Crashing a Peace Rally
by Bill McGaughey
The Peace Foundation, created by Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels, held a public rally in north Minneapolis on Saturday, May 19, 2007, between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., at which northside residents, representatives of area churches, and others took part. Metro Property Rights Action Committee got involved because Don Samuels, in his official capacity, has spearheaded the effort to close down convenience stores, or small neighborhood grocery stores, on the theory that these stores attract criminals to particular neighborhoods.
The latest store to be attacked is Uncle Bills Food Market, at the corner of Sheridan and Plymouth Avenues. Its last day of business will be on May 31st. An article in the Star Tribune quotes Samuels: This is a classic case where you have a provider that has given inferior service in inferior conditions. And if you cant produce good, quality service, then you have to go. The Property Rights group believes that the free market, not city government, is the proper instrument of punishment for poor service if it is warranted.
MPRAC prepared several hundred copies of a flyer to be distributed at the Peace rally. The headline read: Let There be Peace (without theft). The Theft part referred to the fact that the citys Fire Department was driving Uncle Bills out of business by imposing repeated and excessive work orders on the building owner and that former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes, a Samuels ally with an unsavory reputation, owned the building next door to Uncle Bills store. She had made an unsuccessful effort to buy out the stores lease before fire inspectors made their latest move.
The rally featured a human chain running down Penn Avenue between Broadway and Lowry Avenue North. More than a thousand persons would link arms to demonstrate community solidarity in the face of violent crime in north Minneapolis. I arrived on the scene around 6 p.m., and started handing out flyers to persons on Penn Avenue, working my way from 27th Street down to Broadway. Most people readily accepted the flyers.
As I neared Broadway, I was suddenly approached by Jonathan Palmer, director of the citys Empowerment Zone program, to whom I had given a flyer. He angrily accused me of staging a cheap stunt in passing out flyers at this event. If I wanted to spread a competing message, he said, I ought to organize my own rally. Palmer told me I should leave the area immediately. He advised me to go south of Broadway to distribute my flyers rather than capitalize on crowds assembled by Council Member Samuels whom the flyer was criticizing.
I told Palmer that we live in a society where free speech is allowed. I was exercising my constitutional right of free speech. In this case, I said, it was appropriate to pass out flyers criticizing Samuels crime-fighting strategy. Samuels is a public official. The peace rally had to do with opposing crime. It was essentially a public event, a political event, and I had every right to participate, even in a dissenting mode. I was criticizing the citys tendency to close down neighborhood grocery stores to fight crime. There was a better way to make neighborhoods safe.
Palmer told me that I was breaking the law by passing out flyers without a permit. He could have me arrested for doing this. I told Palmer to go ahead and have me arrested. I asked him to cite the law or ordinance that says I needed a permit to pass out political literature. Palmer was unable to cite such a law. He backed off this type of argument.
Palmer then told me that it was inappropriate for me to be distributing a flyer promoting a particular business - Uncle Bills Food Market - when this was a community group promoting peace. I told Palmer that I had no business interest in Uncle Bills but was a concerned citizen who thought that the citys tendency to punish buildings for crime was misguided.
Palmer and I went on and on with our arguing, neither convincing the other. While we were engaged in this discussion, a man who had been listening to us came up to Palmer and criticized him for trying to suppress my free speech. He asked for several of my flyers which he said he would distribute himself.
Appreciative of this support, I decided to end the conversation with Palmer. In a practical sense, he was, in a sense, winning the argument by tying me up for ten minutes or so in conversation when I should be passing out flyers to others.
Continuing toward Broadway, I ran into another MPRAC member who had agreed to help distribute the literature. He took a bunch of flyers and headed down to Penn and Broadway to catch the people there. We also ran into the editor of Watchdog newspaper who was taking photographs. I crossed the street walking up toward Lowry on the east side of Penn Avenue.
The human chain was starting to form. I passed flyers to many who had not yet linked arms and, of course, to individuals on the sidewalk. Even though the word had spread that these flyers did not fit in perfectly with the theme of the Peace demonstration, most people accepted them. One man even ran up to me requesting a copy.
