State leaders face backlash over arresting hundreds of protesters in Minneapolis

A group of protesters march through the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 4, 2020, before entering the Interstate 94 freeway. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

Gov. Tim Walz and his public safety commissioner are facing criticism from Minneapolis elected officials and activists for trapping hundreds of protesters for several hours Wednesday night and arresting more than 600 people after they marched onto Interstate 94.

“If (the Department of Public Safety) thinks this will act as a deterrent to these activists, I think they’re pretty out of touch,” Minneapolis City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said in a text message. “Activists will probably take DPS’s escalation here and find some ways to raise it the next time the freeway inevitably gets taken.”

Activists plan to protest again Thursday night in response to the mass arrest and are calling for the charges against them to be dropped.

On Wednesday, hundreds of people — some with young children in tow — gathered in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood to protest police brutality, capitalism, President Donald Trump’s efforts to stop ballot counting and racial injustice, which they said will continue regardless of who wins the election.

When the crowd turned from Cedar Avenue onto the eastbound ramp of Interstate 94, they marched toward the next exit as state troopers surrounded the crowd and announced that everyone was under arrest. Law enforcement told the crowd they would be booked into jail as they handcuffed demonstrators one by one, but then later announced the crowd would be cited and released.

On Thursday morning, the State Patrol said the charges would be for walking on a freeway and for violating the state’s public nuisance law. Demonstrators’ bicycles were also confiscated and could only be retrieved in the neighboring suburb of Golden Valley.

The backlash to the strong show of force could foreshadow future conflicts between state and local leaders over how to respond to large protests as the 2020 election continues to unfold and as the police officers charged with killing George Floyd stand trial.

State law prohibits pedestrians and bicyclists from being on the interstate, but protesters and elected officials complained that state troopers didn’t give them dispersal orders and allow them to leave the highway, as has been the practice during prior protests.

“It was absolutely absurd to have hundreds of law enforcement officers out on the freeway while we were steps away from the exit,” civil rights attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong said at a press conference Thursday. “As we were attempting to exit the freeway, the people in the front line of cars saw troopers run across the freeway and deliberately block the exit.”

A demonstrator holds a sign with a Minneapolis Police Department logo modiifed to say Muderous Police, at a protest in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 4, 2020. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

Department of Public Safety spokesman Bruce Gordon brushed off the criticism in a statement on Thursday: “There was no order to disperse because it is illegal to be on the freeway to begin with … Walking on the freeway is illegal and extremely dangerous for pedestrians and drivers, especially after dark.”

However, activists say law enforcement only prolonged the amount of time they were on the interstate.

In a call with local leaders on Thursday morning, Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said the decision to “kettle” the protest — meaning surround protesters on all sides — and arrest everyone was his decision and in line with their policies, according to accounts from Minneapolis city staff.

The show of force marks a noticeable shift in the state’s approach to mass protests, and it signals Walz’s desire to take a tougher stance against increasingly frequent and disruptive demonstrations.

“I think there will be an urge to overreact in the future,” Minneapolis Council Member Cam Gordon said. “There are legitimate concerns about public safety but I think there are better ways to save resources and protect people.”

Council Member Gordon said he was unable to reach Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo Wednesday night, while other elected officials complained Walz was unreachable as they tried to mediate a more amicable resolution.

The governor and mayor have both faced harsh criticism from the same group of council members and legislators for not doing enough to prevent arson and the destruction of large swaths of Minneapolis during the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. Walz and Frey have also criticized each other over the handling of civil unrest.

After prior protests and incidents of property destruction this summer, Walz has been quick to call in the National Guard in anticipation of any civil unrest, including as developments unfold in the case against Derek Chauvin and three other ex-officers charged in Floyd’s death.

The mood of the crowd on Wednesday night, however, was much different than during the summer unrest. Protestors danced the “Cupid Shuffle” as state troopers led people off the highway one by one.

The Department of Public Safety said in a statement that no one was injured and no chemical irritants were used, although the Minneapolis Police Department did use pepper spray to clear protesters from a pedestrian bridge over the freeway, according to journalists on the scene.

On Thursday, activists held a news conference in front of the governor’s residence, demanding an apology from Walz and that the charges be dropped against everyone cited in Wednesday’s protest.

“Last night we saw something in this state that should not be happening in the United States of America,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of dozens of groups who organized the protest.

Hussein said the death of Floyd has made the community “think a little harder, march a little harder, vote a little harder, and make a lot of trouble in Minnesota – good trouble.”

While protesters demanded charges be dropped, they also said it wouldn’t discourage them.

“Next time we will come out with even more people,” Levy Armstrong said.

Tony Webster
Tony Webster is a freelance writer and photographer who won the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists 2017 Peter S. Popovich Award for First Amendment activism.
Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.