Talk of the Town

          THE STREAM OF people heading into the Armory just off Central and Broadway in northeast Minneapolis last Thursday night was greeted with flyers, refreshments, and booth after booth explaining city government. Staffers from Animal Control smiled and shook hands as a cageful of kittens squirmed on a table. The police gave out packets on how to be a cop. It was like a county fair, except that the premise of the gathering was to let the public vent to a group of officials--including Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and the City Council--who are too often "in meetings" or "on the other line" when the citizenry beckons.

          The sign-up sheet for public speakers overflowed; each person would have two minutes at one of the room's three microphones to talk about the state of the city. The council and the mayor, lined up behind a table in front like guests of honor at a firing squad, promised to keep quiet. At 9 o'clock., the more than 300 attendees would have to go home.

          Judging by the Star Tribune's recap of the meeting and the quotes from pols, all anyone talked about was crime. Actually, the discussion was much more varied: Only half of the 36 who had time to speak told tales of guns and violence--and most of them spent time on other issues as well. Education was on the agenda, as was jobs. Many in the notably diverse audience appeared to be first-time public speakers. "You can't sit by and let the city go to hell," explained one man.

          He and others had turned out to express anger and mystification over decisions being made at the top. "You said that Operation Safe Streets was a huge success," said a northside minister, a white man. "But it wasn't. You sent helicopters into our neighborhoods. You need to get past the political posturing and start helping these kids get a leg up." The audience erupted; throughout the meeting, speakers--who sometimes found themselves yelling and pointing fingers--were met with spontaneous rounds of claps and whistles, some of the most thunderous outbursts coming whenever city leaders were accused of indifference or malfeasance.

          "I don't mind paying taxes," said a white business owner from Northeast, "but they have to go for education." Paying for a new stadium would be a waste of the public's money, he added. Another northside property owner agreed: "We need a program that will give grants to people who will buy and live in absentee landlord property that comes up for sale. If you build a stadium, you are taking from the needy and giving to the greedy. Don't take from the working people in this part of town."

          An African American teacher rose in support of the upcoming school referendum. Reminding council members about everyday life in the less well-off parts of town, a woman spoke of high lead levels and what that's doing to kids. A landlord wondered about tenant screening policies. "I don't want to be unforgiving to people who want to rent in Minneapolis," he said. "Because they are not perfect. Perfect tenants go to the suburbs to rent. Where should they live? We are just shuttling them around."

          A 30ish Native American man stepped up: "All the police in the world and politicians and preachers in the world aren't going to save us," he said. "Hope will save us. You get hope with jobs and a healthy economy. We must bet on the future or we won't have one." He went on to tell a story about a young man in his neighborhood who didn't speak good English. He needed a job, but couldn't find one. He was on the streets. "He turned to selling a little crack and that led to his death. If he had had a job, he'd be alive today."

          The microphones went dead promptly at 9 o'clock, right before Council President Jackie Cherryhomes thanked everyone for coming and promised to do this again. But many people were in no hurry to leave. When a young man stood up and began speaking without amplification, a large portion of the audience stuck around and listened until the din in the back got to be too much and they stood to join the slow procession to the door.

 
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