One of the fascinating Twin Cities community members featured in City Pages' People 2015 issue. Check out our entire People 2015 issue.
On a snowy night in January dozens of activists held hands in a giant circle inside Bloomington City Hall. They had just finished testifying in front of the City Council for more than an hour, imploring Bloomington City Attorney Sandra Johnson not to pursue charges against the organizers of the massive protest that temporarily shut down the Mall of America the Saturday before Christmas.
Michael McDowell took a deep breath, craned his head upward, and led everyone in a short chant, belting out one line at a time. He repeated the chant three times, his words and the protesters' echoes thundering off the cement walls, penetrating the council chambers:
It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
McDowell, 21, was one the first people involved in the Minneapolis chapter of Black Lives Matter, a national movement calling for police reform in the wake of the endless string of black people getting shot and killed by police.
Tall, charismatic, and confident, McDowell channels his creative energy into bringing a theatrical element to the Black Lives Matter protests. He's led chants at Minneapolis City Hall, shouted speeches into a megaphone on a busy St. Paul street corner during a MLK Day march. He wrote and conducted the protest songs to the tune of Christmas carols that thousands sang in the rotunda during the Mall of America protest.
The protesters' pleas at Bloomington City Hall fell on deaf ears, by the way, and now McDowell is facing six misdemeanor charges as one of the ten organizers police identified as the ringleaders of the peaceful demonstration.
"Everyone has a role, and in most cases, especially when there's media coverage, it is like a set," says McDowell, who became "the weird guy" in his family when he eschewed sports for art, theater, and music growing up. "You want to make sure there's signs and visuals, and it actually ends up being a lot like theater."
After graduating from the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts, McDowell, the oldest of eight children, was homeless for a spell. That led to his involvement with the Occupy Homes movement, and from there he was able to wrangle some freelance art work with Take Action Minnesota.
He stayed involved in progressive activism, and now works for the Harrison Neighborhood Association in north Minneapolis, fighting for transportation improvements in poor neighborhoods.
"A lot of the folks making decisions about transportation never actually take the bus. It's ridiculous," he says. "And we need to change that."