The Best Way to Fight for the Public is in Public

Robin Wonsley Worlobah, Minneapolis’ first Black democratic socialist City Councilmember, says she’s not only fighting for better outcomes, but a more just system.

Robin Wonsley Worlobah

Giving the power back to the people. Image by desdemona72 via Shutterstock

I was elected to represent the beautiful, diverse working class communities of Minneapolis’ Ward 2 as the city’s first ever Black democratic socialist City Councilmember. My election was part of a wave of courageous campaigns from the growing left-wing movement across the country, including the election of two other democratic socialists to the Minneapolis City Council. I ran as an independent socialist outside the Democratic Party in what has essentially been a one-party town for decades. 

I am an independent socialist because Black liberation has only advanced through mass working class struggle and not a few individuals maintaining proximity to power. 

Despite Democrats holding nearly every municipal office, working class people in Minneapolis are struggling with economic pressures, some of the worst racial inequality in the country and the social and psychological impact of a violent police force that has repeatedly shown disregard for our lives. The trauma of the last few years only intensified these pressures. 

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder on the border of Ward 8 and 9 by the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), a protest movement grew along the border of Ward 2 and spread into a global uprising. My campaign met this moment with a strong socialist political program, including our Black Democratic Socialist Vision for Public Safety, a demand for strong universal rent control and proposals to tax the rich to fully fund community needs. This strong program, rooted in a clear moral vision and combined with a robust ground game, was what allowed us to run a successful independent campaign.

But winning the election was only the first step. Now, a new challenge begins: shifting from community organizing to governing as a socialist elected official. We have seen organizers become politicians with mixed results. My job is to continue to stay connected to movements on the ground while working in a system that is designed to keep these movements at a distance.

Now, a new challenge begins: shifting from community organizing to governing as a socialist elected official.

After a month in office, I have seen that status quo politics function by shielding much of what happens in Minneapolis City Hall from public view.

Minneapolis prides itself on being a progressive city, and many of our elected officials claim to want the same things as people on the left. But when it’s time to make decisions that impact residents, they close the curtains, keep the public out of the discussion, and come back with plans to protect the status quo. This is the same dynamic we see in Democrat-majority cities around the country. The recent failures of the Democrats nationally have made it clear that wanting something is functionally irrelevant if you’re not willing to fight for it. And if you’re willing to fight for something, you must be willing to fight for it in public.

As a democratic socialist, I am not just fighting for better outcomes within an unjust system. I’m fighting for a better system. It’s not enough to simply champion policies that put working class people first. We must bring these political fights into the public sphere and demand open conversations by policymakers and city officials about our city’s future. Without such transparency, it’s too easy for the forces of capital to conceal regressive policies in progressive rhetoric.

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I made this case in December, a few weeks before taking office, in an op-ed in the Star Tribune questioning the efficacy of a Community Safety Workgroup assembled by the mayor that was going to meet in private with no clear directive. My statement put city power brokers on the defensive and elicited a telling response by Steve Cramer, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, who called me ill-tempered’ and making excuses for their own failures through use of personal invective.’ ”

A month later, abolitionist and former Minneapolis mayoral candidate Sheila Nezhad resigned from the mayor’s Community Safety Workgroup over the same concerns I expressed: we cannot meaningfully address the concerns we face as a city without an honest and open public discussion.

Another example is the city’s handling of encampments. The morning after I took office, four of my City Council colleagues and I went to stand in solidarity with a group of unhoused residents who have lived for months on an unused city lot facing eviction from the city. In the days that followed, multiple city staff and department directors told me that in standing alongside the encampment residents, I was in violation of city policy and putting myself and the city at legal risk. But what eventually became clear was that the city actually has no standardized policy when it comes to encampments and handles every eviction on a case-by-case basis. Their priority is simply to carry out evictions quietly. My colleagues and I drew attention to the evictions, so the city tried to scare us into silence based on unsubstantiated legal and policy grounds.

Based on these experiences, I expect to encounter pushback from the forces of capital throughout my time in office, too. The Minneapolis Downtown Council and the chamber of commerce will fight to protect the status quo. They won’t just fight us behind closed doors in Minneapolis City Hall either. They will fight us in the court of public opinion. If we don’t go along with business as usual, they will try to reduce the movement to just me and say I’m not willing to collaborate. When they say this, they aren’t asking me to engage in robust public conversations about our city’s future. They’re asking me to be part of backroom deals, closed discussions and horse-trading for access to power. For the left to be successful, we must resist these temptations.

As a democratic socialist, I am not just fighting for better outcomes within an unjust system. I’m fighting for a better system.

That will shape my orientation to the fight for rent control, one of the key political issues this council will take up thanks to years of organizing by renters. The landlord lobby will try to water down the proposal by introducing loopholes, exempting new construction, or raising the annual cap above 3 percent. We must make sure the entire process is transparent and public. Taking the fight for rent control behind closed doors only benefits the capitalist class.

The cases above are specific to Minneapolis, but Minneapolis is not unique. In every city across the country where socialists are taking office, we need to be aware of what we’re up against. Fighting to change the system will be met with stiff and well funded opposition. For me, it started with the Minneapolis Downtown Council president criticizing my tone and using civility politics to discount my ideas. If I am successful, those criticisms about my tone will become criticisms of my process and then will become selective enforcement of policies against me. We’ve seen it happen to political leaders on the left around the world and we should expect it everywhere socialists take on the forces of capital, including here in Minneapolis.

The good news is that people in Minneapolis are hungry for a change to business as usual, and the city’s political establishment is on the defensive. We must fight for working class people and keep discussions in the public eye as much as possible. I don’t have anything to hide. And if we’re getting pushback from the people paid to protect the status quo, then we know we’re pushing on the right things.

Our job on the left is to fight for the public in the public. And what I’ve already learned in office is that the public sphere is the one space where the forces of capital do not want to have discussions about our collective future. It’s time we made them play on our turf.

Robin Wonsley Worlobah is Ward 2 city councilor in Minneapolis. She has been active in Black Lives Matter since 2015 and backed the 2021 ballot measure to restructure policing. A democratic socialist, she was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative MN.

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