Police Oppression Outside the Chauvin Trial
Note: as I was originally finishing this article, Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter murdered Daunte Wright, leading to days of protests met by militant and violent police. The concerns here seemed mild compared to the massive police violence in Brooklyn Center, but I think it merits considering how the police lie, intimidate, and do harm even when responding to protests less violently.
It is all the same game plan: cops do as much damage as can get away with while pretending to respect freedom of speech – whether that is destroying memorials to police victims or shooting 40mm rounds at peoples’ faces.
It began with militarized fencing and posting unconstitutional rules against protest, and it culminated with an aggressive, unnecessary clearing of the Government Center plaza based upon false pretenses. Along the way, community members were harassed, bullied, given bogus citations, and arrested.
Before the trial, the city spent $600,000 erecting military fencing around the government buildings and the plaza outside the Government Center – double rows of chain link fencing and barb wire, with a city-described “razor wire moat” between the rows of fencing. The fencing violated the city’s own ordinance for barb wire fencing; and it blocked sidewalks, creating accessibility issues.
The alleged justification for the militarization was to keep people safe, but the fencing around the plaza and its adjoining light rail station served no purpose other than to intimidate people outside the court building. Any safety in the plaza could have been addressed with simple concrete barriers. The fencing around the plaza did not provide any security for the building, which was secured by other fencing and the national guard.
The county posted rules for the public plaza, including first amendment rights violations such as “no offensive signs” and “no offensive slogans”. Activist groups called out the unconstitutional rules, and the county promptly replaced the signs with slightly less problematic signs. They added “You are Welcome Here” at the top of the signs. Nothing says “welcome” like prison-yard fencing with over-zealous rules posted.
The day before the trial, activist groups decorated the fencing with flowers, making a memorial to George Floyd. Adding insult to the injury of policy violence, the county immediately removed the flowers and memorial, throwing the flowers on the ground.
Activists returned repeatedly, memorializing the names of some of the over 400 people killed by Minnesota police in the last two decades on locks, signs, and with ribbons attached to the fencing. The memorials made the dystopian landscape created by the city’s alleged safety plan less disturbing, but every time - just as the city acted as if the lives of police victims such as Terrence Franklin, Jamar Clark, Travis Jordan, and Thurman Blevins had no worth - they treated memorials to victims as trash, tearing them down and leaving them on the street.
During three weeks of this, the city never once bothered to empty the garbage cans in the plaza, again disproving their claim they were “keeping the area clean”.
Monday, March 29th was the day of opening arguments for the trial. After a large, organized protest by a coalition of activists, Kaia Hirt of Good Trouble Justice organized another memorial event. Then she chained herself to the fence, demanding politicians contact family members of victims about legislation to address police accountability being blocked in the state senate.
The police sent out two Black women deputies to negotiate with organizers. While these deputies spoke with organizers, other deputies harassed and threatened activists nearby.
Politicians ignored Kaia’s demands, as they have ignored family members of victims for years. Kaia decided to remain chained to the fence. Samantha Pree-Gonzalez and other activists traded out with Kaia to continue the occupation throughout the week. With the plaza occupied, the memorial was not desecrated. The locks, ribbons, and signs remained.
As the week progressed, police continued to escalate. Angry cops stomped about throwing traffic cones over concrete barriers. They ticketed people. They threatened people with arrest. Interactions were aggressive and intimidating, even for police interactions. Cops swooped in with bizarre demands like removal of a small folding table with food for community members. The city added yet more unnecessary concrete barriers to the street next to the protest.
One activist was cited for trespassing for laying down while watching a video. The cops claimed the activist was asleep, which would be against the county’s impromptu rules for the plaza. This was a bogus citation – the area the activists occupied was public sidewalk that was consumed by the fencing put up by the city, and the city has no right to cite people for sleeping on public property, if the activist even had been asleep. The citation allowed the police to push out the activist and harass him further, and they eventually used the citation as an excuse to arrest him.
Knowing the county was using cleanliness as an excuse to harass them, activists cleaned the plaza, removing not only their own garbage, but emptying the overflowing trash cans the city had ignored for weeks.
On Friday, April 2nd, a large contingent of county sheriffs moved into the plaza and demanded the plaza be cleared for cleaning – claiming there was “feces and urine” in the plaza. They refused to cite where the alleged waste was. There was none. They refused to let organizers speak to someone in charge. They gave activists the choice to move away from the memorial or face violence and arrest. Journalists were pushed out along with the protesters. Cops refused to identify themselves, and they refused to give explanation or clear instruction about what was happening or why. A protester who had an anxiety attack was crowded by police rather than letting community members help her away.
Without telling people they were creating a perimeter, cops began taping off the plaza and threatening people who were unwittingly within the area being secured. Pedestrians unassociated with the protest were harassed for violating the invisible boundary of the plaza.
Behind the line of cops, county employees cut down the locks and ribbons of the memorial. Cops seized personal property of activists without justification. Once the plaza was blocked off, a street cleaner was brought in supposedly to clean the non-existent “feces and urine”. The only area that was cleaned was an area where the names of police victims were written in chalk. The justification to erase the names was a lie, unless the sheriffs are admitting that they consider the names of police victims “feces and urine”.
The only alleged effort to let organizers speak to a police supervisor occurred after the square was cleared when the police were leaving. One officer told Samantha Pree-Gonzalez to follow him through a locked gate alone to “speak to a supervisor”. She did not take the bait, which people on the ground saw as an attempt to harm or arrest Samantha off camera.
The entire incident was provocatory and unnecessary. If protesters had not kept clearer heads than the police, the situation would have escalated. One activist asked, “why do community members always have to be the adults in the room when dealing with police?”
After the memorial was destroyed sheriffs cleared out the police tape and left, allowing the community to return to the space. Activists returned the next day with locks and ribbons to memorialize police victims once again. The following week, the county finally voted to stop clearing memorials from the fence.
Closing note: much of the worse abuses in this article were done by county sheriffs, who report to Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson. The following week, Hutchinson would be in charge of Operation Safety Net in Brooklyn Center, which resulted in massive violence and constitutional rights violations. Hutchinson campaigned for election as being against his predecessor's use of county sheriffs to brutalize water protectors at Standing Rock. Hutchinson is different indeed - he brought that brutality home to Brooklyn Center.
Photo credits: Brad Sigal, unless otherwise labeled