Members of the Richfield Social Justice Community gathered on the pedestrian bridge above Minneapolis-bound traffic on Interstate 35W, holding handmade signs against the chain-link fence. “We ALL BELONG Here,” one of the signs read.
A smattering of car horns, both high and low, greeted the demonstrators. Some drivers flashed peace signs and gave a thumbs up; others used their middle fingers.
“I think we’re in it for the long haul,” said Sam Carrillo, a social worker who was there with her two children, blankets draped over them.
Political experts say that suburban residents, motivated largely by inflammatory rhetoric in last year’s campaign, are pushing back from computer keyboards and getting more involved in their communities.
It’s happening in the suburbs just outside Minneapolis, where voter turnout is consistently high and leans decidedly to the DFL Party.
Richfield saw a record 40 people apply for 18 commission posts, while 54 Edina residents applied for 14 seats. St. Louis Park and Richfield have passed resolutions rejecting bigotry and standing with all residents.
Ad hoc groups, such as the Richfield Social Justice Community and Allies of St. Louis Park, formed on Facebook after the election and now are mobilizing suburbanites for direct action — such as hoisting issue-oriented signs on an overpass.
“I don’t want to be a Facebook warrior — I need to get out there and do something,” said J.A. Samuels of the Richfield group. “That way I can be more than words on a screen.”
Politically active conservatives took to social media during last year’s campaign and are “cautiously optimistic” about the changes in Washington, said Kim Crockett, vice president of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank based in Golden Valley.
But they’re typically not on the streets voicing their opinions like liberals and progressives, she said, largely because it’s just not their style.
“I think people who tend to be more conservative aren’t as likely to turn out for a big demonstration as maybe someone on the left,” she said.
St. Louis Park Mayor Jake Spano said that he’s seen interest take shape in different ways, from women gathering to talk politics at coffee shops to his mother-in-law poking his brain to learn the mechanics of his office.
“If what comes out of this political climate is a more engaged electorate ... that’s a great outcome,” he said.
Sara Anderson felt a rush of anxiety in November when Donald Trump won the presidency. She took to the Richfield community page on Facebook, where another resident posted similar feelings. They started chatting online, and the Richfield Social Justice Community group was born.
Anderson and a handful of others met in February at Rosa’s Kitchen, a Richfield cafe that has become a gathering spot for the group. They plan to meet at least once month, beyond more frequent online interactions. “I like that everyone hopefully feels free that they can talk without judgment,” said Anderson, an optician. “Sometimes that’s hard to find.”
It’s even harder in a public realm. At the recent bridge demonstration in Richfield, Allysen Hoberg, one of the founders of the social justice group, said she was dismayed by the middle fingers and jeers. “It makes me feel sad,” she said, clutching a pink heart drawn on cardboard.
Allies of St. Louis Park, which aims to support minorities, was formed the day after the election and boasts more than 850 members. Like the Richfield group, Allies attempts to gather a few times a month to discuss topics related to social justice.
Susan Niz, who founded Allies, said Facebook has become an efficient way to organize community members and take action on local issues. “Neighbors are just talking to each other so much more than they were before,” she said.
Other examples of grass roots activism are cropping up. Lynne Morioka, of Richfield, printed lawn signs that said, “No matter your country of origin, gender or what religion you practice: You are wanted & you are appreciated.” She handed out 100 within a couple of weeks.
The election “seemed to light a match under a lot of Americans,” said Larry Jacobs, director at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He called it a “wake-up call” for civic engagement. “It’s not common,” he said. “This is quite an extraordinary period.”
Amy Finnegan, Justice and Peace Studies Department chairwoman at the University of St. Thomas, said the trend can be traced most recently to the success of this year’s Women’s March. Joining such groups, she said, is a low-cost, low-stakes form of social activism.
“Some people are getting over or are working through some of that fear because they feel so passionate about the issues,” she said.
Even harder, Finnegan said, is the ability to reach out across the aisle.
“There is a tension between … expressing your moral outrage and being able to have really difficult conversations with people we disagree with,” she said. “I think that’s part of what we should be doing.”