Marching orders: Group rallies at City Hall as Minneapolis council weighs new limits on protesters’ rights


Protesters beware: As the Republican convention approaches, Minneapolis is revamping its policies regarding police conduct during political demonstrations, and opponents of the new guidelines say they limit civil and First Amendment rights.

After a series of abuses and egregious civil-rights violations by the Minneapolis Police Department against protesters during the International Society for Animal Genetics (ISAG) conference in 2000, the Minneapolis City Council adopted a resolution that would protect protesters’ rights. Last month, that all changed when the City Council’s Public Safety and Regulatory Services committee voted to approve a new resolution that would supersede the policies directly laid out in the 2000 resolution.

Opponents of the revised 2008 police-policy resolution say that new provisions — including the MPD’s right to use rubber bullets and other projectiles on protesters, to confiscate cameras as evidence, and to use dossiers to infiltrate groups — are designed to chip away protections, suppress dissent, and encourage people not to exercise their free-speech rights during the RNC.

The City Council is expected to unanimously pass the new resolution Friday morning. But that hasn’t stopped activists from planning to organize outside City Hall at 10:30 a.m. today in solidarity against what they say are policies that take away serious protections, expand police power, and serve to create a dangerous environment for protesters and the community.

“The City Council never held a public hearing on this resolution,” Jude Ortiz tells MnIndy. Ortiz is a member of Coldsnap Legal Collective, a volunteer organization dedicated to activists’ rights and developing a network of legal support for protesters during the RNC. “So we are creating our own public hearing. And it’s going to be in the form of a political rally outside City Hall,” Ortiz says.

“We want council members to know that they cannot create an environment that will result in a dangerous situation for people exercising their Constitutional rights. We believe this resolution is not reasonable, and not in the best interest of Minneapolis.”

If history serves as any guide, Ortiz has reason to worry that new policy amendments can lead to violent clashes with police. The downtown protests against ISAG were quiet and without incident until undercover officers inside the protest lines informed the MPD that protesters were discussing throwing rocks at the police. Then-Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson ordered arrests be made immediately, and outrage and violence broke out. Pepper spray was used, protesters were pinned to the ground, some of them beaten till bruised and bloody, and 65 protesters were arrested.

Nearly 200 protesters showed up to march against genetic engineering that day outside of an already barricaded Minneapolis Hyatt Regency. The police response and ensuing violence resulted in city officials’ adoption of a new policy regarding police conduct at political demonstrations. One of the key provisions stated that the MPD could not use political dossiers or infiltrate demonstrations/organizations with undercover law enforcement. That provision is amended in Friday’s resolution to include the language “except in in compliance with constitutional standards” — a potentially mile-wide loophole given the way courts are interpreting “constitutional standards” nowadays. It was the infiltration and supposed threat posed by the protesters that resulted in the clashes and arrests in 2000.

Ortiz says there are other rights the Council has withdrawn from the revised policies in an effort to squelch dissent during the RNC and inflate police power. For one thing, a 2000 policy that required officers to seek immediate medical attention for those who need it has been scrubbed from the new resolution, a policy that scares Ortiz.

And there’s also a new worrisome policy amendment that says police can destroy, confiscate, or tamper with cameras and recording devices when they are to be used as evidence and/or during an arrest of individual in possession of cameras or recording devices. “This opens up the possibility that if it can be used against the police, it can be destroyed,” Ortiz says. It also opens up the possibility that police can confiscate and destroy cameras being used by the media.

Sgt. Jesse Garcia, spokesperson for the MPD, has told the press that the new policies won’t change the MPD’s focus on “keeping the city safe.” The policies are designed to ensure people have public rights and police protection, he says.

But not everyone on the City Council has been so swift to agree. In early June, Second Ward Councilman Cam Gordon introduced a series of amendments to the 2008 resolution that were taken directly from the one created in 2000. On his blog, he writes: “Since I supported many of the provisions of the 2000 action, I quickly set the goal of getting as many of the useful items from the 2000 action into the police policy resolution so as to minimize the possible negative effects should the amendment to have it superseded pass.”

However, after convening with Council members Paul Ostrow and Don Samuels, Gordon eventually compromised on what he describes as a watered-down resolution. “I believe that it’s more important to put some protections in place than to dig in my heels and get nothing,” Gordon wrote. (He was unavailable for comment for this story.)

Ortiz says Gordon’s caving on the issues poses serious threats to protester’s rights. And he plans on making that known at today’s rally outside of City Hall.

“From a political standpoint, it might make sense for him,” he says. “But from a civil-rights standpoint, it doesn’t make sense at all and is totally unacceptable.”