I decided to try to engage people in conversation rather than maximize my time by simply passing out flyers. My basic message was that the city should fight crime by providing more youth services rather than by targeting convenience stores. Almost everyone agreed with that proposition. As an exception, a young man said that the crime situation had visibly improved on his block after a convenience store was closed.
I found also that many people at the rally, especially young blacks, agreed with my criticisms of closing down convenience stores. They pointed out that many people in poor neighborhoods depended on those stores for groceries and other supplies. A high point in my conversations was to encounter a young woman who said she lived across the street from Uncle Bills Food Market. I asked her if she thought this store was attracting criminals. No, she said, it seemed to her a normal kind of place.
After the chain had been formed, people started walking down Penn toward Broadway where a rally was planned in a lot next to the Bean Scene restaurant. The editor of the Watchdog newspaper was snapping photographs of the scene. Even though I had a remaining stack of flyers, I suspended my leafletting activities and instead displayed a 20 by 30 cardboard sign bearing the slogan in large lettering PEACE without THEFT. My fellow MPRAC member did, however, continue to pass out flyers - notably to Mayor Rybak and to Council Members Samuels and Hofstede.
The crowd numbered perhaps 300 persons. There was a delightful program of entertainment featuring Asian and black children who danced and did acrobatic routines. Then the politicians came up to the stage to speak. Mayor Rybak, who had been standing on the other side of the crowd, came across the circle to stand in my area when it was his turn to speak. I saw him take a peek at my sign. He nodded slightly but we did not then talk.
After the program, the politicians stood around talking to people in the crowd. Many wanted to have their childrens picture taken with the mayor or a city council member. I jokingly asked one such mother if she wanted the picture to include a protest sign. She was highly amused by that suggestion. So while the mayor stood next to several children, I moved my sign over into range of the photograph. To be honest, Im not sure that the sign made its way into the picture with the mayor.
Rather tentatively, the other MPRAC member and I began a conversation with Mayor Rybak. Standing some distance away, the mayor remarked that the community wants that grocery store (Uncle Bills Food Market) closed down. I expressed skepticism. Sentiments expressed at block-club or neighborhood-group meetings are not necessarily representative of the entire community.
Mayor Rybak then walked over to talk with us. He said that, while he understood what we were doing, he did not agree with us on all points. Uncle Bills Food Market posed a problem for the neighborhood, he said. He himself had sat in a car on three separate occasions observing the people who went into that grocery store, while pretending to read a newspaper. From those experiences, he was convinced that the store was attracting the wrong element. I asked the mayor if he had observed any drug deals. No, he said, but he could tell that the store was a magnet for people troubling the neighborhood.
I pointed out to Mayor Rybak the Cherryhomes connection to Uncle Bills Food Market. He seemed to know about it, commenting that Jackie Cherryhomes and Joe Biernat (both mentioned on the flyer) were not close to him politically.
I invited the
mayor to drive over to Uncle Bills after the rally and talk with
the store owner, Ali Hassan Meshjell. I knew that his shift began at
4 p.m. and he was probably then behind the counter. Rybak declined,
saying he had other commitments. Also, he said he could not comment
much more about the situation at Uncle Bills because the city
was involved in a lawsuit.
I thought our picketing event had gone quite well. Despite the initial altercation, we had had a reasonably friendly discussion with the Mayor. Even though I did not talk with Don Samuels, I obliged him in taking a photograph of him with a young constituent; I thought it was a friendly gesture for him to have asked. And so, it seemed, there might be some basis of hope for moving the city in a different direction.
Speaking of cheap shots, I hurried home to change the text of the web page which Mayor Rybak had promised to read. A paragraph was removed in which it was pointed out, rather sarcastically, that Rybaks own parents had operated a drug store in a crime-ridden area of Minneapolis in the 1960s and that, if city policy had then been as it is now, the city of Minneapolis might well have targeted the Rybak family business for punishment instead of the crooks who had robbed the place. (See http://www.landlordpolitics.com/mesken.html.)
So our counterdemonstration was all about changing city policy. If this can be done with the cooperation of incumbent city officials, so much the better. Were flexible on who are the good and bad guys, even if we have previously criticized someone. Even Jonathan Palmer has a free pass out of the dog house with our group if he chooses to accept it.