Return of the City Hall protesters

John Ramos

Protestors at City Council meeting on October 22, 2018. PACT TV
Protesters at City Council meeting on October 22, 2018. PACT TV

One year ago, on Dec. 11, 2017, protesters disrupted the Duluth City Council. Ignoring protocol, a dozen or so individuals, some of them masked, barged into the middle of the City Council meeting and insisted to be allowed to speak at that very moment. Though they were ostensibly there in opposition to a proposed purchase of “riot gear” for the Duluth police, the protesters spent more time talking about oil pipelines and the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota than they did about riot gear. 

The reason for this soon became apparent: Most of the protesters were oil pipeline activists from out of town. Earlier that day, they had participated in a protest in rural Carlton County, organized by Honor the Earth, a national indigenous activist group, in opposition to Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 pipeline replacement project. A newspaper story about riot gear in Duluth, 40 miles to the north, probably inspired them to drive up to stage a quick side action after the main event.

Tara Houska, national campaigns director for Honor the Earth, was one of the speakers. “Thank you for allowing us an opportunity to speak,” she told councilors. “I really appreciate it. It’s good to see a democratic process that recognizes the people that are here when we see something that is very concerning to us.” 

As I noted when I wrote about this in January, the protesters’ approach was needlessly aggressive. The Duluth City Council had already proven itself to be a friend of pipeline protesters, when it voted to support the Standing Rock encampment in December of 2016. If the protesters had merely followed standard procedure and expressed their views in the normal course of the meeting like everyone else (signed up on the sheet, waited to be called on), they would have been guaranteed a very sympathetic hearing from the Duluth City Council. But, by barging in and demanding an audience, they were signaling that the conventions of the Duluth City Council meant nothing to them. The fact that Houska then piously equated their mob tactics with “democratic process” also showed a strange understanding of democracy.

Following the meeting, Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken announced that he was putting the riot gear decision on hold to allow more time for community discussion. Noting that the protesters’ confrontational strategy seemed to have succeeded, I wondered when we might see them again.

The answer was on Oct. 22, 2018. The circus of that day is hard to imagine without seeing it yourself. Fortunately, you can see it yourself, by going to: duluthmn.gov/city-council/agendas-and-actions/2018/ and clicking on the video links for Oct. 22.

On that day, the riot gear, now being referred to more gently as “personal protective equipment,” was back on the council’s agenda. Since the original meeting, ten months earlier, the city had solicited public input and conducted a number of community meetings on the issue of riot gear. The upshot of those meetings was that many citizens believed that having riot gear would make the police more aggressive and abusive, while many others believed that police needed the riot gear for protection in potentially dangerous situations. In short, the community was divided.

The protesters, fearing that the City Council was going to approve the purchase, turned out in force on Oct. 22 to try to shut down the meeting and prevent the vote. Dozens of masked, sign-waving demonstrators packed the chambers and the hallway, shouting and chanting and running up and down the aisles as the meeting began. When Council President Noah Hobbs tried to be heard over the din, they ramped it up. Moments into the meeting, half a dozen protesters wearing Anonymous masks actually made their way into the councilors’ area and stood behind the councilors holding a sheet with “NO RIOT GEAR FOR THE DPD” written on it (another sign said, “Free Leonard Peltier,” an odd non-sequitur). 

To someone like me, who objects to any kind of outbursts from audiences at public meetings, the protesters’ behavior was insufferably selfish and obnoxious. It was like watching crazed preschoolers run amok.

There was more local participation than the first time. The riot gear issue had struck a chord with a big slice of Duluth’s progressive community. Plenty of irate locals were in the audience, though it was anyone’s guess who was behind the masks. There were also plenty of people present who supported the riot gear, but nobody on either side of the issue got a chance to speak. The City Council, after recessing to discuss their options, came back and voted on the riot gear purchase without allowing public discussion. Shouting to be heard over the chanting of the crowd, councilors approved the riot gear by a vote of 6-2, then immediately adjourned. The protesters howled their disapproval.

All I can say is: Ugh. Whatever such temper tantrums are intended to accomplish, they take us one long step closer to the violence that the protesters claim to be trying to prevent. It would only take one protester pushing against one cop (or vice versa) for the situation to escalate into a huge mess. If democracy is to succeed, people have to be willing to follow the process, and they have to be willing to accept votes they don’t like. It appears that these minimum guidelines are too difficult for some Duluthians to follow. That’s a shame.

In response to the events of Oct. 22, the city hasn’t really done much. The mayor and council president issued statements calling for decorum at future meetings. They claim they will enforce City Hall use policies in the future, which prohibit many of the protesters’ actions. But they didn’t enforce anything before, so who’s to say they will next time? Any clash between protesters and police in Duluth City Hall, no matter the circumstances, would end up being a huge black eye for the city. Social media would certainly see to that. Who’s going to make the call?

At this point, the strategy most people seem to have adopted is crossing their fingers and hoping it doesn’t happen again. But that may just be wishful thinking.

A salute to Martell

For more than ten years, fellow Reader columnist Loren Martell has observed and reported on the Duluth school district. He began paying attention during the run-up to the Red Plan, and he has stuck with it ever since. A lot of people in Duluth who aren’t fit to lick Loren’s shoes criticize him for what they characterize as an ill-tempered obsession. They are completely off-base. As a reporter and observer, Martell doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves. So let’s set a few things straight.

