Minneapolis City Council Vice President Linea Palmisano has proposed two additions to the city's legislative priorities. These proposals came in reaction to protests at a recent City Council meeting, where mostly Indigenous protesters disrupted the meeting in opposition to the East Phillips Roof Depot project.
After the tense meeting, three council members filed police reports against protesters. Palmisano's two proposals, which were both approved by the council on a split vote, ask the state Legislature to impose stronger limits and consequences on those interrupting public meetings and taking certain protest actions against public officials.
Although these are just recommendations to the Legislature and may not lead to new laws, the fact that the majority of our City Council approved these steps scares me. This is asking the Legislature to further define the correct or appropriate way to protest, and to implement harsher penalties for anyone who oversteps those official boundaries.
The question of what is and is not an ethical or effective way to protest has been debated in activist spaces for centuries and that debate will continue ("Activists out of control in Mpls. disputes," editorial, March 2). Regardless of anyone's individual feelings about specific protest actions, the fact remains that the point of any protest is to cause discomfort for people in power, including City Council members.
This action by the council feels especially notable coming just a few days after the passing of disability rights icon Judy Heumann. Among many accomplishments, Heumann is remembered as a lead organizer of the 504 Sit-in and protests of 1977.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act passed in 1973 and made it illegal for any federally funded program to discriminate against people with disabilities. However, no regulations were in place to guide the enforcement of the law. That legal gray zone meant that individual disabled Americans were left to either accept unequal conditions or wage their own battles in the courts whenever they encountered discrimination, and judges' decisions were widely inconsistent and inequitable.
In an effort to force Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) Secretary Joseph Califano to sign adequate regulations into law, hundreds of disabled people around the country organized direct protest actions. These actions included holding marches and vigils outside of President Jimmy Carter's church and Secretary Califano's house. Protesters followed Califano during his daily activities demanding that he speak with them. Heumann and others spoke so passionately at congressional hearings that an HEW representative left one of the hearings and locked himself in his office.
The protests culminated in sit-ins occupying government buildings across the country, including the San Francisco federal building, which was notably physically inaccessible to many disabled residents at the time. The San Francisco occupation, led by Heumann and organizer Kitty Cone, lasted 26 days and ultimately gained the widespread public support and media attention needed to pressure Califano to implement the requested regulations. These regulations are considered the historical precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
If the 504 protests had never happened, it's possible that many disabled residents would not even have elevators to access the Minneapolis City Council chambers. Yet, if the 504 Sit-in and protests were happening in Minneapolis today, I wonder whether Council Vice President Palmisano would deem them an acceptable form of protest. Considering that Heumann and the 504 protesters used tactics that are arguably more invasive of public figures' lives than the actions of those protesting against demolition of the Roof Depot today, I doubt she would be supportive.
As discussion continues on further regulating the constitutional right to protest in Minneapolis, I urge all residents, and the City Council majority, to remember our history and honor the work of civil rights leaders like Judy Heumann. How many of the rights you enjoy today were won using the same protest actions that you now, after gaining a position of power, want to regulate?
Heather Silsbee lives in Minneapolis.