With a Whimper

On July 24, 2000, when Ben Tsai joined with 100-odd fellow activists to protest the International Society for Animal Genetics conference in downtown Minneapolis, he expected there might be conflict with police. "I was worried. The media had been hyping things up all week, and there were supposed to be 900 cops downtown," the 25-year-old Minneapolis resident recalls. "I thought, 'Gosh, a person could do anything--like, say, jaywalking--and probably get in trouble for it.'"

As it turns out, Tsai was quite prescient. As of Monday, June 24, 2002, nearly two years after the now-infamous clash in which riot-gear-clad police arrested approximately 65 protesters, Tsai finds himself among the ranks of that most troublesome of criminal elements: the convicted jaywalkers. This comes as a result of his guilty plea in Hennepin County District Court to a single count of obstructing traffic. The penalty for the infraction: a $100 fine, which was suspended, and time served.

It was an anti-climactic resolution for the last of the ISAG-related prosecutions slated to go to trial. Before the plea bargain, Tsai was facing the most serious charges leveled against any of the protest participants: disorderly conduct, unlawful assembly, failure to obey a police officer, and, most significant, third-degree riot--a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

On the eve of his trial, his supporters feared that prosecutors were looking to make an example of him. But they also hoped a trial would expose police excesses. In the wake of the ISAG conference, Minneapolis police took lots of political heat for their heavy-handed response to the demonstrations, but the department's use of undercover police to gather information on the protesters was less aggressively scrutinized. That, says Tsai's attorney, Jordan Kushner, is unfortunate--and Tsai's case illustrates why. (For more City Pages coverage of the cases, see "Try, Try Again," January 1, 2001, and "Dark Days for Camelot," August 9, 2000, available at www.citypages.com/archive.)

"This case really got to the heart of some of the political freedom issues that came out of the ISAG protests," contends Kushner. He points out that Tsai was not arrested at the protest and that authorities didn't charge him with anything for more than a month. In Kushner's view, there was a simple explanation: Tsai had done nothing illegal at the protest, but he was later singled out because undercover police attending organizational meetings had identified him as a leader.

While criminal complaints against Tsai and the other defendants refer to the use of undercover officers in the ISAG investigations, the full extent and nature of those operations are still not clear. "That would have been one of the more interesting things to find out," Kushner says. "What exactly the police did and whether it violated any laws."

Still, had Tsai's case gone to trial, those issues may have remained obscured. Lee Wolf, the assistant city attorney who handled the case, says that the presiding judge, Delilah Pierce, made it clear she would limit the scope of the inquiry into that issue.

So why did the city settle Tsai's case with a plea bargain--particularly if, as alleged, Tsai was a rioter? According to Wolf, there were practical concerns. Legal motions and appeals led to long delays in both Tsai's case and the cases of 37 other defendants. In some instances, including Tsai's, police officers who would have been required to testify had either retired or were unavailable, says Wolf.

There were other problems, too. In January, four ISAG defendants standing trial on an unlawful assembly charge were acquitted after the city was unable to establish a basic element of the charge: that a specific officer had issued an order to the protesters to disperse. After that, Wolf says, most of the remaining cases were either dismissed or reduced to an obstructing-traffic charge. Wolf did not have exact statistics, but he says that approximately half of the defendants accepted the plea bargain. All the others--aside from a handful who have failed to appear in court to answer the charges--had their cases dismissed.

In reviewing videotapes of the ISAG clashes, Wolf--who took over the prosecution of the cases just this past January--says he was surprised by what he saw. "This wasn't as horrible as everyone made it sound," he opines. "From what I could see on the videotape, I don't think it was a riot. And I didn't think the police overreacted."

On the latter point, Ben Tsai chooses to differ. "It was really scary how overly aggressive the police were on several levels," he says. "And not just on a physical level." That, he says, is the legacy of the ISAG protest, a legacy that completely overshadows the concerns over biotechnology that drove him to the streets to begin with.

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