Activists prolong council meeting

John Ramos

Tara Houska
Tara Houska

At the Duluth City Council meeting of December 11, 2017, the benches were packed with kids—two classes of high school students had showed up to observe the proceedings. During the Opportunity for Citizens to be Heard portion of the meeting, Duluth East senior Emily Hanna addressed the council and alerted them to “an amazing opportunity and program for our youth called Youth in Government. At Youth in Government, we are able to learn about government and give students the opportunity to learn, practice and experience writing and debating bills, and writing and debating hypothetical court cases.” Behind her, Ms. Hanna’s peers giggled and nudged one another as they caught sight of themselves on the TV screens facing the audience.

It was the final meeting of the year. After today, there would be a month-long break before the council reconvened in January with its new slate of members. Thoughts of vacation put everybody in a good mood, and nothing brightens a politician’s soul like the sight of young people in the audience, so the vibe in the room was rather festive. 

It was a short agenda. Only 30 minutes after Council President Joel Sipress called the meeting to order, councilors had breezed through all their votes and reached the portion of the meeting reserved for Councilor Questions and Comments. This is the time, just before adjournment, when councilors are free to talk about anything on their minds. Today, the tone was collegial. A number of councilors thanked outgoing councilor Howie Hanson for his service. Others thanked President Sipress for his leadership of the council over the previous year, particularly his strong grasp of Robert’s Rules. (Robert’s Rules is the set of guidelines for parliamentary procedure that the Duluth city council follows; Sipress knows them well, which is not the easiest thing in the world.) 

As Councilor Zack Filipovich finished his thank-yous, there was movement in the audience. A young woman in a red sweater approached the lectern. “Hi. Excuse me. I’m sorry to interrupt. I apologize, we missed the public comment period, but we just found out a few minutes ago that the Duluth City Council had approved $83,000 in riot gear for the police force, and so we just wanted to come and have a dialogue. We’re community members, and we just wanted to come and have a dialogue with our municipal government about that.”

Robert’s Rules does an excellent job of including people and making sure that everyone’s voice is heard at a meeting, but you have to be there at the right time. In this case, since there was nothing about riot gear on the agenda, the right time would have been Opportunity for Citizens to be Heard, at the beginning of the meeting. Had the young woman shown up to talk then, I would have thought nothing of it. But to do it now, during Councilor Questions and Comments, was just rude.

President Sipress said, “Excuse me, ma’am. Unfortunately, we cannot recognize you to speak at this time. I would encourage all in the community who are concerned about this to communicate with your councilors and with the mayor and the mayor’s administration, and would very much look forward to hearing you speak at the time for citizens to be heard at the first January meeting, and I would personally welcome having individual conversations with you at any point about this issue. So thank you.”

She didn’t budge. “So you can’t answer any questions from concerned citizens at your meeting for a democratic process right now? We’re all here. We all want to know why did the city of Duluth decide to spend $83,000 on riot gear? What’s going on in Duluth that needs $83,000 in riot gear?”
Sipress said, “We do have a time period at the beginning of the council meeting for items that are not on the agenda, and that is the time that we devote to have citizens raise issues, and we do need to have rules to respect the voices of all Duluth citizens. We cannot allow individuals to come up and speak at times of their own choosing.”

She said, “Okay, well, I would like to invite some friends of mine…”
Sipress said, “Excuse me, ma’am. I will need to ask you to sit down, please.” 
He turned off the microphone at the lectern. The woman kept talking, though you couldn’t hear her very well. Another woman got up from her seat in the audience and joined her.
“Excuse me,” said Sipress. “If this continues, I unfortunately will need to adjourn the city council meeting without an opportunity to thank fellow councilors and city staff for the work we’ve done together this last year. So I would please ask you to respect the rules….If you do not sit down, I will be adjourning the meeting of the Duluth City Council.”

But he didn’t. Instead, he called on Councilor Filipovich. Filipovich advised the women that the riot gear purchase was not on the agenda, had not been approved by the council, and would need to go through the usual public process, including taking public comment, if and when it ever was voted on. “That might be a more appropriate time to have that discussion,” he suggested.

If nothing else, the issue showed the power of the media. The activists were responding to a Peter Passi article that had appeared in the Duluth News Tribune the day before, which reported on the Duluth Police Department’s proposal to spend $83,700 on riot gear in 2018 and another $41,500 in 2019. In the article, Police Chief Mike Tusken said that he was taking precautionary measures in response to increasing unrest in the country. “The best way to look at this is as an insurance policy for us at a time when we’re seeing more demonstrations [nationally] … Recently, in the last two years, we’ve seen the inability of police to be able to maintain peace and order in what started out as peaceable First Amendment rights protests that have gone in a terribly bad direction … We need to be better positioned if we have civil disturbances to better respond and keep not only of course our citizens safe but also our officers.”

In any case, for a purchase of that size to be approved, it would have to come through the city council in its own specific resolution. As Filipovich noted, that had not happened yet.
The activists didn’t care. They were there to speak, and they weren’t going anywhere. The standoff continued, until finally Councilor Gary Anderson made a motion to suspend the rules to hear from members of the public. President Sipress seemed relieved. “That motion would be in order,” he said. The council voted 5-1 to suspend the rules (Councilors Howie Hanson and Noah Hobbs were absent, and Jay Fosle had put on his jacket and left the room as soon as the first activist showed up; the one No vote belonged to Councilor Elissa Hansen.)

