For years, radical environmentalists, community activists, and traditionalists in England have banded together in a non-violent, direct-action movement to halt the construction of new roads. Road-building bifurcates communities, destroys open space and natural areas, and promotes ever-increasing congestion and pollution through increased car use. The Minnehaha Free State in Minneapolis represents the first major anti-roads effort in the US.
On December 20, 1998, just after 4 am, 7 Rider trucks stormed into a residential Minneapolis neighborhood at dangerously high speeds with their lights turned off. As each drove up beside a different house, men dressed in black piled out, some wearing gas masks, some carrying tear gas canisters, some touting laser-scope assault weapons. Soon an area about the size of a full city block was cordoned off. Helicopters hovered overhead. Sniper units were visible. Six hundred troopers were present in what became the largest police action in Minnesota history.
Inside the houses, young women and men woke to the horror of tear gas-filled rooms (rooms as small as 10′ x 10′ were bombarded with up to five canisters of the toxin). Those who did not vacate quickly discovered troopers penetrating their barricades. The troopers beat some people severely. One woman’s nose was pushed back so hard that it broke. One man had his head beaten bloody as the raiders carried him out of a basement, forcing his head into each stair. Many of the 37 people arrested had pepper spray applied directly and repeatedly to their open eyes. Nearly everyone was denied medical attention.
What heinous crime had we committed that won us such treatment? We had dared to oppose the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) bureaucratic plan to reroute a highway (HWY 55) through a working class neighborhood and a city park; a reroute that would pave over an old-growth oak savanna, that would destroy sites sacred to the Mdewakanton Dakota, that would threaten the last remaining cold water spring in the Twin Cities; a reroute that for 40 years the neighborhood had fought every step of the way through the legal process.
When the legal system failed them, the community resistance to the HWY 55 reroute invited Big Woods Earth First! to utilize its nonviolent direct action tactics in defense of the area. Through Earth First!, the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community and the American Indian Movement (AIM) became involved in the struggle. The Mendota were the original inhabitants of the condemned area, and were actually promised this-and much more-land by the US government in an 1863 treaty. On August 10 of last year-the day the first homes were scheduled for demolition-Earth First!, the Mendota, AIM and others began a nonviolent occupation on the condemned corridor. The Minnehaha Free State was declared.
A multi-tactic, popular campaign ensued, carried out by a broad-based, cross-cultural coalition. While members of the “Stop the Reroute” neighborhood coalition continued pursuing lawsuits and other legal means, Earth First! set up lockdowns in and around the condemned homes. Tree houses went up. The Mendota Mdewakanton and AIM set up tipis, sacred staffs and a sacred fire and began effective organizing within the native community. Supporters from all over the city brought supplies such as batteries for the radio communications system, food, clothing, tents, and blankets. An empty shed made way for a free store in order to distribute the goods, and occupants shared labor and food in the free kitchen. Late-season victory gardens replaced neatly mowed lawns.
Soon the occupation became a cultural center in the Twin Cities. A stage was erected to host open-mike coffeehouses. The Critical Mass bike ride made a point of swinging by on its monthly routes. Sweats and other Native American ceremonies were held regularly. Over 500 people attended a pow-wow where it was heartwarming to watch scores of families walking past “NO TRESPASSING” signs as if they didn’t even notice them. Our “diggeresque” presence on state-acquired land challenged the very notion that land can be owned at all, especially in light of the fact that half our camp was comprised of American Indians, from whom all land on this continent was stolen in the first place.
The encampment resurrected a repressed collective memory. On two occasions I observed passerby commenting, “This reminds me of the Peoples Park in Berkeley.” Behind the scenes of a political struggle, we were experimenting with an alternative way of living and structuring society. We practiced consensus decision-making, out of which came the Minnehaha declaration:
MnDOT made a gigantic tactical mistake when it decided to play a waiting game with us, in hopes that we would fade away. This gave us the opportunity to escalate the campaign through banner drops, rallies, door to door outreach and even a hunger strike, and most importantly this gave us the time we needed to build a stronger and wider movement to stop this ever-increasingly unpopular road project.
The urban setting gave Earth First! an opportunity to unite with other revolutionary struggles. The Free State regularly sent large contingents to Free Mumia protests, anti-police brutality marches, and rallies and civil disobedience to end the bombing and sanctions against Iraq. As a result, many of the people fighting for these causes were drawn into the campaign to stop the reroute. And as a result of Earth First! taking on a fairly mainstream community’s struggle, many seemingly extreme tactics were taken out of the fringe-while not compromising Earth First! principles. Entire elementary school classes would tour the encampment, learning not only how to lockdown to a tripod or concrete barrel, but also why someone might do such a thing.
