The Enemy Has Been Met

Still reeling, ousted Highway 55 protesters plot their next move

This past Sunday, after 600 riot-ready cops stormed the Riverview Road encampment in South Minneapolis in the predawn hours, arresting 36 squatters who'd been bunkered down in protest against the planned expansion of Highway 55, Arne Carlson appeared on the scene to preen for one last gubernatorial photo op. "They're not protesters in the normal use of the word," the state's outgoing leader, who'd ordered the raid, exclaimed. "They're basically anarchists!"

Though that proclamation made the news, it was just another volley in a weekend-long war of words. Even as the authorities got busy justifying their use of pepper spray by casting the nonviolent nonconformists as urban terrorists, career radicals late to the scene planted themselves before the bank of TV cameras to hurl loaded labels--"Nazi" and "fascist" among them--at no one in particular; away from the microphones, they whispered their continuing suspicions about infrared helicopter surveillance and government spies.

By evening, however, all sides were running low on verbal ammunition. Once the seven condemned houses the scofflaws had occupied had been bulldozed, the state patrol, the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department, and the Minneapolis Police Department had packed up their Ryder rental trucks and headed home, leaving in their wake but a few bonfires to smolder in the new-fallen snow. Those who'd eluded arrest, along with organizers from the Native American community and the nationwide environmental group Earth First! then gathered at the Bedlam Theatre on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota campus to regroup.

Initially, the mood among the hundred or so rabble-rousers seemed one part melancholy, two parts shock. Sitting cross-legged in a circle on the worn wooden floor, they replayed the day's doings like scenes from Eyes on the Prize, To them, the giddy laughter of the "storm troopers" that morning, their haughty disregard for the cause, was no less outrageous than Bull Connor's fire hose. Pepper spray had put at least one of their comrades in the hospital. What's more, they couldn't visit their "brothers and sisters" in lockup because officials at the Hennepin County Jail would let only immediate family through the door. It's a violation of basic human rights! More than a few congregants were in tears.

Susu Jeffrey, the group's fortysomething media envoy, pulled out a drum and tried to rally the troops with song. A handful of teens in the house--lips pierced, limbs tattooed--rolled their eyes at the nostalgic pap, and after one lackluster verse, the music died. Jeffrey trotted out the umpteenth allusion to Hitler's Germany, but no one, not even the flock's few weathered flower children, was roused by the analogy.

Hoping to snuff out the malaise, Jim Anderson and Jay Redhawk, outspoken leaders of the Native American contingent, dipped into a mixed bag of cliché and lore. "We've lost the battle, not the war," Anderson declared. "Hold your heads high." Pausing to contain his temper, Redhawk offered a history lesson: "Our people are used to this. They'll have to answer to the spirits for what they've done."

Then, out of the quiet, a free-for-all ensued. One high-schooler stood to tutor his brethren on the Gestapo's interrogation tactics ("Don't talk and don't sign anything!"). A seasoned radical, wool beret yanked tight over his graying scalp, a white-knuckled fist punching the air, called for the resignation of Minneapolis mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. And Redhawk launched into a tale of his ancestors, hanged in the late 1800s by troops at Fort Snelling.

Lest the evening veer too far off course, an Earth First! activist who refers to himself as Tumbleweed took the helm. Notebook in hand, boyish face camouflaged by a Grizzly Adams beard, he queried for quiet with a mild "Can we avoid discussion, please?" But no: The U.S. was bombing Iraq. Right-wingers were overthrowing the government. The sky was falling. Tumbleweed tried again, to little avail.

When time finally came for the real business at hand--plotting the next move--the meeting was two hours old. A few called for a return to the battlefield, no matter the temperature or the odds of another raid. Others pleaded for a rest, a little downtime over the holidays. In the end, everything remained possible and nothing was finalized. Fatigue and hunger had set in. The movement's generals needed to get back to their families for supper and a few hours of shuteye.

And so the troops headed one by one out into the night, their cause in chaos, their bunker now history, in search of new shelter from the cold.

 
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