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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Fear-mongering in Minneapolis

November 18, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Let’s not lose sight of how far we’ve come. One hundred years ago, women couldn’t vote. Jim Crow segregation laws reflected common sentiment. And even in Minnesota, completing the 8th grade, for most students, was unusual.

When I observe determined conservative efforts to defund public schools, block access to healthcare reform, ignore crumbling public infrastructure, and facilitate wealth’s concentration into fewer hands, I try to remember that we’ve surmounted greater hurdles. A little historical perspective creates useful context for today’s public policy debates.

I don’t offer these examples to diminish conservative public policy threats to our state but rather to underscore our capacity for progress. Universal suffrage—the right of all Americans to vote—required decades of work and sacrifice. And, it’s an incomplete victory. People of color vote less frequently than the majority vote. Women are considerably less likely to hold elected state leadership roles than men. Having the right to vote and its broad exercise are two different things.

As a state, we’ve come a long way in a short amount of time. Measuring that achievement depends, however, entirely on how you see the world and understand the human character. The range of response is the difference between hope and fear.

Fear is primal. Fear is evolutionarily reinforced in us. The survival instinct and fear are inseparable. We respond to fear quickly, efficiently and effectively, mostly by putting distance between threat and self. Overcoming fear is much, much harder than yielding to it. That’s why conservatives regularly use fear as a public policy persuasion strategy.

Consider conservative efforts to counter, curb and silence Occupy Minnesota.

Occupy Minnesota is loosely linked with Occupy Wall Street and the hundreds of other Occupy efforts spreading across the country. Unlike other forms of public protest with a specific goal—the Civil Rights movement is a great example—Occupy protesters reflect broad dissatisfaction with our state’s and our nation’s direction. It’s not one thing but many, achieving a cumulative frustration with diminishing opportunity. In that respect, Occupiers and Tea Partiers aren’t that different.

Tea Party rallies or demonstrations, however, haven’t produced press statements from Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek hinting that the public is somehow at greater risk because of public safety expenses incurred protecting/overseeing/monitoring the Occupy site at the Hennepin County Government Center.

According to Stanek, law enforcement costs relating to the Occupy protest average $10,000 per day. "It is a lot of money, but our job is to provide for the safety and security of those who come down here to exercise their first amendment rights."

“We've had to shortchange our services in other places, meaning there's less deputies out on the road patrolling, there's less deputies out serving warrants," Stanek said.

Did you catch the insinuation? Hennepin County residents are less safe and live with greater risk due to reduced Sheriff’s Office services because of the Occupy Minnesota protestors.

Stanek hasn’t, as far as I know, provided detailed expenditures adding up to $10,000 daily, which is split between Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis. We just have to take his word on it. We also don’t have a list of increased criminal activity as a result of the retasked Sheriff’s Deputies resources. Again, we have to take his word that Hennepin County resident safety is imperiled by Occupy Minnesota demonstrators.

Don’t be misled by that $10,000 per day figure. For most of us, ten grand represents real money. Stanek, I suspect, would like us to understand his suggested Occupy Minnesota cost projection in that context. Except, Hennepin County provides many, many, many services to its 1.1 million residents. The County’s public safety budget alone is roughly $250 million yearly. That means Hennepin County spends about $225 per person per year, just on public safety. Or, about 62 cents a day per person.

While I’m skeptical of Sheriff Stanek’s cost calculations, let’s reframe the situation and find hope. Rather than fear-baiting Minnesota, let’s consider the Occupy Minnesota/public safety services intersection as a training opportunity. Crowd protection is a conventional law enforcement activity. And, like any activity, it requires regular practice so that officers’ skills stay sharp.

Since Occupy Minnesota is about as rude and confrontational as my grandmother’s Lutheran church circle, it presents ideal circumstances for police officer and Sheriff’s Deputy practice. As we’ve observed, Occupy Minnesota organizers are eager to work with peace officers, heading off problems so that they can best exercise their First Amendment rights. Then, confronted with an actual angry public demonstration, officers are better prepared to establish public safety.

I think that’s an excellent use of $10,000 per day. Suddenly, I’m no longer afraid. Rather than have the Hennepin Sherriff facilitating conservative communication strategy, whipping up my anxiety, I feel better about my community and the important public safety role played by law enforcement.

Democracy and dissent are inseparable; they must be cherished. Occupy Minnesota is a source of hope, not fear.

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  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    November 22, 2011 at 10:27 am

    The 2008 Republic convention was a great example of police trained to treat peaceful demonstrators as terrorists until proven otherwise.  Homeland Security, the FBI and Ramsey County’s previous sheriff, Bob Fletcher, all had a hand in preparing the police for the RNC—and it can stand as an example of All The Mean and Wrong Things to Do While Calling Yourselves Peacemakers.

    So far in Minneapolis, Sheriff Stanek’s department and the city police have been acting in a way that Oakland, New York, Portland and Davis, CA should all be paying attention to, and learning from. Their brutality does not reflect well on their cities or on cops in general.

    (Re: the $10,000 cost per day, the sheriff did not mention how much his department is saving in the areas where service is being reduced.)