Immigrants and wealth disparity stoke Minnesota protests

Growing up in the 1950s as a farm kid in northwestern Minnesota, I listened to adults rant about the milling companies influence over grain prices.

Back then, there were still enough family farmers to organize protests including milk dumping and tractorcades among other public protests over low commodity prices.

Rhoda Gilman’s new book, “Stand Up! The Story of Minnesota’s Protest Tradition,” goes way back to when country folks outnumbered their city cousins and were able to mount robust third party movements to sway political decisions.

Gilman is a retired Minnesota Historical Society writer, editor and former head of its education division.

The old days in Minnesota were good for the milling, timber and railroad barons. They basked in wealth and maintained a firm grip on the levers of political power.

The Great Depression, among other events, kicked off a storm of protest over a wave of farm foreclosures.

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Here’s a Minnesota Historical Society photo from their collection which shows a 1933 farm rally seeking a foreclosure moratorium – which lawmakers granted. We’ll have a story this afternoon on All Things Considered talking with Gilman about protest history.

Gilman and others have written volumes on Minnesota’s long and robust protest tradition. She touts her new 168 page book as an accessible overview.

Gilman speeds along in her narrative taking us from the 1857 argument over slavery, which threatened to delay Minnesota’s rise to statehood, all the way to present day protests.

In our interview, Gilman points to the immigrant influence in Minnesota’s protest tradition including Finns and Swedes who had a history back in the old country of “radical” politics by American standards.

Then, and some would argue now, folks holding financial and political power weren’t much in a sharing mood. They were tireless in devising ways to thwart protesters including hiring thugs to break up gatherings.

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This photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society from 1934, shows the violent confrontations during the Minneapolis Truckers Strike where two people died and 60 were injured.

In an especially dark chapter of Minnesota history, elected officials in 1917 who were supported by business interests created a “public safety commission.” Gilman says pro-labor and anti-World War I sentiment were swirling through the state and the commission hired informants and used its powers to detain suspected subversives.

Gilman predicts the rise of feminism, eco-politics and the role of government surveillance will all influence contemporary protests in Minnesota. She concludes that the power of protest is a precious asset in uniting people against injustice.

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