Protest — the legitimate, effective kind — is the art of throwing punches in the air. That's a metaphor. We don't intend it literally, nor as belittling.
While some demonstrations erupt spontaneously in response to events, and while all are driven by emotion, most also involve a degree of strategy. What must be finessed: how to agitate with enough potency and unpredictability to fix attention on the cause, while taking care not to alienate potential allies and helping them believe a mutually agreeable response exists.
Taking protest to the private homes of public officials, while generally legal, runs high on the alienation scale.
Several local public figures have been targeted in such a manner. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey attempted to engage demonstrators outside his home in June 2020 and was heckled away. Later in the year, beleaguered Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman sold his home at a loss, an outcome activists who had engaged in visitations viewed "as a big victory."
The potential for harm runs both ways. A vulgar outburst at the exurban home of Minneapolis police union boss Bob Kroll in August disgraced one of the protesters, aspiring legislator John Thompson. Thompson apologized, though, and went on to win his seat "at the table."
In April, Brooklyn Center City Council Member Kris Lawrence-Anderson said she cast a vote she didn't believe in because she feared retaliation by protesters otherwise. Not exactly a profile in courage for an elected official, but it shows how insidious intimidation can be.
The most recent examples have occurred outside the home of Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, who drew prosecutorial duty in the killing of Daunte Wright by Kim Potter, then a Brooklyn Center police officer. As Wright tried to drive off during a traffic stop, Potter threatened to stun him but shot him instead.
Two subsequent videos from Washington County have made news. In the first, which unfolds over 20 minutes, Orput comes out of his house to engage with protesters led by activist Nekima Levy Armstrong. Levy Armstrong points out that the group has been peaceable, which Orput acknowledges. Then she begins to grill him. He comes across as quick to anger, frequently springing toward Levy Armstrong as he responds. He blusters. Levy Armstrong, an attorney herself, stays in a steely cross-examination mode. She never hands him the microphone.
What she and her fellow protesters want, of course, is something Orput can't give on the spot, if at all: a reversal of his professional judgment that a manslaughter charge is the only one he can successfully prosecute against Potter.
Orput's example, like Frey's, shows that there's little to be gained, but credibility to be lost, engaging protesters, however earnest the intent. Protests have an agenda, and it isn't negotiation. That happens elsewhere, as state Rep. John Thompson realized.
Yet if the first exchange from Orput's neighborhood was unproductive, the second was downright humiliating for well-meaning Minnesotans. A man and woman who live nearby are captured on camera swearing at the protesters, and the woman pairs that with a racial slur. To their faces. The couple may have been intoxicated, but as one protester said, that might just have revealed their truth.
If the couple had been in better form, people might have understood their frustration over the activity in their neighborhood. But a public street, even a residential one, is a public forum, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled. Nonetheless, the court determined in 1988 that protests directed at a single residence can be prohibited if the ordinance is applied regardless of the content of the demonstration, among other limits. A Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling in 1993 piggybacked on that decision. So if targeted protests continue, expect more municipalities to weigh in.
The broad racial-equity protests of the last year, sometimes in regrettable ways, riveted attention and stirred possibility. But the end goal is structural change, and the means is an accretion of support, wherever it can be drawn from, however long it takes. So we'd ask activists to consider whether targeted residential protests, which in the video-everywhere age thrive on the embarrassment potential of their theatrics, not on their substance, serve the cause well.
It's an age-old conflict — the passion of a protest and the dispassion of the legal process. It's not soluble on a suburban street.