Know Your Enemy

David Sather

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."

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.

Professor Ken Kirwin, who teaches constitutional law at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, believes it's not clear whether the state law already applies to gas masks. Although the devices could conceal someone's identity, he says, "a gas mask is not a disguise, really--it serves another purpose." He also notes that Minnesota court records show no instances of a case involving the state law reaching the appeals-court level, which suggests that it's rarely used.

Declaring something illegal always means weighing the need for a law or ordinance against the likelihood that the measure will infringe on individual rights, Kirwin adds. "Generally unless there's a pretty compelling reason to make more things criminal, we probably shouldn't do it," he opines. "In a way it looks like the police want to be able to cause harm to people, without people being able to protect themselves."

MPD Deputy Chief Bill Jones can't envision many civilian uses for a gas mask, and says that it would both conceal someone's identity and make them immune to "chemical munitions."

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the protests that have sparked the controversy will even take place. "At this point we don't know who will be appearing and who might protest," concedes Jones. "We know that there are different groups who have strong feelings about such issues." The MPD's memo on the subject suggests that three groups are "likely" to stage protests during the convention: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), and the Student Organization for Animal Rights (SOAR). A spokesman at PETA's headquarters in Virginia says that the national group, which advocates nonviolent civil disobedience, has no current plans to stage demonstrations during the convention, but that individual Twin Cities members may take action themselves. Calls to SOAR were not returned, and the self-described underground group ALF could not be contacted.

There is at least one mention of possible demonstrations circulating in cyberspace, however. The Bioengineering Action Network's Web site reads, "Earth and animal-liberation activists will converge in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, to greet the International Society for Animal Genetics (ISAG)," and "a wide range of activities is planned." But Denny Henke, a Memphis spokesman for the network, says he has no plans to come to Minneapolis himself, and he has "no way of knowing" who might show up.

Teri Charest, a spokeswoman for the University of Minnesota, which will host the meeting, notes that the university has been targeted in the past by animal-rights activists. But Brian W. Kirkpatrick, a professor of animal sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and ISAG's secretary, notes the group hasn't yet been the subject of the kinds of actions the MPD is preparing for. "I don't know that there's ever been a protest or a demonstration before at an ISAG meeting," he says. Kirkpatrick explains that ISAG sometimes works with dogs, but that most of its members' research involves livestock and includes gene-mapping and research designed to boost animal health and support agribusiness.

The city council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services committee had scheduled a public hearing on the proposed ordinance for June 14. The hearing was postponed, however, because the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office had not yet had time to draw up the language of the ban. The committee, which Biernat chairs, will take up the matter at its next meeting, scheduled for June 28. The full council could consider the matter at its July 14 meeting.

Although he's wary of the proposal, council member Lane concedes that arguing the pro-gas-mask position could be tricky. "It's hard for me to me to think of any particular legitimate civilian use for a gas mask," he says. "That's speaking as a guy who does not own a gas mask."

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