Dark Days for Camelot

"Hippies who haul produce": Sister's Camelot's Jeff Borowiak
Craig Lassig

The evening of July 24, a group of people had just finished watching the ten o'-clock news together in the first-floor apartment of a duplex in south Minneapolis. The man the apartment belonged to, Jeff Borowiak, had been arrested during a protest earlier that day, and the people gathered in front of the TV were riveted to the news footage of that afternoon's clashes downtown between the Minneapolis police and protesters of the International Society for Animal Genetics conference.

Borowiak's apartment, located at 3118 Grand Ave. S., is also the headquarters of Sister's Camelot, a nonprofit that delivers organic food to low-income neighborhoods around the Twin Cities. Many of the people watching the television were affiliated with the organization, and had come to hang out and cook some food together. But on that Monday night, rumors, paranoia, and hints of violence still hung in the air.

At 10:30 six people left the house and crowded into a tiny car parked just outside. Camelot volunteers say that as they pulled away, headed downtown to try to bail out Borowiak and other friends, a blue car pulled across the street, blocking their passage. Two plainclothes officers approached the car with guns drawn and began yelling at people to get out of the car, lie facedown in the middle of the street, and not make a sound. Suddenly, they say, other police officers appeared, stormed through the apartment's open front door brandishing guns, and ordered everyone left inside down on the floor.

Although their stories contradict official accounts of the raid, the Camelot volunteers say some of the police were wearing black ski masks, some were in riot gear, and others were wearing black shirts and jackets emblazoned with "DEA." The officers threw people on the ground, hit some with nightsticks, and kicked others, the activists claim.

Tamara Willis, age 29, had dozed off in a chair in the back of the two-bedroom apartment when the raid began. She says she was kicked and might have been hit with a baton. "There was noise and commotion," says Willis. "I looked to my left and there was a cop in riot gear with a riot shield. There were at least eight cops in there. There was a female cop with a ski mask over her head so all you could see were her eyes and the top of her nose."

For more than two hours, she and others say, 13 people were kept, handcuffed and blindfolded, in the house while authorities ransacked closets, bedrooms, and a shed in the backyard, and examined the files on the nonprofit's three computers. One volunteer, 16-year-old Wendy Koon, says the police were telling one another to "get all the ISAG info."

By 1:30 Tuesday morning, 13 people had been arrested, loaded into a paddy wagon and taken to jail; one was taken to the hospital. "I was like, 'What the fuck is going on?'" says Willis.

What was going on, according to the jumbled accounts contained in police reports and court files related to the raid, is that Minneapolis police believed that Sister's Camelot was playing host to "out-of-town" agitators and others who "wanted to shut our city down," according to Police Chief Robert Olson. Several days before the protest, he explained last week to angry city council members, the Minneapolis Police Department had obtained a search warrant authorizing officers to enter the duplex to look for drugs. Police held off on raiding the apartment, however, for three days--until they heard "that there was an individual there with an academic background in chemicals."

Olson's assumptions, say Borowiak and other Camelot associates, couldn't have been more false. A New Hope native, Borowiak graduated from Carleton College in 1990 with a degree in biology. Police did find small quantities of marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms, but the house contained no chemicals. And while some of the group's affiliates participated in the protests, they deny that any of the activities were planned at Sister's Camelot headquarters. The police, they charge, had them under surveillance for weeks before the scientists came to town, and used a pretext to stage the raid.

"This is the nature of the government now," says Borowiak. "[Police] used the war on drugs as an excuse to get the warrant and trash the place because they see us as a threat to their being. This was not about drugs. There is no question that this was directly related to the protests."

Police records bear out these possibilities. When they applied to Hennepin County District Court Judge Roberta Levy for the search warrant on July 21, MPD officers said they believed heavy narcotic trafficking was going on at Borowiak's apartment. A tree house on the property was used as a lookout post, they added, and the group's two school buses were being used to transport marijuana. The warrant also says that MPD Officer Bart Hauge, a ten-year veteran of the force, had visited the property with a "confidential reliable informant," peeped through a window, and seen two six-inch marijuana plants in the house, as well as marijuana plants growing in the backyard. The warrant authorized officers to look for drug paraphernalia, weighing and packing materials, firearms, and "other records, such as computers, laptops and electronic notebooks, of drug sales and/or use."  

But according to police records, what was actually seized seems far more benign: When police packed up, court documents show, they took with them numerous notebooks, three-ring binders, mailing lists for the organization, calendars, mail addressed to Borowiak, knives, a slingshot, a blowgun, and a police scanner. Borowiak says two of the knives were Leatherman pocket tools, and the other was a Japanese martial arts accessory, not a weapon.

The officers didn't find the pot plants mentioned in the warrant, but they did unearth three "small" bags of marijuana, a bag of psychedelic mushrooms, three marijuana pipes, and a bong. Furthermore, authorities seized three videocassettes, three computers, and, according to the report, some "Fuck ISAG" banners.

(Sister's Camelot volunteers believe federal agents participated in the raid. Borowiak thinks the FBI has had a file on him for five years. Olson and an FBI spokesman last week denied suggestions that federal agencies participated in the raid or preparations for it.)

