Protesters temporarily shut down the Duluth City Council Monday night, shouting: “No Line 3. No riot gear for the DPD.” About 10 minutes into their meeting, councilors recessed and waited to see if the meeting could more peacefully resume.
The protest actions resulted merely in delay, as the council ultimately voted 6-2 to approve a controversial purchase of equipment for the Duluth Police Department.
Even before the meeting, protesters took to the sidewalk in front of the Duluth Civic Center to voice their displeasure at the prospect of purchasing protective crowd-control equipment for the local police department. Opponents decried the need for “riot gear.”
After about a 25-minute recess Thursday night, councilors returned to chambers.
Council President Noah Hobbs asked the crowd to quiet down to allow for public comment. But this produced yet more chanting.
Unable to proceed with a public comment period above the din, Hobbs asked councilors if they wished to remove the gear resolution from the table.
The council voted 6-2 by a show of hands to remove it from the table, then by the same 6-2 margin to approve it. Councilors Gary Anderson and Joel Sipress voted in the minority. Councilor Em Westerlund was absent, due to a prior commitment.
The vote elicited both applause and jeering - an indication of the divided sentiment in the room - although supporters of the purchase were outnumbered.
Hobbs said he supported the proposed purchase of the requested police equipment going into the meeting, and protesters’ actions did not influence him.
“What is most regrettable is the fact that 50 to 60 individuals didn’t get their three minutes of time to voice their support or their concerns for the agenda item,” he said of the aborted public comment period.
But Hobbs said he saw little sense in the council calling it a day and again delaying a vote on the controversial purchase.
“If we did shut it down, we would have had this meeting every day until god knows when,” he said, predicting that such a move would have only resulted in prolonged public rancor.
Following the vote, upset crowd members erupted into a “No justice. No peace.” chant, continuing their protest for several minutes after the council meeting adjourned. Shortly before 8 p.m., the crowd began to dissipate.
Sipress stayed behind in the hall outside council chambers to take questions and express his misgivings about the passage of the resolution.
“I would have preferred to have seen an inclusive community process launched months ago, so that in the end, if the decision was made to move forward with this purchase, at least it would have happened in a way in which people felt as though their concerns were taken to heart. And out of that process, we could have brought forward a meaningful policy regarding the use of this equipment at the same time we voted on this purchase. I think it was a lost opportunity,” he said.
Heading into Monday night’s meeting, it remained unclear whether the City Council would even take up a previously tabled resolution authorizing city staff to proceed with the proposed purchase of the much-debated gear at an anticipated cost of about $83,700.
The Duluth branch of the NAACP had requested the council keep the purchase request tabled to allow more time for the Citizens Review Board to analyze the community input gathered at three separate community forums held earlier this month to discuss the prospect of buying the equipment in question. A statement from the organization suggested the board be given at least two weeks to complete its work.
Additionally, the NAACP statement asked that a task force, including members of socially marginalized groups, be appointed to study the issue.
“It is imperative that any actions relating to a potential increase in police power happen only after thorough discussion with communities of people of color, American Indians, homeless people, LGBTQ, and others that suffer disproportionate levels of police violence,” the statement said.
Hobbs noted that the city still will need to go through a purchase process, and the requested equipment likely won’t arrive for more than a month. Then, police also will need to go through training on its use.
He said the intervening time can be used to craft a thoughtful policy governing when and how the gear would be deployed. Hobbs said the public input gathered, to date, could be used to inform that policy.