Protesters clash with riot police downtown

Robert Koch

After voicing vigorous opposition to biotechnology for nearly a week, protesters intent on shutting down the International Society for Animal Genetics conference themselves sat down in a Minneapolis street Monday afternoon and fell silent as police forces outnumbering them four-to-one moved in to arrest.
Although rioting similar to that which shut down the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle last November never materialized, some felt police efforts to restrict the protesters’ movements led to several violent clashes.
By late afternoon, police and the downtown businesses heaved a collective sigh of relief as police-chartered Metropolitan Transit Commission buses hauled away more than 70 arrested protesters.
For protesters, Monday’s melee only confirmed their fears about authority and distracted public attention away from the issue for which they came to march.
Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson, however, said Tuesday police believed protesters intended to incite a riot and denied any violation of their civil rights.
Street theater
Monday’s march began as a rally at Peavey Plaza, where protesters, media and downtown workers converged late morning.
As news helicopters circled above, Minneapolis resident Jane McDonald voiced her concerns about biotechnology, which she called “an abuse of power.”
“I have a commitment to preserving Mother Earth,” McDonald said. “I hope the world will watch and pay attention to the message of a younger generation.”
Protesters dressed as genetically altered pigs and cows, missing legs and organs, performed near a 20-foot-banner reading “ISAG = SCUM. Stop abusing animals.”
Cheering on the protesters were the Radical Cheerleaders.
Wearing faded black T-shirts and skirts and waving pompons, they shouted, “Radical Cheerleaders are here today. You can’t have our DNA. Come on girls, let’s keep it clean. We don’t need designer genes!”
Prior to marching, one speaker asked protesters to keep the march peaceful, while another told them the location of a medical van as well as a jail support telephone number should they be arrested.
Meanwhile, legal observers from the National Lawyer’s Guild wearing red baseball caps stood by, prepared to monitor the impending march.
Before the march began, Chief Olson announced protesters would not be allowed to march through the downtown area. As protesters assembled, riot police surrounded the Peavey Plaza area.
Starting out eastbound on 11th Avenue, the marchers were stopped immediately by three columns of riot police and Deputy Chief Greg Hestness.
“We had some real deliberate attempts to disrupt on May Day,” Hestness said. “It was an opportunity to disrupt and obstruct the streets. That’s not going to be the case today.”
To the streets
Save for one lone protester, the marchers never entered the designated, fenced-in demonstration area outside the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where the scientists and researchers were gathered for the genetics conference.
The marchers tried different streets to break the police line.
Blocked at 12th and Marquette, they shouted: “This is what a police state looks like.”
The group then moved westward, repeatedly trying to outrun police, but riot cops were able to contain the crowd.
At 12th and LaSalle, an officer shouted, “Turn ’em south!” — setting the tone for the runaround that lasted until midafternoon.
Phalanxes of riot police stood at almost every intersection, either stopping or turning the marchers.
By 1 p.m., the focus shifted to the Loring Park neighborhood. Protesters attempted to outflank the police by turning onto Spruce.
Instead, they were met by approximately 50 riot police who fired rubber bullets, released pepper spray and used riot sticks to force the crowd in the opposite direction.
Police reportedly intended to allow the protesters to enter Loring Park. But protesters soon found themselves boxed in along 14th Street. Facing dozens of riot police eastward, they turned around and eventually forced a break through a dozen regular-uniform police into the park.
Police swung batons and released pepper spray as the protesters broke through to Loring Park.
Afterward, University student Robert Wood sat temporarily blinded at the edge of the park. Wood said police were trying to back the protesters up when the altercation began.
“After I got (sprayed), people apparently just got fed up and ran,” Wood said.
Protesters regrouped along Hennepin Avenue at 2 p.m., where they met mounted police who followed them through the courtyard of Minneapolis Community and Technical College and toward the downtown area.
But when a subgroup of protesters returned toward the Hyatt Regency, police contained them along 12th Street just west of Nicollet. Several marchers broke off from the main group and were caught in the YWCA parking lot.
Police surrounded the others, who sat down on the street and curbside.
Trapped inside the police line was St. Paul resident and veteran protest marcher Mary Scully, who said she arrived downtown about 1 p.m.
“I came because I was so outraged by the violation of civil liberties that I saw reported on the news,” Scully said. “This is the most frightening display of police harassment that I have ever witnessed.”
By 3 p.m. police had arrested about 80 people, ending the march a few hundred feet from where it began.
During the arrests, officers found jars of an unknown liquid substance which had been discarded by the protesters. The FBI reported Tuesday the jars contained non-lethal amounts of cyanide.
A cyanide substance was also found at a McDonald’s restaurant at 24th and Nicollet. Chief Olson said the substance was the same as that found along the protest route.
“We used some aerosol,” Hestness said. “They — somebody in the protest group — used burning military (tear gas).”
Protesters allege civil rights violated
Whether or not protesters or police abided by the law remains open to question. Protesters were particularly angered over being banned from certain areas.
“The First Amendment doesn’t give you a right to block traffic or keep other people from passing on the sidewalk,” said University law professor Dan Farber. “Overall, there isn’t necessarily a right to take over a public space without giving notice and obtaining a permit.”
But Farber added the legal rules are complicated and a lot depends on the exact facts.
A candlelit dress rehearsal
A candlelight march through downtown Sunday evening went largely without incident. Protesters assembled Sunday evening in Loring Park to hold a candlelight vigil, where various speakers expressed their concerns over biotechnology.
Olivia Cramer of the ISAG “Welcoming Committee” introduced speakers involved with the Animal Rights Coalition, native American activists who participated in the Highway 55 protests and other local and national activists.
— The Associated Press and Staff Reporter Patrick Hayes contributed to this report.