In the run-up to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minneapolis City Council actions some activists are worried because key limitations on police actions during demonstrations have been eliminated. On Wednesday, a city council committee will consider restoring those limits.
At its full council meeting June 6, the Minneapolis City Council passed registration requirements for demonstrations which will apply during the time of the RNC convention, postponing action on the accompanying issue of regulating police behavior to allow for further committee work.
In the Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee meeting June 11, Council President Barb Johnson from Ward 4 inserted a statement that the new regulations superseded a key 2000 ordinance in the same area of regulation. A resolution on police action including the statement passed in the full council on June 20.
And that has civil rights, free speech and anti-police brutality activists hopping mad – or it should, activists say.
“I think the council voted for it because they didn’t know what they were voting for, sort of like the Patriot Act,” says Michelle Gross of Communities United Against Police Brutality. “At the same time,” Gross added, “I think Johnson knew full well what she was doing, because we know that some of those  protections really worked.”
The 2000 ordinance was passed in the wake of a highly publicized police crackdown on protestors at a Minneapolis meeting of the International Society for Animal Genetics meeting in Minneapolis, where more than 60 demonstrators were arrested. That incident spurred a broad-based mobilization that successfully sought protection by ordinance against tactics such as the use of rubber bullets, confiscation and destruction of cameras and film, harassment of journalists and legal observers, targeting of organizers and leaders for arrest, compiling files on activists, and intentional delays in medical assistance
Now, Communities United is partnering with such groups as the National Lawyers Guild, Coldsnap Legal Collective, the RNC Welcoming Committee, and Protest RNC 2008 to support the restoration of those protections.
When the resolution amended to supersede 2000 protections passed, Council Member Cam Gordon of Ward 22 proposed a provision restoring restrictions against enumerated actions. Gordon’s amendment was returned to the Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, which is slated to take up the question at its meeting Wednesday, July 16, at 1 p.m. at Minneapolis City Hall, 350 South 5th Street, in Room 317.
Gordon says he sees continuing the examination of these protections as central to the council’s relationship to the police department.
“There is a tendency to be overly vague sometimes when we have police policies because of fear of litigation,” Gordon says. “We need to resist that, because we can be clear. Police do like to have tools and options, but we can also give them some leadership and policy direction.”
Gordon also emphasizes that the restoration is more intended to clarify and address public perception than anything else.
“Even if I totally fail to get anything back in terms of police training, police policies, statutes and other city regulations, I don’t think there’s a great risk that we’re going to start seeing those practices,” he says.
Gross, whose organization challenges police brutality through direct advocacy for victims of police brutality, political advocacy and public education, isn’t so sure. Citizens United cites recent incidents, such as police harassment at Critical Mass last August, as cause for concern. Gross says she says she sees protective ordinances as a preventive approach to police brutality.
“I would so much rather prevent this stuff on the front end than have to deal with that on the back end,” Gross says.
To accomplish that, activists plan to be at Wednesday’s hearing to support Gordon’s resolution in full force. Gross says she’s disappointed that the committee didn’t schedule public hearing on the question.
“Here these guys are, they’re going to take away our rights that we fought, frankly, really hard for in 2000, and they’re not going to give us a public hearing,” she says. “It should never happen like that.”
Gross says she and her colleagues will make their support for the 2000 protections clear.
Gordon says he hasn’t gotten much feedback on the issue from constituents, and that much of the feedback he has received has come from city officials, such as the city attorney’s office and the police department. Certain protections might be changed to better reflect practice.
“Part of it says the size of a force should be proportionate to the gathering, so as not to ‘chill’ freedom of speech,’” Gordon says. “That’s pretty vague, and more metaphorical. I expect that improvements will be made in clarity, and I’m not that hopeful that all of the ideas [lifted from the 2000 ordinance] will get through the process.”
David Seitz is a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, studying political science, gender studies and American studies. As a writer, activist and student, he is interested in anti-racist, feminist and queer approaches to community journalism, politics, and spirituality.