Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis features all kinds of musical “street performers”—one of the joys of a Minnesota summer. Was it paranoia induced by the Department of Homeland Security or sheer incompetence that prompted Minneapolis police to arrest street dancers “armed” only with recorded music?
Aiming for a playful protest against the American obsession with shopping, seven youths danced down Nicollet Mall on Saturday, July 22, around 8 p.m. Faces painted ghoulish white and black, they wore backpacks outfitted with clearly visible speakers playing music, calling themselves the “Zombie Dance Party.” They inspired some passersby to join them.
However, someone at the 1st Precinct decided they should be arrested.
Minneapolis Police Department public information officer Lt. Greg Reinhardt said “the investigation is ongoing” with various charges being considered from “disturbing the peace” to “possession of simulated WMDs.”
“First, four officers approached us … and just told us to turn the volume down a bit. They were totally polite. One even said something about us doing performance art,” said Jamie Jones, one of the zombies. “Then, an hour later, three other officers came, very polite, and asked us for IDs and we were totally cooperative. They said it was ‘sergeant’s orders’ to bring us to the precinct. If they thought we had bombs wouldn’t SWAT have been there? They didn’t even handcuff us!”
Jones is slender and tall, with dredlocks framing her delicate features. She’s fascinated with electronics and sustainable DIY permaculture. She invented the musical backpacks as a lightweight, mobile sound system. Like the other zombies, Jones is a member of Critical Mass, the alternative transportation group of bicyclists who interrupt downtown traffic on mass rides the last Friday of every month.
“When we got to the 1st Precinct, Sergeant Ed Nelson said, ‘I don’t give a goddamn about your f—king constitutional rights!’ That’s when things got nasty,” she pauses. “Later he said ‘If I see you with wires coming out of your backpack, we’re ordered to shoot you in the back of the head.’ I couldn’t help but think of that Brazilian electrician that police shot in London when he was just going to work on the subway.”
Lt. Reinhardt read part of the official police report over the phone, which states that “officers saw wires leading to triggers.” The officers making that claim are not named. The youth said officers tossed their backpacks on the hood of a police car, and the zombies later discovered that their sound equipment had been damaged by police.
Katie Kibbing, another zombie who said she was there mostly to take pictures for an art project, said, “We wanted to channel dissent in a new way. Instead of the usual signs and anger, we felt we were far more approachable and LESS confrontational.” She alluded to a Peavey Plaza protest two days earlier, opposing Israel’s air strikes against Lebanon. “Even the Bomb Squad guy called our backpacks ‘slick.’ As for the idea of them being seen as weapons, he said ‘That’s ridiculous!’ But, while we were in the 1st Precinct holding cell, I overheard someone say to put us on the Homeland Security list. Sergeant Nelson said he was going to teach us a lesson.”
The young people were separated at the precinct, each questioned and threatened. They were cuffed with overly-tight wrist ties for transport to the county jail. Making what seemed to be deliberate sudden stops, the youths were thrown around the van and then left there for a half hour in the heat, before being booked at the county jail.
Lt. Reinhardt pointed out “public safety concerns around downtown, especially Block E” and said police response to protests had improved over the years he’d been an officer.
“But, police still have to do intelligence-gathering. We have to make distinctions between peaceful protesters and groups like anarchist and the ISAG (International Society for Animal Genetics) protesters.”
Reinhardt’s reference to ISAG was another police overreaction with claims of a “biological weapon” that turned out to be spoiled hummus.
“Sergeant Nelson said to me that officers are instructed to shoot me on sight if they see me,” said Raphi. “This was right after he was holding a large gun in the air.”
“Look at what they’ve been doing since 9/11. It’s been a way to take away rights. To put activists on lists,” Jones said, voicing concern about such “intelligence-gathering.” All the young people were fingerprinted, had mugshots taken and were told the FBI would get the information. The Zombie 7 said they may seek legal representation. Jeremy Hansen, Mayor R.T. Rybak’s press aide, released a statement: “The 1st precinct is conducting its own investigation about the incident. The mayor cannot comment until that investigation is complete.”
Kibbing’s brother Kyle, 16, the youngest and slightest of the group, seemed the most shaken.
“They took a seemingly harmless situation and the way they acted—the explicatives they used, the things they said—it makes me question trusting police.” Referring to his right arm, shortened and missing a finger from a birth defect, he said, “One officer called me a ‘four-fingered freak.’ Another said if he was working with SWAT and saw me, he’d shoot me without hesitation.”
One wonders who the real “terrorists” are: unarmed protesters dancing on a summer night or armed police casually making threats to gun down citizens?