Protesters voice concerns at city council meeting

Mark Baumgarten

Protesters stifled by police enforcement during last month’s genetics conference protests finally had the opportunity to express concerns to the Minneapolis City Council.
A group — including protesters, lawyers and a state representative — arrived at City Hall on Wednesday night to voice displeasure with the Minneapolis Police Department. They cited excessive use of force by officers, media misrepresentations and the city council’s own ineffective probing into police Chief Robert Olson.
In addition to the July 24 incidents surrounding the International Society of Animal Genetics conference, protesters cited episodes from other confrontations, including a May 1 downtown protest.
“I was yanked by my hair from behind, dragged through the street, clubbed over the head and arrested,” recent University graduate Ellen Cleary said from the podium. “Because I have been unable to identify this officer, I have been unable to file a complaint with the Civilian Police Board.”
In order to file a complaint with the board, a citizen must provide the badge number of an offending officer — something many of the speakers said was impossible to do because the riot gear worn by the police covered badge numbers.
The riot gear was also mentioned by speakers as a tool of intimidation.
“What I saw scared me,” said Chris Gegax, a Linden Hills resident, who witnessed the protests. “It wasn’t the rag-tag group of approximately 75 protesters sporting dreadlocks and body piercings; it was the presence of hundreds of Minneapolis police brandishing clubs and clad head-to-toe in full body armor and gas masks.”
In addition to complaints about police conduct, speakers condemned the media’s coverage of events as “manipulative” and “misrepresenting.”
They said media reports of canisters containing cyanide found downtown being linked to the protests was a misled assumption. The amount of cyanide found was only five parts-per-million — a legal amount by Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, speakers said.
The Minneapolis City Council also came under fire as speakers questioned the manner in which the council handled the police preparation for the protest and the questioning of Olson in an Aug. 4 inquiry.
“Based on the consistency of the speakers, I would believe that (the criticism) was justified,” City Council member Lisa McDonald said in an interview following the hearing. “I think if we would have handled things differently (before the protests), all of this could have been avoided.”
At one point, some of the more than 100 attending the hearing shouted “Where’s the mayor?” and “Where’s the police chief?” in reference to the absence of Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and Olson.
“She could have come back,” McDonald said of Belton’s current trip to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. “This is a very important issue and a lot of people are very unhappy with the way she has handled this.”
Following the three hours of testimony, City Council member Jim Niland said action would be taken.
In an interview following the hearing, Niland said he would push a resolution to respect protesters’ First Amendment rights by not using tear gas, rubber bullets or pepper spray on peaceful protesters.
“I think it’s clear that people’s First Amendment rights were violated,” he said. “The council has a moral responsibility to do something about it.”
How It Started
The council called Wednesday’s public hearing after an Aug. 4 debriefing of the Council’s Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee.
During the debriefing, Chief Olson defended the number of police and the force used at the ISAG protests and the raid on Sister’s Camelot — an organic-food distribution organization believed by police to be a center for organizing protesters.
“I’m far happier sitting here today explaining to you why I used all these resources rather than sitting here with a million dollars worth of damage on our downtown Nicollet Mall explaining to you why we weren’t prepared to deal with that,” Olson said.
He added the Minneapolis Police Department set out to keep downtown safe, make certain the conference went undisturbed and protect protesters’ rights.
The department anticipated 1,500 protesters, but Olson counted 300 during the July 24 protests.
Seventy arrests were made relating to events surrounding the conference.
Security for the conference has turned into the most expensive police action in the state’s history, topping $1 million with the cost to the Minnesota State Patrol yet to be reported.

— This story contains information from wire reports.