The results of the 2016 election have inspired people to protest and “resist” with an intensity not seen in recent years at Minnesota’s Capitol. Lawmakers are not responding with open ears, but rather attempts to silence dissent within the Capitol and in local communities. Community organizations and leaders are showing up and fighting back, working to put pressure on elected officials and remind them that elections are just around the corner.
Katie Drahos is one such individual. Drahos is a retail worker and a new leader with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, who was inspired to organize and fight back after the results of the November 2016 elections.
“I have been a retail worker for the past seven years and it has been terrible. You learn really quickly you have no say in your life. The uncertainty that comes with this realm is really difficult. I felt like organizing with people who felt the same way I do about labor issues was the right thing to do,” said Drahos.
Drahos has been one of hundreds protesting at the Capitol against Republican-led efforts to silence dissent and local organizing.
Intensity At Capitol Not Seen In Years
“Having testified twice against pre-emption, it has become increasingly clear that these bodies do not care about you and they do not care about me,” said Drahos before a House vote on pre-emption in March, “they’ve succumbed to the siren song of lobbyists and golfing trips and late night bourbon chats and they forgot to hear the screams and the yells from their constituents telling them to stop this, to wake up.”
The pre-emption legislation would strip away the rights of local governments to create their own labor laws, by requiring uniform labor standards across the state. Because the law is retroactive, organizers with NOC, FightFor15, and other community organizations have argued the law is aimed at reversing their successful efforts advocating for earned sick and safe time in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Sick and safe time ordinances in both cities are scheduled to take effect on July 1.
In a year notable for its mass marches, airport protests, and daily reminders to call legislators, Drahos and others have made their presence known — resisting in ways and at an intensity not seen in recent years at the Capitol.
“We’ve seen a resistance energy across the country, we’ve seen it across Minnesota. And not around a ‘we don’t like Trump’ ideology, but really that it’s time to resist the status quo, in general,” said Wintana Melekin, the Civic and Political Engagement Director for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.
This is echoed by House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) who recently made waves for her staunch defense of women of color legislators whose voices, she argued, were being ignored on the House Floor.
“It seems to be that participation is at an all-time high. We’re hearing the voices of people in our communities louder than ever before,” said Hortman.
Legislative efforts have touched on everything from anti-choice to anti-protest to anti-BDS movements (this legislation would ban statewide contracts with organizations participating in the Boycott-Divest-Sanctions Movement against Israel) as well as pre-emption.
Fighting The “Perversion Of Legislative Rules To Silence Opposition”
Despite community efforts to stop legislation they argue is unjust, and work to propose their own equitable legislation, there have been a number of difficulties actually resisting.
“We can write laws, we can show up to hearings. And people will, in secret, add something to an Omnibus Bill or hold something in reserve to launch it on the right day so they can avoid accountability,” Melekin said.
Community organizers and leaders find that to a greater extent than before, they must be aware of changing legislative schedules, be present whenever possible, and be aware that they may not get the chance to speak for or against a bill regardless. According to Hortman, that is intentional and sets a dangerous precedent.
“When we start to see the perversion of legislative rules to silence opposition, that is dangerous. It’s one thing to outvote us, it’s another thing to completely shut down dissent. That’s what they do in regimes that move on to authoritarianism. Having government processes that mean something is critical and so important to our democracy,” said Hortman.
According to Drahos, the legislative process has been eye-opening.
“I thought it was interesting how physically jarring it was for people to see people taking off work in order to be at committee meetings. And for people to see people who are not part of the system doing whatever it took to have their voices heard. This has sparked new people being at the Capitol which will intrinsically change things at the Capitol,” Drahos said.
Being present at committee hearings is not the only work that resistance leaders are doing.
According to Melekin, NOC organizers have created a political framework — Resist.Revolt.Unite — centered on Black resistance, which they have been taking across the state to share through house parties.
“We do a training. We get people opting in to the ideology. And then we teach them how to organize around these issues. We’ve been to Bemidji, we’re going to Duluth. We’ve got folks in Farmington. You have folks like (Rep.) Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) who are authoring the pre-emption bill, but his own constituents are calling NOC and saying they want to have a house party, because they do not agree with Pat Garofalo,” Melekin said.
According to Melekin, these house parties are also about dismantling the Republican message that there is a divide between rural issues and city issues.
“The same people who perpetuate capitalism are the same people who perpetuate racism. We cannot end oppression of poor white folks without ending the oppression of Black people. And the same police officers who beat up Black people are the same officers who evict white folks from their trailer homes. It is the same people using the same tools to oppress people and using different language and we’re breaking through that,” Melekin said.
Organizations such as NOC, Voices for Racial Justice, and others have been present at the State Capitol this session, and while they continue to organize, their work has also taken on a new urgency.
“The rich get richer and the poor be damned, that simply doesn’t happen unless it’s planned,” said Michael Chaney, the Executive Director of Project Sweetie Pie at a January rally at the Capitol. Chaney and others were speaking at the annual release of the Voices for Racial Justice (Voices) Racial Equity Agenda. The Voices agenda focuses on a number of key issues from justice for incarcerated communities to food and environmental justice.
NOC has also put forth a policy framework, the second annual United Black Legislative Agenda (UBLA), in conjunction with a number of other community organizations, including the Minneapolis Urban League and the Council on Black Minnesotans.
The purpose of the UBLA is to organize the priorities of Black community leaders, support or oppose specific legislative proposals, and work to ensure that resource distribution from the legislature is just. The UBLA opposes a number of legislative priorities introduced this session and also puts forth a number of community-supported proposals, including a ban on grand juries for police-involved criminal proceedings, money for an urban agriculture pilot project, and scholarships aimed at recruiting teachers of color to Minnesota schools.
“No longer can politicians say they don’t know what Black people want,” said Mica Grimm, an organizer with Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis.
Focus Shifting To 2018 Elections
As the legislative session draws to a close, attention is being given to next year’s session, as well as the 2018 mid-term elections.
“I am extremely excited for the 2018 election. My biggest focus is voter turnout in general, just getting more people to realize the community they live in and then recognize that their voice means something. Just doing that alone will change the game, because right now people are operating on the idea that the same type of people will go out and vote,” said Drahos.
“I think the 2018 election is definitely going to be a day of reckoning for them,” said Hortman, “There’s no such thing as a safe legislative district. They don’t treat any of our districts as things that they cannot win, so we should not treat any of their districts as places that we cannot win.”