Despite the image of Minnesotans as taciturn, even boring, the state has a rich tradition of protest. From its earliest days to last fall's Occupy movement, Minnesota's citizens have questioned authority, raged against the machine and rattled some cages.
Rhoda Gilman is a cage-rattler, a founding member of Women Historians of the Midwest who once ran for lieutenant governor on the Green Party ticket. Her latest book, "Stand Up! The Story of Minnesota's Protest Tradition" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $16.95), covers 150 years of the state's protest tradition. Now 84, the St. Paul writer talked about why Minnesota stands out -- as well as up.
Q How distinctive is Minnesota? You mention our strong newspaper history, Nordic culture and farmers as influencing the protest tradition.
A We are distinctive, as least from other Midwestern states. There was a time we were known as the New England of the West because of the lumber industry and immigration, before we became the Scandinavia of the country.
Enthusiasm and support for education and a willingness to discuss civic matters also set us apart.
And once the tradition of protesting and demanding grass-roots democracy got started, it fed on itself. It became traditional in some families.
Q We see images from around the world of crowds filling city plazas in protest. Yet we rarely pour into the streets here. Why not?
A I have a strong feeling that what it is is a lack of reporting of this. It has happened -- before the invasion of Iraq, there were massive demonstrations, but they simply weren't mentioned in the media, or at least were downplayed.
The demonstrations here during the RNC [Republican National Convention] in 2008 were not mentioned nationwide. Maybe it's just part of our visual history. I know there are a lot of individuals within the media who are not happy with this, either.
Q As a founder of the Green Party in 1984, you saw environmental issues as serious enough to warrant their own party. Yet strong third-party status has proven hard to maintain. Is success growing?
A There are a lot of calls across the country for a third party, with no recognition that we already have one! One of the difficulties the Green Party has faced all along is that they can't honestly say, "Let's expand the economy." It stands for much more fundamental change than just expanding the number of jobs, or the gross national product. That's very difficult for people to accept.
Right now I'm reading "Eaarth" by Bill McKibben, who says we have to change, and that involves justice in the distribution of what we can afford to produce. The answer is not just to produce more.
Q Why are you concerned about how students are learning history?
A I think the whole emphasis in the last 20 or 30 years has been on raising a workforce and not cultivating citizens. There is less history, less humanities being taught. I just feel that the consolidation of history into social science, or social studies, is shortchanging students.
Q How do the current Occupy protests compare with protests of the past? Already, they seem like history.
A That was almost inevitable with the coming of winter weather and the nationwide violent repression -- because I certainly consider pepper spray to be violence. Yet I think there is a much stronger understanding of the power of nonviolence throughout the world, and I guess I would attribute that to the spreading popularity of the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Violence produces violence, and it takes an enormous amount of courage to face violent repression with basic, disciplined nonviolence, and that has to be an encouraging thing.