Compassion And Fascism: An Interview With Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges

We discuss her role and the city’s future in this uncertain age

When Minneapolis elected Mayor Betsy Hodges in 2013, she was best known as “Bike Lane Betsy,” a feisty and progressive city councilmember whose signature issue was exactly the kind of feel-good, not-too-much-of-a-sacrifice measure that satisfies centrist businessmen and urban liberals alike. Now up for reelection, Hodges faces a political landscape reshaped by some high-profile acts of police violence in Minneapolis, moderate residents’ resistance to her working families economic agenda, and, of course, the election of Donald Trump. The Twin Cities’ tradition of tolerance makes the metropolis surprisingly cosmopolitan (Hodges notes that more than 100 languages are spoken in town) and, more to the point, a prime target for the federal administration’s attempt to crack down on so-called “sanctuary cities.”

Hodges’s and my paths first crossed at an event for Women Winning, a Minnesota group that helps train and fund female political candidates. We became friends due to a shared enthusiasm for progressive politics and adorable animal pictures (she has admitted to browsing Cute Overload during city council meetings). Our conversations lately, however, have been increasingly serious, as the scope of the Trump administration’s political ambitions becomes clear.

Minneapolis is an island of blue in a region that’s turned increasingly red — and it is exactly the sort of American melting pot the administration seems intent on targeting. The Twin Cities are home to the largest Somali population in the world outside Mogadishu and the nation’s largest populations of people from Liberia and Myanmar. It boasts the country’s second-largest Tibetan community and largest Cambodian Buddhist temple. The Minneapolis area has sent a Muslim to Congress: Keith Ellison, now running for chair of the Democratic National Committee. We have also elected a Muslim to the state legislature: Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim Somali-American woman to hold public office in the nation, and a former refugee.

Hours before the mayor made an appearance in front of thousands of Minneapolitans protesting Trump’s travel ban, she and I discussed her role and the city’s future in this uncertain age.

You must have realized this was coming as early as election night.

Hodges: Yes. The nexus of Donald Trump’s hateful behaviors and policies around Muslim people and immigrants comes together right here in Minneapolis. I knew immediately that the people I represent were going to be very, very scared and very, very worried for their safety.

Trump has signed an executive order saying he will pull federal funding from so-called “sanctuary cities.” What does that mean?

Hodges: Well, “sanctuary city” is an umbrella term people use for cities that have various things in place to try to protect immigrants. In Minneapolis, what we have is a separation ordinance. Since 2003, neither Minneapolis law enforcement nor anybody [in the city government] is in the business of enforcing federal immigration law. We’re not going to ask people about their status here. That’s for many reasons, top most of which is public safety. If you’re a victim of a crime or a witness to a crime, you can feel safe calling the MPD [Minneapolis Police Department]. You can feel safe talking to anybody at the city [government] because your immigration status won’t be in jeopardy and it won’t be questioned. Donald Trump is inserting himself into public safety, not to mention all the myriad questions that arise from what he’s done and what he’s doing.

But what can he actually do?

Hodges: It’s not clear that the executive order as written will be punitive to Minneapolis in the way that President Trump hoped for and intended. At the moment, to my understanding, he can’t revoke our ordinance. He can’t compel us to actually have our police officers do the work of his immigration folks. So he’s just trying to punish us for that by withdrawing federal funding. Which sources of federal funding, we don't know — is it only public safety–related or is it also housing or transit? It’s not yet clear.

As Dan Savage often says, we are not a country of red states and blue states; we’re a country of blue cities and red everything else. And so cities are less likely to vote for Donald Trump in majority numbers, and they are the place where the people most in the sights of the Trump administration live. He’s coming after immigrant people, LGBTQ people, artists. There’s a deep concentration of us in cities, so he’s got cities in his sights.

[Our diversity is] a point of pride for the city, you know, and I wish President Trump, I wish Vice-President Pence could see the people in the community I see. But even if he came here, he wouldn’t have the eyes to see or the ears to hear or the heart to feel the community that actually is here — as opposed to the one that his advisors have constructed for him. That’s desperately sad. It speaks to, you know, an erosion of his common decency and humanity that makes me sad for him as a human being, but it also makes me fight his policies like crazy.

