Know Your Enemy

The Minneapolis Police Department wants to make wearing a gas mask
a crime

In four weeks roughly 1,000 scientists will descend on Minnneapolis's Hyatt Regency Hotel to spend five days dissecting such topics as the mapping of sheep, rabbit, and goat genomes, biochemical polymorphisms in pigs, and avian immunogenetics. In between, the International Society on Animal Genetics conventioneers will go antiquing in Stillwater, cruise down the Mississippi, and get away from it all in the Como Park Conservatory.

The Minneapolis Police Department is worried.

It's not that the police expect the lab-coat crowd to get out of hand and start tipping over taxicabs. The MPD is concerned that the researchers' meeting will prompt massive, unruly protests. As a precaution, earlier this month the department asked the city council to ban the wearing of gas masks in public "unless worn by police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and other emergency personnel or other law enforcement personnel, in the performance of their duties."

David Sather

The notion of a gas-mask ban may sound comical, but the MPD is quite serious about pursuing one. According to a memo prepared by the department, police fear that in the wake of the protests in Seattle during the World Trade Organization (WTO) conference last year, any demonstrations at the conference could quickly get out of hand. "Although the ISAG conference may not bring in the number of protestors that WTO did, the groups that have traditionally supported animal rights are very committed to their cause and frequently use tactics including property damage, arson, and violent/non-violent demonstrations," the document warns.

The police briefing paper also refers to Minneapolis's recent May Day protests, where 34 people were arrested. "These groups used advanced counter-intelligence and tactics including the use of shields, their own radio networks, human chains, and the placement of obstacles in the street," it notes. "Many protestors wore masks and were armed with gas masks."

The proposal has drawn suspicion from some council members and others who fear that police are overreacting. Some say the proposed ordinance may be unnecessary because it duplicates state law, while others say they fear police are strategizing to leave protesters vulnerable. Joe Biernat, the council member who will shepherd the proposed ordinance, says he hasn't studied the issue in detail; he agreed to sponsor the measure because the MPD asked him to.

Council member Jim Niland has "huge problems" with the idea and won't support it. "It just smacks of targeting dissent," he charges. "I'm sure there will be protests and demonstrations, but that's our constitutionally guaranteed right."

Council member Barret Lane says he won't make up his mind until he sees a final proposal and the council has a chance to discuss the issue. But he does admit that he views the idea with a "skeptical eye." Noting that Minnesota already has a law that makes it a misdemeanor for people to conceal their identity in many circumstances, Lane wonders whether the gas-mask ordinance is "something we really need."

In 1994 St. Paul police used the law to ticket a Muslim woman who refused to remove the veils covering her face after police requested that she do so. In the furor that followed, the misdemeanor charges against her were dropped. The following year Sen. Allan Spear (DFL-Minneapolis) authored a bill that modified the existing law to allow people to conceal their faces for religious reasons. According to Spear the law dates to 1923, when it was first enacted to combat the Ku Klux Klan. The senator says that during the 1995 debate about the measure another lawmaker raised the issue of wearing ski masks in winter, which prompted the addition of the weather exemption. Another exemption for people whose faces were obscured because of medical treatments was added that year.

Joan Peterson, a Minneapolis deputy city attorney who is helping to draft the proposed ordinance, thinks the existing state law could be interpreted to prohibit wearing a gas mask. "The question would be if someone's wearing a gas mask, are they doing it for the purpose of concealing their identity?" she explains, adding that the MPD wants a more explicit ordinance.

But if Seattle is the example that the Minneapolis police are looking to, it doesn't appear that the gas-mask ban amounted to much there. Ruth LaRocque, the public information officer for the Seattle City Attorney's Office, notes that Seattle's gas-mask ban was a temporary measure only in effect during the WTO meeting. It was enacted to help police subdue protesters. (Peterson says the ordinance under discussion in Minneapolis would be permanent.)

Seattle Mayor Paul Schell enacted an "emergency order" under which no one could "purchase, sell, convey, or transfer within the city limits, or possess or carry in a public place...any device commonly known as a gas mask." Law enforcement, military, and "representatives of the press with proper credentials" were exempted. Three days after the measure was put into effect, the mayor proclaimed the "civil emergency" to be over and the ban was ended. Of the roughly 580 misdemeanor WTO-related cases handled by the Seattle City Attorney's Office, LaRocque says, eight involved gas masks. But, she notes, "They were all dismissed," some of them by the city attorney's office itself.

Next Page »