Public meetings, typically staid and attended by few people other than elected officials, have become a noisy scene for ongoing protests about racial equity and police violence.
On Wednesday alone, protesters drowned out two meetings, leading to citations and evictions at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board headquarters and adjournment without completion of the agenda at Falcon Heights City Hall.
Disruptive tactics — from chanting to heckling officials while they speak — have become increasingly common in meeting rooms across the Twin Cities metro area on issues ranging from debate over a $15 minimum wage to the fatal police shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile.
It’s left public officials grasping for ways to keep meetings going — to conduct the business they’ve been elected to do — while balancing residents’ right to be heard.
Activists, meanwhile, say they are doing what they must to get their message across and balk at criticism of their methods.
“When we kneel in silent protest, it’s not the right way. When we burn the city down, it’s not the right way. When we chant and shout, it’s not the right way,” said Raeisha Williams, communications director for the Minneapolis NAACP. “Obviously, there is no right way.”
Williams was among four people, ages 17 to 67, who were ticketed for disorderly conduct or obstructing police at Wednesday’s Park Board meeting.
Six others were escorted out of the meeting by officers. She and other NAACP members demanded an apology Thursday.
“Whenever people of color and their allies rise up against oppression, they’re met with a law enforcement presence,” the NAACP said in a statement Thursday.
But Commissioner Scott Vreeland, who has been one of the targets of protesters, said Thursday: “I think it’s really important that we’re able to conduct a meeting.”
The meeting marked a new approach by Park Board President Anita Tabb after several months of chanting that drowned out board business and forced it to recess. Tabb warned protesters to stop disrupting the meeting before Minneapolis and park police intervened.
The board is also in the process of adopting standards of decorum for its meetings that would specify prohibited behaviors, such as shouting, stamping feet and defamatory comments.
NAACP members and allies have argued that employees of color are discriminated against in hiring, promotions and discipline and that they face retaliation when they complain, an assertion that park officials generally dispute.
Jordan Kushner, an attorney who often represents protesters, said City Council meetings have been disrupted for decades. But now, he said, “I think it happens more often.”
He attributes the increase to a feeling among people that they’re marginalized by elected officials who don’t seem accountable and are swayed by the influence of money in politics. Moreover, access to social media has allowed citizens to educate others about issues that don’t draw mainstream media attention, he said.
The disorderly conduct charged at the Park Board happened the same week the Minnesota Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of a Little Falls woman convicted of disorderly conduct after she refused to move her chair.
She had been sitting in an area between public seating and the City Council.
Officials can’t restrict speech at meetings based on the viewpoints expressed, but a public body can put reasonable restrictions on time, place and matter of that comment, said Raleigh Levine, a Mitchell Hamline law professor specializing in First Amendment and election law. If people then disrupt the meeting by shouting, chanting or interrupting business, “it may be reasonable to adjourn or ask the protesters to leave,” she said, as long as that’s evenhandedly applied.
But Levine said she’s more concerned by any longer-term trespass orders keeping people from a building where an elected body meets.
“It’s one thing to punish people for disorderly conduct,” she said. “It’s another to say in the future they are not allowed to participate in a meeting that is generally open to the public.”