OPINION
03/14/2018 05:45 am ET

An Open Letter To Politicians Facing Young Protesters

Members of the group Black Lives Matter march to City Hall during a Nov. 24, 2015, protest in Minneapolis.
Craig Lassig / Reuters
Members of the group Black Lives Matter march to City Hall during a Nov. 24, 2015, protest in Minneapolis.

I have been in your seat.

More than once, in my time as mayor of Minneapolis, I was standing on a stage, or at a press conference, or at an event when young adult advocates would confront me about issues of policing and race, especially in the aftermath of Minneapolis police officers fatally shooting Jamar Clark. Sometimes it took the form of disrupting events with shouting and chanting. Sometimes it took the form of surrounding me on stage and getting in my face, yelling, calling me names. Once, they came to my home.

I was terrified. I bet you’re scared, too. All adult political fronting aside, as human beings, it feels scary to be homed in on for public vilification and protest in the process of social change. It feels painful to be called out and called names by anyone, especially when you are standing alone as the authority figure. It tempts us to use our personal go-to tools of response, whatever they are: defensiveness, anger, retreat, condescension, denial, assertions of your own power and authority. I was tempted, and sometimes gave in to that temptation.

Now, as young people walk out of their schools, protest at your statehouses and call you out on social media, all while organizing others to do the same, I bet you are feeling that temptation, too.

As a leader, you have choices. You can use those common, very human standby tools, and in the first moments of surprise they are likely what you will use. You also have the choice to go beyond them, however, and it will go better if you do. The fate of your community and our country rests upon it.

I’m a believer in love as the best basis for organizing. I take inspiration from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. on this. Blame and attack, criticism and fear are options for leaders, but they won’t make the difference we are seeking in this divided world. They will garner initial victories, but they will ingrain long-term resentment. Love is the hardest and best basis for social change. In my situation, I realized that I had to start with myself.

So I sat down and I got quiet. The young people who were demonstrating against me were not likely to take me up on my offer of a meeting to talk about what policies we needed moving forward to change policing in Minneapolis. So I turned down the volume of my own fear, I turn down the volume of my own resentments, I turned down the volume on my own political interests, and I asked myself: “What are they saying?”

The words they used were, 'You’re a white supremacist; we don’t need the police; we can take care of this ourselves; you are letting us die while you do nothing about it.'

First I could sense that I was scared by what those young advocates were doing, and I was mad that they did it. My initial responses had been my own, and human, and not helpful.  

Second, I could sense that I loved them. More than I loved my job, more than I loved being right, more than I loved my desire to shut down, I loved those young people.

Third, I could sense their love for one another, their fierce desire to protect themselves and the young people coming up behind them from the kind of violence and oppression they were experiencing. They, too, were leading with love. It was a love they could not seem to extend to me, and I got to let go of wanting it.

Finally, the words they used were, “You’re a white supremacist; we don’t need the police; we can take care of this ourselves; you are letting us die while you do nothing about it.” When I got very, very quiet, when I could set aside the anger and fear and resentment, what I heard in addition to the words they used was an underlying desire to take more responsibility for public safety in their own neighborhoods.

As a result of hearing that in that quietest of moments, I invested millions of dollars in community-based public safety strategies in Minneapolis during the rest of my time as mayor.

I didn’t agree that disbanding the police department was the way forward. That didn’t mean I couldn’t be responsive to what I was hearing. We created and invested in a first-of-a-kind strategy to let $500,000 flow directly to people in Minneapolis neighborhoods most affected by violence and let them devise, select and implement strategies to reduce violence in their neighborhoods. We invested in a community-led strategy to intervene in group and gang violence. And we invested in mental health workers who can go out with police officers in the community when people are experiencing a mental health crisis.

I did my best to do what those young people asked me to do. I did it in the ways that I could with the tools at my disposal, but I did it. 

Activists and students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attend a rally at the Florida Capitol on Feb. 21 in Tallahas
Don Juan Moore via Getty Images
Activists and students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attend a rally at the Florida Capitol on Feb. 21 in Tallahassee to protest gun violence after 17 people were killed at the school on Feb. 14.

So, yes, elected official, I have been in your hot seat. I have been the elected official young people publicly scorned and demanded things from. And here’s what I did: I led with love. You can, too.

Even if you’re the fiercest defender in the world of the Second Amendment, in your heart there are policy changes you can agree with that you’re worried you cannot make manifest in your politics.

Lead with love instead.

Even if you believe the freedom afforded by the Second Amendment is something that has made our democracy what it is, there are policy changes these young people are asking for that you know you can support inside that belief.

Lead with love. Respond to their love for one another.

Even if you believe deeply and profoundly that people are safer with more guns, there are policies that, when you get quiet, you know you’d be willing to try if only the politics allowed.

Try them. Let the world go quiet around you. Listen to the stirrings of your own heart and integrity, and lead with love.

No matter what else it looks like these students are doing, at the heart of what they’re doing is love. I invite you to go behind your own fear, to have the courage and righteousness of these students, and lead with love. That’s what the young people advocating for better gun laws are doing. You can, too.

Betsy Hodges was the 47th mayor of Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is currently a Residential Fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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