Adrienne Sweeney was one of about 100 people who took to the few streets in the tiny town of Lanesboro, Minnesota on Saturday. The crowd ranged from babies to 90-year-olds. They marched, chanted, brandished signs demanding that families stay together.
They were joining cities all over the country in a protest against President Donald Trump’s Zero Tolerance immigration policy and the separation of immigrant children from their parents.
Along the way, Sweeney says, a middle-aged dad was standing with his family and clucking his tongue.
“He kept saying, ‘It’s too bad. You’re all so wrong. You’re all so uneducated,’” she says.
But he was one of the few dissenters. In a way, the little gathering in Lanesboro was a phenomenal accomplishment. The town’s population is 750. About 13 percent of them were protesting.
“I thought if we got 25 I’d be happy,” says Jeff Lepper. “It’s a very strong showing by a very tiny town.”
Lanesboro nestles in a valley along the Root River. When its lifeblood, the railroad, shut down in the ‘80s, residents converted to a charm-based economy. They laid long, winding bike trails through the bluffs and built a thriving theater and fine art scene. It’s the self-proclaimed “bed and breakfast capital” of the state, with about 10 cozy establishments.
“It’s like Nirvana meets Brigadoon,” Sweeney says.
It’s the kind of small town you often hear described as a hotbed for Trump’s border-thumping ideology -- far from the urban center, mostly white. Despite that, Lanesboro is somewhat of a “little blue island” in a purple sea. Fillmore County swang hard for Trump in 2016. So hard, in fact, that Sweeney felt kind of alone.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Well, surely these other people will know what to do.’”
So she hosted a meeting at a church. She called it the Moving Forward Forum. It was supposed to be a gathering of like-minded people who were distressed by the direction the country was taking, people who wanted to stand up for human rights and the environment. To her shock, 80 people showed up.
Lanesboro, she says, has always been a politically conscious town, but something changed after 2016. Suddenly, more and more neighbors were attending protests held in surrounding cities, advocating. In a small town, that can be hard to do.
“It takes a long time to get rural folks really worked up,” rally organizer Jane Peck says. That, and it’s hard to say what you want to the people you disagree with when you’ll probably run into them when you’re buying milk in the morning.
But over the course of the Trump administration, the scales have been tilting toward action.
“One frustration and then another and then another,” she says. “I think it’s starting to add up.”
It’s hard to say what kind of an impact a 100-person protest has in a little town. If nothing else, Peck says, you feel less alone when you are marching as one of many.
But co-organizer Peggy Hanson says places like Lanesboro are among the few places you can change minds at all.
“There are a lot of swing voters down here,” she says. It might mean something for them to see their neighbors marching.
“It’s important to pay attention to areas like ours,” she says. The future may be decided by just a few changes of heart.