Vicious Cycle

Tony Webster

As Sgt. Ed Nelson of the Minneapolis Police Department approached his officers on La Salle Avenue, the looming 25-year veteran of the force appeared calm and unruffled, though there was no mistaking the urgency in his hurried gait.

Nearly 50 patrol units from multiple agencies had responded to an MPD officer's call for help earlier on that August 31 evening, and a group of police now stood near the corner of 15th and La Salle awaiting Nelson's orders. His composed demeanor did little to mask the zeal in his voice.

"Drive down Nicollet," Nelson barked sternly, his hands on his hips. "Herd the assholes down this way. Any blocking of traffic, any blocking of anything, arrest them."

Paula Hare, a transgender veterans' activist who lives nearby, caught this exchange on tape. The "assholes" Nelson referred to were participating in Critical Mass, a monthly event in which bicyclists take to the road en masse to assert their "right to the road" and discourage reliance on gas-dependent vehicles. Previous rallies had unfolded peacefully.

Not this time. The MPD maintains that rogue cyclists attacked officers. Spokesmen within the department have refused to provide details, and police involved in the tussle have snubbed inquiries as to exactly what happened.

According to the official police report, a few cyclists near the rear of the group put hoods over their heads and "began to make aggressive moves" in front of trailing cop cars. Officers tried to arrest one of the troublemakers, but he escaped into the crowd. Soon after, a second male put a handkerchief over his face and tauntingly darted in front of the tailing squad cars.

This time, officers succeeded in catching the suspect, but were soon surrounded by a frenzied crowd chanting, "Let him go! Let him go!" A third cyclist tried to interfere, according to the report, and was arrested.

That only agitated the stunned cyclists. "What's the charge? What's the charge?" they chanted.

Police responded with aggression. Video footage captures police unleashing pepper spray into the faces of baffled bystanders. Witnesses say nonresistant cyclists were continually Tasered and Maced even after they were pinned to the pavement.

As Donny Lessard stood by watching the surreal fracas unfold, he was overcome by a noxious, burning odor. "It was like an habanero pepper times one thousand," he says. Maced from nearly 15 feet away, his eyes poured tears and his nose streamed mucus.

As police began herding the crowd southbound down La Salle, Lessard walked with a female companion. When an officer told her to "keep moving, sweetheart," Lessard—still suffering from the aftereffects of the pepper spray—fired back, "Don't call her 'sweetheart.'"

At that point, he says, he was grabbed from behind and tackled to the pavement by two officers, who simultaneously Maced him again, this time at point blank.

"A cop told me to 'Quit crying like a pussy,'" he says. He was arrested on suspicion of rioting and held in custody until the following night, after a friend posted his $3,000 bail.

Witnesses—both local residents and cyclists—recount similar stories. For many, the issue at stake has less to do with whether or not Critical Mass members broke the law—participants themselves admit a few cyclists almost certainly committed traffic violations and blocked traffic—and more to do with law enforcement's heavy-handed response.

"The videos and the 20 written witness accounts I've read corroborate what the cyclists say," says Jordan Kushner, a Minneapolis attorney who is part of a group representing the bulk of those arrested. "It's pretty simple. The MPD aggresively attacked a group of bicyclists. They provide no specifics as to how they were provoked other than that one or two cyclists crossed the yellow line. If that's sufficient provocation for what happened, we're in big trouble."

In a September 4 press release, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan admitted that some of the actions reported to him "give [him] some concern" and announced that an internal review will be conducted by three of his units and the City Civil Rights Department.

"The Minneapolis Police Department strongly supports citizens' rights to free speech and assembly," he said, "and I will ensure that this incident and every complaint are fairly reviewed."

Matt Laible, a spokesman for the city of Minneapolis, said the city attorney's office is currently reviewing the charges against the 16 alleged rioters. He expects the city attorney to make decisions on the charges by the end of the month.

In the wake of the incident, some observers are asking whether the confrontation was designed to undermine the growing Republican National Convention protest movement.

"It works on two levels," says lawyer Kushner, "Not only does it intimidate potential protesters to stay silent, but it's also an attempt to poison the well for RNC protesters in terms of the public's perception of them."

The ride featured an unprecedented police surveillance team keeping tabs on the cyclists. In addition to the MPD, the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department and Minnesota State Patrol trailed the riders. Perhaps the most striking presence was that of a state patrol helicopter hovering overhead.

The extra police presence may have been due to the participation of the RNC Welcoming Committee—a group organizing a mass protest at the 2008 Republican Convention in St. Paul—which held a weekend event marking the one-year lead-up to the convention. While Critical Mass riders stress that they are in no way affiliated with the group, the ride did have sizeable representation from the Welcoming Committee.

Officials dismiss the Committee in their explanation, attributing the heightened surveillance to increased complaints they had received in the wake of previous Critical Mass rides. Asked about the helicopter, MPD spokeswoman Tammy Diedrich claims that it was intended to help the cyclists.

"The police department has never been able to help facilitate their ride because they're always in the back of the riders," Diedrich says, "so they decided to provide an aerial view to make it a better ride."

But that explanation doesn't wash with Michelle Gross, a registered nurse who treated many of the cyclists' injuries and acts as vice president for Communities United Against Police Brutality.

"They had this planned and were ready," Gross says of the police. "They've been doing this for months with no problems and all of sudden they need a helicopter? This was political." Tony Webster

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