Narcotics investigator Hauge confirms that he participated in the raid, and says he did observe the house prior to the arrest. He maintains that police are satisfied with what they seized, and that the raid was "routine" and justified. Hauge wouldn't answer further questions, however: "This whole thing is just such a mess." (MPD media liaison Cyndi Montgomery did not return repeated phone calls from City Pages regarding this story.)

Charles Samuelson, executive director of the Minneapolis Civil Liberties Union, says his group is monitoring the Sister's Camelot situation carefully, but he declines to speculate about what, if any, action the MCLU might take. "A lot of things" about the raid caught Samuelson's attention: "Specifically, the timing and location of it," he says, "and the statement on [Chief] Olson's part we find particularly damning." Olson has made no secret of the fact that the bust was provoked by police "counterintelligence" conducted regarding the protest.

The raid may have been legal, Samuelson continues, but he and others question the MPD's tactics. "Is this legal under current drug laws?" he asks. "Yes. Does [the MCLU] think this is constitutional? No. The bottom line is that they went with the dealing thing--distribution of narcotics. But three or four bags of marijuana is less than an ounce." Samuelson notes that what happened in Minneapolis fits with a nationwide pattern seen recently in Seattle, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., where political protesters have been the targets of conveniently timed raids in which drug tips or safety-code violations are used as pretexts. "Police talk to each other and swap ideas, just like protesters," he says, noting that warrants are not commonly used to arrest someone for personal drug consumption.

Borowiak himself was arrested around 2:00 p.m. in Loring Park the day of the protests. He says a plainclothes officer approached him and handcuffed him from behind, despite his insistence that he was not protesting and had not strayed from the area where marching was being allowed. While this happened, Borowiak says, another plainclothes officer approached and asked, "Is that Borowiak?" He suspects he had already been singled out. "Someone with the police had infiltrated the house two weeks before and they knew me," Borowiak says. "That was their plan from the get-go."

There's no doubt in Borowiak's mind that police had singled out Sister's Camelot. The group opposes genetically engineered food but played no role in organizing the protests.

Borowiak was charged with unlawful assembly, and held until 4:30 the next morning; the charges against him have since been dropped. Indeed, charges against ten of the eleven adults arrested during the raid were also dismissed. (Two juveniles were also arrested, but their court files are sealed to the general public.) In Hennepin County some have prior arrest records, mostly for alleged infractions related to protests. None has a drug-related arrest.

In fact, the only person arrested during the Camelot raid who will end up facing charges is Borowiak's roommate, 24-year-old Robert Czernik. Last week Czernik appeared in drug court with an attorney in hopes of having the (felony) charges against him dropped, too. But the prosecutor didn't show up for the hearing, so Czernik will return to court on August 14. Witnesses say police called Czernik by his nickname, "Tumbleweed," beat him, and kicked him in the head repeatedly until he bled. Czernik appeared in court last week with a black eye and a swollen face.  

Olson later said Czernik fell and cut his eye while "trying to escape." Because he still faces charges, Czernik declined to be interviewed for this story, except to say that he did not try to flee: "The police are blatantly lying."

Willis, who has bruises on the back of her right leg from the night of the raid, says she believes the police were particularly rough on Czernik. Like others present, she was blindfolded and admits she saw nothing. "I heard what sounded like him getting kicked or something," she says. "But I wasn't gong to say anything because I had already been hit."

Records say Czernik has been arrested six times since 1998, each time on trespass, disorderly conduct, or property damage charges. His attorney believes that the arrests are all protest-related; court records show that all the charges were dismissed except for a July 1999 trespass charge, to which Czernik pleaded guilty.

In contrast to the protesters who last year demanded a halt to the rerouting of Highway 55, the Sister's Camelot ordeal has provoked a lot of public sympathy. "I know them as a bunch of hippies who haul produce around," says Lisa McDonald, who represents the city's Tenth Ward, where the duplex is located. "This is not in line with the experience I've had with this group. I've only bird-dogged them once in a while about where their buses were parked."

Sister's Camelot started in October of 1997 with the simple idea that communities would prosper if everyone enjoyed access to organic food. Borowiak had started a mobile kitchen in Seattle in the mid-Nineties, but the 32-year-old father of two soon chose to return to Minneapolis and put down permanent roots. For two years Borowiak, four other paid staffers, and a bevy of volunteers have collected food that goes unsold from local organic food wholesalers. Three times a week they load up their two buses--one of which includes a Health Department-certified kitchen--and distribute lunch and produce in low-income neighborhoods.

According to Borowiak, volunteers canvassing nightly last year netted about $90,000 for Sister's Camelot, which is recognized as a nonprofit by the IRS. "We are very public people, but we don't get in the press," he says. "We've been handing out food in a hippie bus for three years, so of course people know us." Since the raid, Sister's Camelot has struggled to conduct business as usual.

The bottom line, in Borowiak's opinion, is that the MPD was under pressure to justify the enormous expense of overpreparing for what turned out to be relatively small protests. "The police have never bothered us before," he explains. "One of their tactics is to hit the [protest] organizing houses to justify their expenses. They have an ulterior motive of harassing, intimidating, and criminalizing activists because it goes on your record and then you are labeled."

"I know I'm in the right," he concludes. "I'm not an advocate of violence or smashing windows. I'm an advocate for free thinking."


News intern Tricia Cornell contributed research for this story.

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