The first speaker, Tara Houska, said, “Thank you for allowing us an opportunity to speak. I really appreciate it. It’s good to see a democratic process that recognizes the people who are here when we see something that is very concerning to us.” Of course, everybody has issues that are concerning to them, but not everybody randomly barges into the city council insisting to be heard. This tactic is closer to mob rule than democratic process, if you wanted to get technical about it.

It soon became clear that Houska, and the three speakers who followed, were closely involved with the Standing Rock protests. Standing Rock, of course, is a major protest action by Native Americans and others against the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which passes near the reservation of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota. Before the protesters disbanded their encampment on the prairie in early 2017, some reports had estimated their numbers at 10,000. There had been clashes with police and private security firms, with accusations of violence on both sides. Many people were arrested and many suffered injuries. The issue attracted international attention. A number of news stories exposed the uncomfortable intelligence-gathering tactics of law enforcement.

Pipeline protesters call themselves water protectors, and Houska is a superstar activist in their community. A tribal-rights attorney, she serves as national campaigns director for Honor the Earth, an indigenous organization founded by activist and one-time vice-presidential candidate Winona LaDuke. In the past, Houska has advised presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Native American issues. A glance at her Facebook page shows that in the past year she has participated in protests and delivered speeches in New York City, Washington D.C., Australia and elsewhere. She was arrested at Standing Rock at one point, which gives her even more street cred.

The Standing Rock protests have inspired related pipeline protests around the country, including locally. In November, a number of protesters were arrested outside of Superior for obstructing work on Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline. On Dec. 8, protesters occupied Enbridge Energy’s offices in Duluth, which resulted in several trespassing citations being issued.  And before they showed up at the Duluth City Council on Dec. 11, the water protectors had been protesting an Enbridge pipeline replacement project in rural Carlton County, near Cromwell. The protest was organized by Houska for Honor the Earth.

Today, Houska and her compatriots talked more about Standing Rock and oil pipelines than riot gear, but essentially they objected to what they saw as a growing militarization of the police, which they feared would be used to crack down on peaceful demonstrators. Alex Cohen, a pipeline activist from Iowa, told the council, “We can look at what happened at Standing Rock. You had nonviolent people standing up in prayer and in peace, and they were brutalized. It was a form of racist oppression on indigenous people who have been brutalized since the beginning of time, and I ask you to look at these histories, look back at what happens when counties choose to bring riot gear to nonviolent people.”

As Cohen was speaking, the doors opened and eight or ten more people entered council chambers, young men and women dressed in bulky outdoor clothing, many of them Native American, some carrying backpacks. Several of the newcomers had their faces covered almost completely, black hoods pulled down and black scarves drawn almost to their eyes, while others held scarves to their chins, or left their faces uncovered. Three or four masked men stayed standing near the exits while the rest of the group found seats among the high school students.

I wasn’t thrilled about the masks. The water protectors say they shroud their faces to show humility and respect for water, and I’m sure that’s true. But, still, a mask can conceal anybody. You heard a lot of stories about violence and mayhem in the news these days. What might be under the bulky coats of these masked strangers? Who could say?

Of course, it was all fine. All of the speakers made their comments without incident. Everybody stayed within their allotted three minutes, and nobody in the audience made any disruption. Once everyone had spoken, President Sipress returned the council to its regular agenda.
The following day, Police Chief Tusken emailed councilors to say that he was putting the purchase of riot gear on hold. “It is clear that the community has concerns and questions about this, and we believe it is important to hear those concerns. The decision on whether or if to purchase this gear, if made, will involve a public process that we feel is important to have ... Duluth as a community has a sterling track record for gathering peacefully and civilly when we protest or rally. Residents continue to show that in Duluth, we honor and value the public’s right to gather and to do so in a calm, peaceful way. DPD and the City shares these values … Ultimately, the Duluth Police Department does not get its power or authority from a gun, a badge, or a uniform. We get it from the social contract we have with our residents. We are here to serve you with dignity, respect, and selflessness.” 

This response from the chief did not sit well with the police union. In their own email to council a few days later, union members urged councilors to support the purchase of riot gear. “Contrary to the belief of a few visitors to Duluth who spoke at your Dec. 11 meeting, this purchase of protective equipment is not about their cause. This equipment has been a need for years as we have worked for years completely unequipped to safely protect the citizens of Duluth and their property in the unfortunate event of a violent protest in our wonderful city … The thought and misconception that approving this protective equipment will suddenly make us go out and start beating peaceful protesters … is absolutely absurd.”

There the issue sits today. In my estimation, it seems unlikely that the Duluth Police Department will get new riot gear any time soon.
The oddest part of the whole situation, to me, was that the activists chose to make their voices heard in such an adversarial way. They must have forgotten that the Duluth City Council is a great friend of the water protectors. On December 5, 2016, by a vote of 8-0, the council passed a resolution in support of the protesters at Standing Rock. Some councilors got emotional while describing their support, with Councilor Anderson going so far as to say that if he lost his bid for reelection because of his vote on Standing Rock, it would be worth it to him.

So it seemed strange, now, for the water protectors to confront the council in this way. Was this how friends treated friends—by ignoring procedure and simply demanding an audience? I’ve always viewed protest as a tool to be used when all other avenues to a solution have failed. But with the Duluth City Council, the activists had a wide-open avenue, a broad, inviting boulevard—and they still chose to engage with protest. It was an action of first resort, rather than last.

A little botched protocol, of course, is not a big deal in the larger picture.  I only wonder if we can expect similar displays from the water protectors (or other groups) in the future. After all, it worked.