Officials urge

Robin Huiras

Workers pushing to prepare for spring 1999 construction of the Hiawatha reroute project find themselves faced with an uncompromising obstacle: humans.
Protests against the construction of a new four-lane highway have escalated to new heights. Unwilling to stop construction, officials from the Minnesota Department of Transportation urge the demonstrators to voluntarily end the protest and leave peacefully.
In the wake of two Sept. 16 arrests, members of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota tribe and Earth First! activists continue to fight adamantly against the development of land considered both sacred by the tribe and irreplaceable by the community.
“Our main goal is to protect everyone’s safety. We don’t want anyone hurt,” said Bob McFarlin, public affairs director for MnDOT. “We respect the right to protest and civil disobedience, but everyone involved should be protected.”
Methods of protest include demonstrators locking themselves to construction machinery and cementing themselves down in the path of the demolition; one activist is precariously suspended on a 20-foot-high plywood platform supported by a tripod of steel pipes. Disrupting the support structure would leave the activist hanging from a bike lock around the neck.
Bob Greenway, spokesman for Earth First! said the demonstrations will not end until their demands are met. The demands are as follows:
ù The cancellation of the reroute of Highway 55 through Minnehaha Park.
ù The preservation of all current green space in Minneapolis be preserved.
ù That land-use planning decisions in Minneapolis be made by the affected community.
ù That Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota community be recognized as a sovereign community.
ù That all land-use claims of the Mendota community be met as laid out in an 1863 act of U.S. Congress.
The final two demands require federal attention. If the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota tribe’s land claims are legitimate, McFarlin said, MnDOT will adhere to the court’s decision.
“We want the land rededicated to the Mendota and the construction stopped,” said Garrett Daun, a University student and Earth First! activist. “Land was promised in treaties and it has not happened.”
The 8,000 acres of land promised but not appropriated to the Mendota include a grove of oak trees and an area of freshwater springs. To the Mendota, the four grandfather oaks represent the colors of man and the water in the spring medicine water. Daun, an atheist, said the sacred site is a conduit to ceremony and prayer.
Daun, arraigned Wednesday in Hennepin County District Court for locking himself to a backhoe on Sept. 16, pled innocent to the charges. The court ordered him not to return to the site or participate in any further lockdowns.
Conversation between MnDOT and the activists have been limited. After 43 days of unsuccessful attempts to reach MnDOT officials, protesters went to MnDOT offices Tuesday to meet with transportation representatives.
“The meeting was a very cordial exchange of differences in opinion — there was very little agreement,” McFarlin said.
Activists don’t plan to back down.
“There is a strong community sentiment of not compromising,” Daun said. “We hope to see the highway not go through and set a precedent in the United States.”
Protests began Aug. 10, although activists have been preparing for more than two months. Hoping to convince MnDOT to end the project are 30 to 100 protesters physically endangering their lives, 1,000 activists putting their bodies between homes and bulldozers and more than 10,000 community members signing their names to a petition.
The reroute of Highway 55 is one of the steps in the creation of a light rail transit line, an effort to improve public transportation in Minneapolis. A 1985 Environmental Impact Statement laid out the construction design, which begins with highway expansion and ends with LRT.
The EIS is the operative document for the entire project. It has been endorsed and proven adequate at state and federal levels, McFarlin said.
A corridor used by many University commuters, the highway expansion would alleviate the traffic congestion caused by the intersection of Highways 55 and 62. The construction of the four-lane highway is slated to begin early spring 1999 with completion expected in approximately 2001. The light rail project is expected to be in operation one to two years after the highway completion.
McFarlin said more than 30 years of planning have gone into the project, including studies performed by archeologists, the Minnesota Historical Society and the Indian Affairs Council.
Although considered sacred to the Mendota community, the surrounding neighborhood picked the area themselves.
“Selected in the mid-to late-1980s, the Hiawatha Citizens Advisory Task Force looked at 120 alternative spots, held more than 40 meetings and decided this area had the least environmental impact,” McFarlin said.
Although MnDOT will not violently remove the protesters at this time, McFarlin said the protesters know that certain actions may result in serious, if not fatal accidents.
A rally and march by Earth First! and community members is scheduled for Oct. 14. The march, which begins at noon, will begin at the grounds of the state capital and concludes at the MnDOT building in St. Paul. The rally is another way the Minneapolis community can work together to prevent the building of the road, said Greenway.
“When the time comes, and it will come, to remove the protesters, we will make a serious effort to hurt no one,” McFarlin said.