Highway 55 protesters given maximum fine

Travis Reed

Six protesters arrested in last month’s raid of Camp Coldwater were convicted of obstructing a highway in Hennepin County Court on Thursday morning.
The charges stemmed from the Dec. 11 raid in which 34 demonstrators were arrested for refusing to leave an encampment in the path of the Highway 55 reroute, a construction project designed to accommodate light-rail transit.
The protesters were guarding an area including the “Four Sacred Oaks,” a cluster of trees that the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community used in religious ceremonies and said was spiritually indispensable.
The defendants, Dakota members and other Highway 55 protesters represented themselves in the trial and rejected plea-bargain offers that would have resulted in $50 tickets.
Instead, they were slapped with their choice of a $200 fine or four days of work-squad service — the maximum fine for such a violation.
The obstruction charge was one of two petty misdemeanors levied against the Highway 55 protesters by Andrew LeFevour, county attorney. Charges of trespassing were dismissed for insufficient evidence.
Before the trial, Dakota members and Highway 55 activists beat drums and chanted Native American hymns in a show of solidarity in front of the courthouse.
The political nature of the trial became evident early and often, and passion came to a head several times in the proceedings — including a sequence in which Judge Richard Hopper forcibly instructed one of the defendants to “sit down and be quiet.”
The move elicited a smattering of groans from the largely defendant-sympathetic audience, causing one onlooker to comment, “It’s pretty clear who’s on whose side.”
Defendant Sue Ann Martinson was held in contempt of court and sentenced to two days in jail for reportedly saying, “I don’t know how you can sleep at night,” as she walked away from the bench after receiving her sentence.
Though the defendants say they are pleased about getting the trespassing charges dismissed, they aren’t satisfied with the final decision.
“I think it’s absurd,” said defendant Jennifer Beatty. “Most of us are in agreement that we’re not going to pay $200. Some of us will appeal, and some will do community service.”
The trial was the first of three to be held throughout the next few months involving protesters of the encampment.
Jordan Kushner, an attorney hired to represent several protesters in the upcoming trials, denounced the sentence as excessive, saying, “I don’t see what (Hopper) would accomplish by giving them the maximum charge. It sounds like it was just vindictive … punishing them for exercising their rights to have a trial in the first place.”
Beatty said she’s concerned that the next two trials will be unfair because Hopper has already seen the case. Kushner echoed her concerns, saying, “There’s an attitude that (the judges) don’t want to be bothered with this, and they’re taking it out on the people who are going through the system.”
Hopper wouldn’t comment on the accusations because of the impending trials, saying only that the cases “all arose out of the same community court,” and thus are in his jurisdiction.
LeFevour said the defendants of the other trials will face similar charges, although he indicated the county attorney’s office would “look at (the trespassing charges) and possibly amend them” because they were dismissed in the first trial.

Travis Reed covers environment and transportation and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3235.