A new era in Minneapolis and Minnesota politics began Monday (Jan. 6) as seven new City Council members — including the first Latina, the first Somali and the first Hmong-American to be elected to the 13-member body — were sworn in and new Mayor Betsy Hodges called for an end to the “gaps” between white people and people of color in the city.
(THE UPTAKE WANTS YOUR COMMENTS: Comment on this story below!)
But if anyone thought the profound demographic and political transitions underway in the state’s largest city will come smoothly, the inauguration ceremony in the City Hall Rotunda was followed immediately by a protest led by Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, which called on the mayor and new council members to keep their campaign promises to fight inequality. Underscoring their protest, the demonstrators were not allowed to comment publicly at the City Council meeting that was held after the inaugural ceremonies, prompting them to hold a rally in the third floor corridor outside the council meeting.
In her formal inauguration address, Hodges stated her goal to “eliminate the shameful and intolerable gaps between white people and people of color” and to grow the city’s middle class. “This is our call, Minneapolis, to be more than just a great city, but to be a new city, shining as a beacon brightly enough to show our nation and the world that when we come together as a people, as a government and in community, it is possible to be transformed,” she said.
“This is going to be a different council,” said returning Ward 8 council member Elizabeth Glidden. “Not only is it culturally and racially more diverse, but it’s a modern council. We’re going to be a council focused on racial equity.”
Nevertheless, the council refused — on a split vote — to suspend its rule against permitting the public to speak at council meetings (public testimony is allowed only at committee meetings). Thus, the “new era” does not include new procedures. But it does include seven new faces:
The new council sees a number of “firsts”, especially among immigrant communities. But it also lost its one American Indian council member, Robert Lilligren, who was defeated in November by Somali-American Abdi Warsame. It also lost Don Samuels, a Jamaican-American who ran for mayor last fall and didn’t seek re-election to the council. Samuels’ 5th Ward seat was won by Blong Yang.
Yang, the first Hmong American to be elected to the council, says the focus on closing racial disparities can’t just be lip service. As a person who comes from a marginalized community, Yang said he plans to serve not only the Hmong community, which he said sometimes can be invisible on the North Side, but also African Americans, whites, Somalis, Latinos and all of those living in the 5th Ward.
The new 9th Ward Council member, Mexican-American Alondra Cano, stressed the importance of differentiating between “talking and doing.” For her part, Cano hopes to raise the number of people of color the city hires, as well as reaching out to communities of color in other ways, such as by addressing health and housing inequalities and supporting small businesses.
After the reception for the inauguration, an estimated 200 protesters gathered in the Rotunda, chanting “Equity Now” and displaying a banner listing various demands such as a $15-an-hour minimum wage, affordable housing and “quality public education for all”. They also sang the old Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” as new Mayor Hodges raised her voice with theirs.
It wasn’t long, however, before a sour note was sounded when the demonstrators were prevented from speaking at the first City Council meeting of the new year, which followed minutes later.
Anthony Newby, the executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing For Change, said the days of “prioritizing the interest of the richest One Percent over the values of the majority are over.” The demonstrators turned out despite bitterly cold temperatures, he said, to call for “equal opportunity for stable and affordable housing, access to livable wage employment, high quality educational opportunities, and a high quality life for ALL of our residents.”
But they did not get to make those demands at the City Council meeting.
As demonstrators chanted “Let the people speak” outside the council chambers, Cano introduced a motion that would have suspended the council rules to permit 15 minutes of public testimony. The motion was seconded by 2nd Ward Council member Cam Gordon. and received a majority of votes — from Gordon and Cano and Council members Jacob Frey, Linea Palmisano, Lisa Bender, Yang and Andrew Johnson. But it needed a two-thirds majority in order to pass, and failed on a 7-to-6 vote.
“We’re disappointed that directly impacted community members weren’t given the opportunity to speak today,” said Newby after the motion failed. “But the fact that a majority of Council Members voted in favor of the motion gives us hope that with enough pressure we can bring about a new direction for a new Minneapolis. Our communities can’t wait any longer for the city to take these worst-in-the-nation racial equity gaps seriously. We need a racial equity agenda for the new term, and we need it to start today.”
Community members held a people’s hearing to allow those who came to share their stories in the overflow room. The following excerpts from their testimony were provided by Neighborhoods Organizing For Change:
“I lost my home after getting hit with some unexpected court fees the week of Thanksgiving,” said Lynnette Stewart, a disabled working mother of four. “My four children and I were living out of our vehicle as Christmas was coming, and we had nowhere else to go. By the grace of God I connected to Occupy Homes, which moved me into a home that had been abandoned by the bank. No one should have to sleep in their car or on the street through the Minnesota winters. The city of Minneapolis must use eminent domain to turn these vacant homes into affordable housing for people like me who can’t afford the high market-rate rent.”
“I’m 35 years old and have been pulled over 61 times, though I have no criminal record. That’s evidence of the racial profiling and police accountability crisis in Minneapolis that has never been taken seriously by City Hall,” said Marcus Harcus, an organizer with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. “My wife and I have both been brutalized by the police. From 2006 to 2012, the Minneapolis police paid $14 million in brutality settlements–and that’s just to people who could afford to get a lawyer. We need to hold the police accountable with independent investigations. Police officers who are brutalizing us should be locked up. They cannot be above the law.”
“The Twin Cities are supposed to be the healthiest in the country–but that’s only if you’re rich and white,” said LaDonna Redmond, a nationally renowned food justice advocate. “But if you’re a person of color, you have to suffer through these inequities, like living near the HERC incinerator, asthma, hypertension, diabetes, homelessness–everything poverty brings. People are creating policies that continue to keep people impoverished. That’s what this is about.”
“Talk is good, but action is even better.” said community activist Mel Reeves, “The Twin Cities have consistently held the nation’s largest black/white employment gap. No other city even comes close. What those statistics reveal is that there’s some discriminating going on. When you have a situation where everyone’s kicking in but not sharing in, it’s a giant unfairness, and a blot on what we call a liberal city. If you invite me to dinner but don’t put any food on my plate, you haven’t fed me dinner.”