On Thursday, April 6, Tennessee Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were expelled from their House seats by the Republican super majority who determined these young Black Representatives are too “radical” for hallowed chambers. Their crimes? Rules violations: speaking without permission of the Chairman, using a sign to display a political slogan, using a megaphone, and gathering at the front of the House without permission. Supported by thousands of protesters against gun violence who gathered at the Capitol on March 30 in response to the school shooting that occurred in Nashville on March 27, Jones and Pearson chanted with the protesters, “No Justice, No Peace!” One week later, they were on trial, then expelled, leaving 150,000 Tennessee voters without full representation in their state legislature.
On Tuesday, March 9, the Minneapolis City Council voted to amend the Legislative Agenda and Policy Positions. One of the amendments, introduced by Council Member Linea Palmisano of Ward 13, is a dangerous attack on democracy which resembles the rules used to justify what occurred in Tennessee. The amendment is for “supporting legislation that would create clear guidance for lawful conduct at public meetings of government bodies.” In other words, it paves a legal pathway for city leaders to indulge in anti-democratic behavior. The amendment narrowly passed 7-6.
Democracy is not binary, and it is not indestructible, even in Minneapolis. This amendment was written two weeks after Indigenous people, Little Earth residents, and their allies peacefully protested against the East Phillips Roof Depot demolition at City Hall. After the protest, three council members – Emily Koski (Ward 11), LaTrisha Vetaw (Ward 4), and Michael Rainville (Ward 3) – filed police reports, claiming they felt threatened by protesters. Mayor Jacob Frey, in an interview with WCCO, said, “First Amendment rights stop at the next persons’ nose! And when you start saying, ‘we will kill you and your family if you take a certain vote…’ that’s not First Amendment rights, that’s a terroristic threat.”
Mr. Frey hits the issue right on the nose: I smell toxic chemicals every day as an East Phillips resident. In fact, according to the EPA’s Environmental Justice EJScreen, East Phillips is in the 97th percentile for “air toxics: cancer and respiratory health” as compared to the rest of Minnesota. The city council’s votes, and the mayor’s vetoes, are killing East Phillips residents and families. We are terrorized by their legislative and executive powers. When powerful individuals (like Frey and Palmisano) say they feel threatened by peaceful protesters, they are taking a page out of the racist stand-your-ground law book, and endanger democracy by prosecuting protesters.
Aisha Chughtai, council member for Ward 10, argued against the amendment with a nationally conscious perspective: “In the places that have implemented laws like this… the impact in real life, in real time, has been harsher criminal penalties and criminalization of people of color, of LGBTQ people, and of those without permanent citizenship status. These laws have not protected marginalized public officials from violence rooted in misogyny or in White supremacy. These laws historically have been carried by far-right Republicans.”
The expulsion of Justin Jones and Justin Pearson in Tennessee confirms Ms. Chughtai’s warning. The road to fascism is paved with decorum. It is time for the seven council members who voted for Palmisano’s anti-protest amendment and Mayor Frey to clarify which “side of the aisle” they really sit on. Any law that makes it easier to jail peaceful protesters must be taken as a serious attack on democratic principles. Minneapolis is not exempt from the siren call of fascism. We must be ever aware of its clandestine signs.
Justin Pearson’s final speech before expulsion should ring resonantly in Mayor Frey and the council member’s heads: “Dr. King taught us that sometimes there is a consciousness above rule, above what you might say is law... You say, ‘to protest is wrong! Because you spoke out of turn. Because you spoke up for people who are marginalized, you spoke up for children who won’t ever be able to speak again, you spoke up for parents who don’t want to live in fear...’ [But] I’ve still got hope, because I know we are still here, and we will never quit!”
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