With Dignity: The Right To Equality Before The Law

Marika Straw

“All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.”

Finally, two Somali men stood up to speak: one to talk and one to translate. The reason we are all so scared, they said, is because one of the gang members involved in the incident in the park ran through our apartment building Saturday night. The locks on the outside doors of the building are broken because people prop them open, so anyone can come in. We were scared for our lives.

I was sitting in a neighborhood meeting in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis, a historically American Indian neighborhood with a fairly recent influx of Latino and Somali immigrants. The Somalis’ points elucidated the proceedings thus far: a detail-free explanation of the “incident in the park,” an explanation of an apartment manager regarding why repairs to his building took so long and a motion to approve a resolution against the apartment manager.

Having come to a new country for safety from a war that had raged in their country for years, the Somalis found themselves translating while listening, and attempting to understand the workings of an institution in a strange country that seemed to be addressing inconsequential issues while ignoring their most pressing concerns.

To the Somalis, the “incident in the park” was not simply a shooting incident; it was an immediate threat to their lives. The comments of the apartment manager regarding repairs were absurd; he was talking about toilet repairs, and they were talking about safety mechanisms.

The neighborhood proposal against the apartment manager was a nice gesture, but did not address the Somali community’s concerns, as these were not even mentioned until the Somalis brought them up.

No one outside of the group of Somalis seemed to have been aware that one of the gang members involved in the incident had even gotten inside of the apartment building.

Fortunately, the police officer, along with the rest of the neighborhood, seemed appalled that the apartment manager was careless enough to let this happen. The neighborhood members immediately jumped on the apartment manager.

Why didn’t the locks work? Broken locks were not the same thing as broken toilets. The safety of his residents should be his first priority.

Did he have a translator? He should get a translator if he had so many Somalis living in his apartment building, even if some of them could translate. The apartment manager offered no answers to the questions. He suggested that we consider how harsh the language of the neighborhood resolution was, picked up his briefcase, and left.

Even when established legal structures attempt to protect citizens equally, they can be undermined by other factors, such as discrimination by other citizens — such as the apartment manager — or the lack of education among new immigrants.

For example, the Somali immigrants living in the apartment building did not even know how to call 911, and when told that they could call 911 when in trouble, asked if there was even a Somali translator on the other line — thankfully, in Minneapolis there is.

It takes an entire community to ensure that the needs of even the most vulnerable groups are being met. If you are interested in helping meet some of these needs, consider volunteering at the Hmong American Partnership or Fox Valley Literacy Coalition. Although you may think that you have little to offer, you may offer much more than you realize. You may offer hope.