unimpeded, continuous movement of vehicles on freeways is so ingrained – we can’t imagine an issue that is more important than getting where we’re going. But, that’s the point. Life saving emergency care is important, but so is not being shot at a traffic stop.
A sea of protesters parting for the mythical “what if” ambulance
Many assert that protests should occur in “sanctioned” spaces that do not inconvenience or bother the general public. This assertion is fraught with problems. In some cases, the idea of sanctioned protest spaces has resulted in the Orwellian concept of free speech zones. Weird.
Also, the permitting process for any gathering – Open Streets, May Day Parade, Twin Cities Marathon – is nothing to sneeze at. It’s too easy for those in power to oppress the voices of the people by denying a permit or drowning them in red tape. Side note: the closure of 7th Street for the impromptu Prince memorial dance party was achieved in record speed. The Purple One was truly transcendent.
Martin Luther King Jr. was routinely arrested for protesting without a permit – if he hadn’t been willing to do so, we might not have heard his name in school each February. A public demonstration isn’t effective if you aren’t able to draw attention to your cause. Of course, the MLK that I learned about thanks to the Rochester Public School District in the 80’s and 90’s was a beatified, neutered, placid version of him. I’m relearning my Civil Rights history, and finding that it is much, much messier than I was led to believe. My husband and I watched Selma recently, and I now have March, by John Lewis, on my reading list.
How purposeful public spaces promote civic engagement
Relatedly, I was lucky to be able to attend the Women’s March on Washington sister march in Saint Paul on January 21st. I’m relatively new to the Cities and hadn’t spent much time at the Capitol before. The direct line of sight from the Cathedral of Saint Paul to the Minnesota State Capitol building is on purpose – just like the line of sight from the Jefferson Memorial to the White House. A double terminating vista makes for a really breathtaking walk and stirred a lot of civic emotions in this urban planner / activist.
John Ireland Boulevard – view of the Cathedral to the southwest
John Ireland Boulevard – view of the State Capitol to the northeast
The only problem is, because John Ireland Boulevard is part of an isolated government campus – we were there by ourselves. We had plenty of room for the 100,000 of us to chant and cheer and listen to speeches, but was it just an outdoor, in-person echo chamber?
By contrast, I found myself in Des Moines, IA two days before the event. Check out Des Moines’ Court Ave :
An urban block with retail, office space…and a view of the Polk County Courthouse. Now THAT is a terminating vista. What if 100,000 people showed up HERE the day after the inauguration?
The privatization of the public square
Remember the Mall of America protest? Instead of traveling on a network of local streets, we now travel on freeways. Instead of shopping on those same streets, we now go to the mall. Enter, the rotunda at the Mall of America. The rotunda is effectively Bloomington’s town square. Music performances, radio station events, dance competitions, and job fairs – they all happen here. If you want a “public” place where there are large numbers of people with whom you can share your objection, it is a logical venue.
An authorized use of the MOA rotunda – singing in a blue shirt
The problem, of course, is that the MOA is private property. Private property rights are some of the most heavily protected rights in America. Thanks to anti-fur protests in the 1990’s, the Minnesota Supreme court has actually ruled that free speech does not apply at the MOA.
Minnesota House File 322
Which brings us to the legality of protests. There are a number of ways that citizens can have their voices heard. Get a permit to close a street that won’t inconvenience anyone, close a street without a permit that WILL inconvenience people, or demonstrate on private property in a way that will inconvenience people. Civil disobedience is part of American culture – from the Boston Tea Party to the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter. And, given that the availability of spaces to peacefully assemble is limited – it will need to continue.
There is a risk and a potential price for civil disobedience – the risk of arrest and penalty under the law. But, Minnesota House Republicans have introduced a bill to expand the amount of punishment for peaceful public demonstration. The description of HF 322 is: “Governmental units allowed to sue to recover costs related to unlawful assemblies and public nuisances.” The bill passed it’s first committee, and has been forwarded on to the Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance committee. It’s not a law yet, but if it is, it would mean that the price for participating in grass roots actions like freeway blockages or mall demonstrations would be even higher. Given the availability of spaces to peacefully assemble is limited – this could result in our fundamental right to free speech being eroded.
Great post. One of my biggest concerns with HF322 is that this proposal effectively transfers sentencing decisions to police. That’s because the police are choosing how much to react (I mean overreact, of course) to these events.
The classic “Welcome to Mall of America” photo with the line of baton-wielding police comes to mind. Those are the protests where police shut down MOA shops that didn’t want to be shut down.
The police often deploy their force in a way that is pre-emptively disruptive and costly. It introduces severe conflicts of interest and other grave concerns about ceding power from courts of law to enforcers of law.
The problem with many large scale protests is how counter productive they are.
Large profile protests are very unpalatable to people who are in the middle or undecided on the issue at hand, and more angry it is the more likely it will push people against the interest of the protest than win their hearts. Plus it also seems to further galvanize the opposition.
I’ve talked to a lot of different kinds of people and I think the way the national black lives matter protests plaid out contributed a huge part towards the outcome of the last election.
I don’t think blocking off roads and disrupting lives is a productive way to win people over.
Maybe HF322 will help save good causes from them selves.
With all due respect, I don’t think you have any idea what works with respect to protest and what doesn’t. Progress comes from motivating those who care, not from swaying those who are indifferent.
People who say they are in the middle or undecided, but were moved away because they couldn’t bear the inconvenience weren’t really in the middle or undecided.
Anyone who’s outraged by a slowed commute but not innocent unarmed people dying at the hands of the police is probably not someone who can be won over.
From MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
What is your suggestion for “good causes” to do? What does “winning people over” without inconveniencing them in the slightest do to advance a cause?
The thing is, we all have a constitutional right to political speech. So it doesn’t really matter if you think it’s a good idea for other people to protest – it’s their constitutional right, and they get to exercise it. A law like this will fail once people take it to court, but it will have already stifled public speech by raising its costs a lot.
Great post. The nature of public space and how it is used is an extremely important part of the conversation about land use and transportation.