I Can't Drive 55

A new book uncovers the real story of the aggrieved Indians, earth first!ers, idealists, frauds, anarchists, lost souls, and free spirits who fought against highway 55

In August of 1999, I went fishing with a killer. I'd met him a few days earlier in a field on the edge of Minnehaha Park--the site of a squatters' camp known as the Minnehaha Free State--where I was covering the protest against the controversial rerouting of Highway 55. He was a short, muscular kid with a wispy mustache and a swagger. As we cast our worms into the Mississippi, just below the river's confluence with Minnehaha Creek, he told me about himself. He said his name was Antonio Sanders, that he was 25 years old, a traveling carnival worker from Oklahoma. He was opposed to the highway project, he said, because he was "for nature."

The first two statements were a lie. His true name was Kenneth Carl Crawford III, and he was only 15. It would later be revealed that my young fishing companion was on the run for the robbery and execution-style murder of two Good Samaritans, committed just a month earlier at a central Pennsylvania trailer park. But Crawford had, in fact, worked as a carnie and did originally hail from Oklahoma. And as to his statement of opposition to the rerouting of Highway 55...who knows? Personally, I can accept the idea that a fugitive teenage murderer might have a green streak. Maybe he really didn't like the idea of a highway running so close to Minnehaha Park. Or maybe he was looking for company. Or maybe he was just looking for a place to crash.

An anthropologically rich assortment of characters came to the Minnehaha Free State for all sorts of reasons. In her new book Our Way or the Highway: Inside the Minnehaha Free State (University of Minnesota Press), Minnesota Public Radio reporter Mary Losure casts a sympathetic eye on the inhabitants of this strange enclave. And while she neglects any mention of Crawford (at the very least he warrants a tasty footnote!), Losure proves adept at fleshing out the often muddled issues that lay behind the protests. More broadly, she communicates what attracted her to the story in the first place: an effort to understand a movement that, as she writes, was "one toenail of a much larger animal."

"Here are people who are willing to devote their whole lives to trying to make the world better": Highway 55 chronicler and radio reporter Mary Losure
Richard Fleischman
"Here are people who are willing to devote their whole lives to trying to make the world better": Highway 55 chronicler and radio reporter Mary Losure

Losure's yarn begins in the frigid early-morning hours of December 20, 1998, when more than 800 law-enforcement officers descended on six condemned houses along Riverview Road. Their goal: to dislodge a band of activists who had spent the past four months occupying the homes. The ensuing raid resulted in the arrest of 37 people and sparked a blizzard of allegations about police excess and brutality. It also appeared to signal the end of the protest.

But, of course, it didn't. Within days, a few die-hard activists had moved into a nearby field, where they pitched tents and tipis around the four stately bur oaks that lay in the path of the highway and that would become the subject of the rallying cry (and ubiquitous bumper sticker) "Stop 55! Go Oaks!" For the next year, as Losure relates, a revolving cast of Earth First!ers, aggrieved Indians, idealists, frauds, anarchists, lost souls, and free spirits moved in and out of the camp. As the road workers inexorably closed in on the camp, felling trees and laying blacktop, the activists held innumerable rallies. Sometimes they took to the trees. Other times they shouted defiant slogans through bullhorns and hoisted placards. Frequently they got themselves arrested.

The cockfights made for easy media fodder. But for all the coverage, the story of the Highway 55 protest remained confusing and sometimes downright impenetrable. Was it about sacred sites, or the ravages of global capitalism, or the corruption of democratic process, or all of the above? Or was it simply about the loss of an appealing and much treasured green space? And who, exactly, were these people doing all the complaining?

As a longtime environmental reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, Losure began covering the story in the summer of 1998, when the Earth First!ers settled into the vacated houses on Riverview Road. She was on hand for every major event at the Free State, from Operation Coldsnap--the police name for the original raid--to the felling of the four "sacred" bur oaks at the center of the camp that ended the occupation. Over that period, Losure filed regular dispatches for MPR. But she also took careful notes, thinking, she says, that she might write a magazine article on the subject.

"I decided pretty early on that there was a lot more going on than I could get in a radio story," Losure explains over the phone. "To me, it unfolded like a novel. And I started thinking I wanted to do a print piece. But then it went on and on, and a friend said, 'Why don't you do a book?'"