The powers that be want Earth First! to be in the fringe. The powers that be want movements like Earth First! and AIM to be unable to work together. The powers that be want communities to be dysfunctional, unable to organize against unpopular projects. In short, the powers that be want to continue as the powers that be, and are therefore strategically opposed to the empowerment of people and communities. In the Minnehaha bioregion, we began to effectively empower communities. As a result, we faced harsh repression. The behavior displayed by police during the first raid (on October 14 to shut off the houses’ utilities), though brutal, was only a taste of things to come. Thereafter we would be heavily infiltrated by provocateurs and informants. And finally, in the cold pre-dawn hours of December 20, though not officially declared, martial law was implemented.
I have been involved in multi-issue activism and nonviolent resistance to social, economic, political, and ecological injustices for several years now. I’ve encountered the occasional overzealous police officer, but never have I encountered anything like what I experienced on that December night. The torture of the tear gas had already taken its toll on my roommate and me when we locked down to the cement-filled fireplace in the basement. Immediately thereafter we heard what sounded like ten or more troopers storming down the stairs. The walls shook violently as they tried to ram down the wall. Frightened voices angrily shouted, “Come out NOW!!!…You’d better come out NOW!!!… You’d better not have any weapons in there!… You’d better have your hands up when we break this wall down cause we’ve got our guns drawn!” The room was dimly lit, and my partner and I felt we were in serious danger of getting shot once the wall came down. We attempted once more, in our pathetic crying voices (from the tear gas), to explain to the police (who should have known) that we were nonviolent. We then unlocked and came out of the room very slowly and very cautiously, to find laser scopes pinpointed on us. Once in custody the troopers immediately demanded, “Where are the booby-traps?” and “Where are the weapons?”.
Usually officers are trained on how to handle nonviolent demonstrators. Usually they are somewhat embarrassed at worst-never frightened. There was no reason to be frightened, unless they were purposefully being misinformed by superiors, which it seems was the case. I don’t care to speculate about the motive behind disseminating such dis-information, but people could have been killed, and many people were hurt badly, and this was the most horrible night of my life. Yet I was treated better than many of my friends, some of whom were beaten and/or had pepper spray gel rubbed directly in their eyes and mouths in order to get them to unlock.
Though the manufacturers of pepper spray say explicitly that it should only be used to restrain violent criminals, and never as a pain compliance tool, in late 1997 California police began using it as such against nonviolent Earth First! protesters. The four young women who were tortured with pepper spray (in order to force them to abandon an office occupation against Pacific Lumber) had their excessive force lawsuit thrown out just days before the raid on the Minnehaha Free State. Minnesota state troopers were acting on a national precedent, but they took it even one step further, using pepper gel on some protesters not only as a way to get them to unlock, but even after they were handcuffed and in custody. The perpetrators of this torture can’t possibly offer any justification for these acts, and probably they won’t have to because, unlike the California case where the whole scene was videotaped, in Minnesota they barred the press entirely from the raid. Independent press corps journalist Dick Bancroft was actually arrested. His camera was confiscated, and when it was returned, his film, which had captured the illegal destruction of AIM’s sacred drum, was missing.
Though the state put us through a living hell, and tried to break our spirits, and though the houses were demolished within hours of the raid, still the old growth oak savanna, the cold water spring and the sacred sites remain, and the campaign to stop the reroute continues. Only days after the raid, protesters returned to the corridor with tipis, buses, tree sits, and other various structures. Complaints and lawsuits-concerning the violations of constitutional and human rights by police during the raid-are underway. Also a judge recently ordered MnDOT to undergo federal mediation with the Mendota and other signers of one lawsuit. Minnehaha Uber Alles!
To help, contact Governor Jesse Ventura at State Capitol, 175 Constitutional Ave., St. Paul, MN 55155; 651-296-3391, and suggest he cancel this highway project. Contact police chief Robert Olson at 350 5th St., Minneapolis, MN 55415; 612-673-3383, and ask him what’s up with his decision to use pepper-gel? Contact MnDOT Commisioner Elwin Tinklenberg at 395 John Ireland Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55155; 651-296-3000 and ask him who really thinks it’s a good idea to pave a sacred site of inestimable environmental and cultural value? We also need lots of money to help with huge legal costs and continued actions against HWY 55. Send donations c/o Big Woods EF!, POB 580936, Minneapolis, MN 55485.