First of all, he was right. Whether or not you agree with Martell’s style, he’s consistently been right. Ten years ago, at a time when the school district and its boosters were giddily ignoring every tenet of common sense in order to foist a half-billion-dollar construction plan on the citizens, Loren was saying that the Red Plan was too big, too expensive, and too non-transparent. He pointed out that Johnson Controls, the consultant recommending the plan, would also be in charge of implementing the plan—a situation ripe for abuse if there ever was one. 

Basically, Loren warned people that they were being foolish and unrealistic as they chased their beautiful dream. Time has proven him correct over and over. Dropping student enrollment was supposed to stabilize at 9,600 with the new schools, but today enrollment stands at 8,300. The school district was supposed to realize big energy savings with the new facilities, but energy savings never materialized. The district was supposed to sell off so many old properties at such wonderful prices that they would pay for half of the Red Plan. Today, most of the old properties sit unsold and deteriorating, consuming school district resources by the year.

In 2006, when the district had $30 million in reserve funds, Martell warned that massive amounts of Red Plan debt would jeopardize those funds. Today, just as predicted, the district’s reserve fund has dropped to zero—and we still have another 13 years of bond payments to go. 

Second, Loren shows up. Often, he is the only member of the media present at school district meetings. The value to the public of having a reporter in attendance is enormous. Without that, there would be no way for the public to find out what’s going on.

Third, Loren pays attention. In contrast to School Board members, most of whom rubberstamp anything the administration places in front of them, Martell digs into the numbers. He files data requests and conducts follow-up interviews with district staff. In short, he tries to understand issues, and then he passes on what he learns to his readers. And if he calls Superintendent Gronseth “Super G” a few times in the process, what of it? That’s not so disrespectful.

For years, Martell has been attacked by school district hacks and DFL apologists who object to him telling the truth. In the runup to the Red Plan, they accused him of being a naysayer and obstructionist. In the aftermath, when it became clear that he had been right all along, the hacks said he should stop dwelling on the past and move on. Nobody loves “moving on” more than people who are wrong.

The sad story of a punk named Grover

One story in particular illustrates how the hacks in Duluth treat Martell. 

During the campaign of 2007, Martell supported Tim Grover, who was running as a Red Plan opponent in the Third District. Soon after Grover was elected, however, he switched his position and became a Red Plan supporter, much to Martell’s annoyance. Martell began to speak about the reversal during the public comment portion of School Board meetings, accusing Grover of betraying his constituents.

On Oct. 19, 2010, Martell tried to read newspaper quotations that Grover had made during the campaign back to him. This proved to be too much for the thin-skinned Grover, who shut off Martell’s microphone and had the police escort him from the premises in handcuffs.

I’m not kidding. The event can be found online, at: youtube.com/watch?v=2k0dRIOyePE, beginning at the 21:18 mark. Here’s the transcript.

Loren Martell: How would you feel if your representative had jumped to the side that was conspiring to close your school? If your representative had been asked these questions on the record in 2007—“How would you address the budget problems facing the Duluth Public Schools?” and “What strengths and weaknesses do you see in the Red Plan?”—and he or she had answered in this fraudulent manner, the way the so-called representative of the Third District, the home district of Central High, answered? The chair of this board, again—

Board Chair Tim Grover: Mr. Martell, you’re crossing the line into personal attacks. You are finished for the evening. Thank you.

Martell: No way.

Grover: Thank you. Yes, sir.

Martell: These statements were--- [Grover turns off Martell’s microphone]

Grover: Please leave. Please leave the podium. Mr. Martell, please leave the podium. Officer? Assistance, please?

Martell: These statements were made on the record.

Grover: Mr. Martell, please leave the podium, or you will be escorted from it.

Board Member Art Johnston: Chair Grover, for what? For speaking?

Grover: You are out of order, Member Johnston. You have not been recognized.

Johnston: I’ll make a motion to censure the chair.

Grover: You do not have the floor, Mr. Johnston.

Johnston: I’ll make a motion to censure the chair. He has a right to speak. What kind of a joke is this? So why aren’t you letting him speak? What’s the point here? Maybe what he’s saying is correct. Is that why you…

Grover: Member Johnston, you are out of order, please.

Johnston: No, I’m not out of order. You’re out of order.

In the end, Mr. Martell was led away and ejected from the building. It was outright governmental censorship of a viewpoint, and the hacks didn’t care. They watched their shabby turncoat of a board chairman pompously strip a citizen of his constitutional rights in full view of everyone, and they said nothing at all, because they didn’t mind seeing Loren Martell in handcuffs. It disgusts me more than I can say.

The stupidest part

The stupidest part is that people think the Red Plan is over. The Red Plan isn’t over. The bonds, source of all our problems, will be crushing us for at least another decade and a half. That’s not an old issue; it’s a current issue, and it needs to remain at the forefront of any discussion about the schools.

Despite Loren Martell’s reporting, nothing has been done to solve the district’s underlying problems. School district agenda sessions are still closed to the public, the media, and most of the School Board. The district can still approve massive projects without the consent of voters. Financial information is still withheld from the School Board and the media.  The DFL-dominated teachers union and DFL-dominated administration are still in bed with one another, rather than existing in healthy tension. The district has adopted no rules separating the interests of consultants and general contractors, nor have they established any policy to get consultants’ promises in writing. No person has faced any consequences whatsoever for the deluge of bad decisions made ten years ago that put us in our current dire financial straits.

In short, none of the problems exposed by the Red Plan have been addressed. We’re in exactly the same place we were BEFORE all the trouble started (but with no money now), and people want to move on without changing a thing. That’s the worst of it.