To some reporters who covered the unfolding drama (okay, me), the idea of spending enough time at the Free State to write a book would have been a pretty hard sell. Some of the activists were insufferable, and many were prone to wildly overheated rhetoric. The highway project could not be viewed as lousy public policy. Rather, it was said to be part of the Minnesota Department of Transportation's "evil plan," or, worse yet, an egregious instance of "cultural genocide." Thanks to such rank propaganda, even the most persuasive and credible arguments against the project--that it would surely screw up a beautiful park for minimal gain--got short shrift from the media. (The Free State's ban on menstruating women walking among the sacred trees--something the media never reported--was even more preposterous.)

But the activists found a sympathetic ear in Losure, who writes that she found herself drawn to the story "almost in spite of [her]self." What does she mean by that? "There were things about the protestors that could be off-putting," she says. "They were strident. They could be self-righteous." Over time, though, she was increasingly impressed by the sacrifices she saw people making, and she was able to look beyond their most obvious foibles. "As I covered it, I began thinking, here are people who are willing to devote their whole lives to trying to make the world better. You don't meet people like that often," she adds. "It got me thinking about idealism."

That's not to say her sympathies blinded her. In a handful of passages, Losure takes notice of her subjects' flaws, especially the tendency to strike poses. Near the end of the book, she depicts the scene as construction workers felled trees. "The crowd on the hill yelled 'Murderers!' but their voices sounded shrill," Losure writes. Next, she describes two activists as they "embraced dramatically for a television camera, their eyes cast tragically upward."

 

Three years after the dismantling of the Free State, Losure also reveals facets of the story that were largely glossed over in the original reporting. In a longish but fascinating digression, she recounts the complicated genealogy and history of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community, the native group most closely linked to the fight against the highway.

Absent any formal recognition of tribal status from the federal government, most of the Mendotas had forgotten or rejected their Indian heritage. In the mid-Nineties, some 280 of the Mendotas banded together in an effort to enroll in the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota Community, where their rich cousins now operated Mystic Lake Casino. Rebuffed in that effort, the Mendotas set out to gain federal recognition for themselves. And while they started out chasing casino dollars--the Mendotas' charismatic leader, Bob Brown, frankly admits as much--Losure leaves little doubt that the quest to re-embrace their Indian identity became both passionate and genuine.

It was against this backdrop that Bob Brown learned of the highway project from local Earth First! organizer Bob Greenberg. After consulting with a Dakota elder from Prairie Island, Brown became convinced that the highway extension would despoil an area his ancestors regarded as sacred, including the historic Coldwater Spring and the four old oaks that lay at the center of the camp. The oaks, Brown and others believed, may have been planted as scaffolding trees, used for the Dakotas' above-ground death rites. The precise age of the trees was hotly disputed in the standoff--one of the myriad flashpoints in the tit-for-tat debate that raged between the Department of Transportation and the activists.

As it turned out, when the rings were counted, the trees were not old enough to have been used ceremonially. Losure reflects on the matter with characteristic sensitivity, writing, "Whether the religious beliefs of people in the mainstream would have stood up to the same scientific scrutiny was not an issue."

Of course, by the time the bulldozers finally felled the oaks and cleared the way for the highway, the shouting had been going on for a year and a half. By then it was easy to have lost sight of why it mattered what age the oaks were, let alone the more salient truth: that the Minnehaha Free State represented a seminal moment in the contemporary protest subculture, a fiery if sometimes goofy expression of discontent with...well, just about everything.

To most outsiders, the protest was an amorphous and baffling phenomenon. But it was also a phenomenon that would soon manifest itself again, and much more dramatically. As Losure points out, many Free State veterans moved on to Seattle, where they participated in the protest and melee at the World Trade Organization conference in 1999. Then, closer to home, many more showed up for the clashes at the International Society for Animal Genetics conference in downtown Minneapolis (so many, in fact, that ISAG came to be known as "Son of 55").

"This was like a little fable, a cautionary tale that illustrated policy issues in an interesting way," Losure says, then ventures, "I think the DoT is going to think a little harder about where it puts its highways."

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