Dear Fellow Minnesotans,
For three years now, I have lived under the Minneapolis City Hall jail.
I haven’t been alone; I’ve been joined by 13 other elected officials as well as a host of other well-intentioned and very good people.
It feels peculiar to say that I’m under the jail, because we all know colloquially that to be placed in jail is horrible; but to in fact be under the jail is an even worse fate. But it just so happens that all elected officials as well as the City Council chambers are in fact under the Minneapolis City Hall jail.
This interesting placement has given me a unique perspective. While I have been confined, it has at times provided a sharp focus that only an existence in exile can offer. When one is placed under the jail, one becomes immediately aware of certain impregnable boundaries. For instance, there are many things that could and even should be shouted loudly from the rooftops, but the circumstances of my subterranean incarceration forbid it.
An electorate that has become cynical voices frequent complaints that their politicians are out of touch or have somehow sold them out. But I ask you: How can one take any bold action on behalf of the electorate if one is, in fact, placed under the jail? To do so would place the officeholder in much jeopardy of life and limb because the courageousness of the action would be commensurate with a jailbreak.
You kind of get used to being under the jail. You learn where the bathrooms and light switches are, you become familiar with your other inmates, and you slowly start to think of yourself as belonging to a club with a closed membership. But you can’t get too comfortable and need to keep attuned to the tenuousness of your alliances.
While walking the hallways or going to the bathroom, it’s easy to channel political corpses from years gone by and remember that anyone can end up with a knife in his or her back. You’re taught the parameters and restrictions of your membership and are also quietly told in the calmest “Minnesota Nice” manner about what will happen if you get out of line. Don’t drop the soap.
Slowly but surely, a case of quasi-Stockholm Syndrome sets in. You come to realize that you’ve fallen in love with the conditions of your captivity. There are a few rogue inmates who raise their voices from time to time and actually get real change done, but without a sustained atmosphere of courage any bold action by any inmate becomes an exercise in futility because the system rarely changes. Renegades are quickly electro-shocked and are soon walking back in lock-step.
Elsewhere, your every move is followed, chronicled, blogged or hyperbolized, and your general living/working environment is permeated by fear.
Then suddenly, word comes from “the outside.” “Change has come!” For the first time in a long while, you start to feel that perhaps the walls will crumble and your shackles will break. Fear won’t continue to be the celebrated mantra of the day, and a man named Obama will lead the way.
Maybe courageous leadership will be in vogue again. New ideas that bubble up from the bottom won’t be called crazy and their creators “whack jobs” once those very same ideas reach the top of the political food chain. A healthy respect for intellectualism and rationalism may once again appear.
Life under the jail is sometimes like running a three-legged race or trying to win a fist fight with one hand tied behind your back. People on the outside can level all manner of accusations real or unreal, but the people under the jail can only respond in a limited manner, and it must always be polite and diplomatic regardless of the nastiness that may have been the inciting comment.
One of my White co-inmates, Lisa Goodman, was called a racist in these pages.
[See “Racism still lives in Mpls City Hall” editorial by John A. Kerr of ISAIAH in July 3-9 issue of MSR]
The term “racist” has almost turned into the equivalent of calling someone a vulgar name. I don’t object to the term when properly used as a descriptor, but I vehemently object to the term when it is used strictly as a dirty bomb. Council Member Lisa Goodman is not a racist.
In fact, what I respect about Lisa is that she tells it like it is and swings for the fences, speaking her truth while being a passionate advocate for her constituents. Sometimes I feel that she and I have the most in common, under the jail, even though we may and sometimes do disagree.
At the same time, I have heard and witnessed some of the most egregious acts of racism while under the city hall jail. A jail doesn’t remain unless certain institutionalized ways of operating remain. Those virulent racist constructs must be obliterated so that all people will truly have a voice in the room and a place at the table in President Barack Obama’s New America.
I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statements from “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
I have been extremely grateful and humbled for my time spent under the jail, and perhaps I’m not done yet. It’s a funny thing; after you’ve lived under the jail, you start to realize that it ain’t so bad. Yeah, you give up your freedom, your anonymity, and in many ways your ability to fight back when accused falsely or called out of your name. But what you gain is the ability to wake up every day and improve people’s lives. In that case, the judge can add another 10-20 years to my sentence.
Your Humble Servant,
Ralph Remington is the Minneapolis 10th Ward city council member. He welcomes reader responses to Ralph.Remington@ci.minneapolis.mn.us.