We can fight with everything we’ve got, but having compassion for one another while we do it is going to get us a lot further.

So what other kinds of things can you envision cities doing or needing to do in response to the Trump agenda?

Hodges: Well, I mean, one of the first things I did is I [talked to] my city attorney, my city coordinator, my chief financial officer, and my intergovernmental director to say, “What do we see coming at us from the Trump administration? Where are our vulnerabilities? If he’s coming after immigrants, what policies can we put in place?” If they’re going to come after voters, we have to make sure that we are ready to handle any attacks that start coming our way again. You know, we defeated a voter ID amendment in 2012.

The only state in the union to defeat a voter ID referendum.

Hodges: Thanks for you saying it, so I didn’t have to. Since I’m a Minnesotan, that bragging thing is a little hard. But yes, we defeated it, but that doesn’t mean it won't come back again. And so, you know, what do we need to have in place to fight those policies at various levels, but also what can we do to protect voters in the city through our elections department? We know he wants to cut the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] budget. That’s not because it’s a particularly big line item in the budget; it’s because, in a time when you’re trying to increase authoritarianism, the biggest voices of dissent are often the artists, and you have to go after them. So how can we make sure to support artists in this time? I mean, he’s just checking off his “centralized authoritarian” rulebook.

If you want to bring more authoritarianism — which is another word for fascism, but everyone’s scared to use it — if you want to do that, you take away people’s health care so that they have to concentrate on that very hard. You go after voters to make it harder for people to have access to democracy. You go after artists. You go after the media. You try to silence or create doubt. You start trying to normalizing lying, calling them “alternative facts.” And you scapegoat immigrants and you scapegoat religions that aren’t Christianity. You hire the country’s leading white nationalist as your chief advisor. I mean, he's made no secret of who he is or what he’s doing or what he’s about.

If you want to bring more authoritarianism — which is another word for fascism, but everyone’s scared to use it — if you want to do that, you take away people’s health care ... You go after voters to make it harder for people to have access to democracy. You go after artists. You go after the media. You try to silence or create doubt.

In the face of that, what keeps you hopeful?

Hodges: What we have in place that other times and other places haven’t had, including Germany in the late ’20s and early ’30s, is knowledge of that history. I’m a sociologist by training. I’ve studied social movements. What’s effective? What’s not? How is it changing? What’s working? What’s not? We have the civil rights movement, and then the LGBTQ civil rights movement, and then the women’s liberation movement, and on and on. We have all that history and all that knowledge about what has worked and what hasn't and the people who’ve come up in that. Donald Trump has his Twitter account, but so do I, and so do millions and millions of Americans. So the way that we can organize around that is different than what we had in the past, and we can use that tool for good, not just for evil.

It’s less than two weeks in, and things already feel so overwhelming. What advice can you give to those who are new at this, who haven’t been involved in social movements before?

Hodges: I would say to folks: Take care of yourself. Yes, throw yourself into it — you know, do your part. If that involves protests, organizing, great, but make sure you’re sleeping, make sure you’re eating, make sure you’re connecting with people who love you and make sure you’re taking a breath every once in awhile to look around and see the beauty in the world because, I promise you, it’s still there anytime you look for it.

I was 19 when I got sober. I was in the throes of activism work around people who were dying of AIDS and that iteration of LGBTQ rights movement. And it worked. It took a while, but organizing worked, protests worked when the federal government was not looking at people, not seeing people.

If getting sober prompted your activism at 19, how does it inform your activism today?

Hodges: There’s going to be a long silence.

[long silence]

I have been in the grip of a disease that doesn’t let go easily. I have done things while in the grip of that disease that I am not proud of. And that has given me compassion for other people who are in the grip of whatever they’re facing that feels uncontrollable to them, who have done things in the name of that or under the spell of that that they regret. It’s helped me remember people’s humanity even as I decry their behavior.

That is not the same thing as a naïve march into a buzzsaw. Donald Trump is out to destroy people's lives, and he’s trying to take our democracy down. That is something we can fight with everything we’ve got, but having compassion for one another while we do it is going to get us a lot further.

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