Published on Tuesday, July 25, 2000 in the St Paul Pioneer Press
Police Arrest 81 In Genetic Engineering Protest Clash
by Amy Mayron and David Hawley
In a conflict building for days, Minneapolis police arrested 81 people Monday after about 150 protesters marched through downtown to protest an animal genetics conference.
The protest started calmly in the morning and then erupted shortly after noon in sporadic violence, though no serious injuries were reported. Most of the clashes occurred as police used pepper spray and struck protesters who tried to break through police lines.
Since last week, police have barricaded parts of downtown, closing a segment of Nicollet Mall and saying they were prepared for protests of the International Society for Animal Genetics conference at the Hyatt Regency hotel. Despite the clashes, the conference was not disrupted.
Also Monday, a McDonald's restaurant about a mile south of the protests was evacuated after cyanide was spilled on the floor in an incident the FBI linked to the protests.
Until about noon, the most visible part of the scene downtown had been the police buildup. That changed in fast-moving fashion, as groups of protesters broke from a planned march route and were met by officers intent on reining them in.
Some of the most violent clashes occurred near Loring Park at 14th and Willow streets, where baton-wielding officers clashed with sign-carrying protesters. Police also used pepper spray after they said some demonstrators threw rocks and used a chemical agent on them. Protesters denied using any violence toward police.
Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson said he was pleased with the way his officers handled themselves throughout the day. At any given time, police had 200 officers on the street, plus another 75 Hennepin County sheriff's deputies and support personnel.
``We tried our best not to make an arrest,'' he said. ``Overall, (officer) restraint was remarkable. We tried to be as gentle as we could.''
``It seems like the police were once again trying to show who was in charge,'' said Olivia Cramer, of the group Upper Midwest Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, or GrainRAGE. ``We feel we should be allowed to take the streets. It's unfortunate so many people got arrested and the police had to pepper-spray the media and bystanders.''
Maxine Klein, a veteran protester from Minneapolis, believes police used tear gas without warning.
``This is more than outrageous. We have been disallowed our rights to protest in the streets. We were cordoned off repeatedly by police and we felt terribly endangered,'' she said. ``This is well designed to get people to never go into the streets again.''
Police denied using tear gas, instead blaming any gas on protesters.
The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union questioned the way some protesters were treated.
Chuck Samuelson, MCLU executive director, described the scene as ``too much'' police and news media for such a small group of protesters.
``They (officers) were tense, they were scared and they looked keyed-up for this,'' Samuelson said.
It was a cat-and-mouse game during the middle of the afternoon as protesters tested their boundaries, getting close to police lines and deviating from a designated march route. They spent nearly three hours being chased by police in riot gear, though there were no reports of property damage.
Police had warned protesters Monday morning that they would not allow the protesters to march through downtown as they did Sunday night.
About 150 protesters began to gather at 10:30 a.m. in Peavey Plaza. It started out low-key, with people passing out food and laying out posters and banners on the sidewalk along Nicollet Mall.
Clashes began after police let protesters march with a police escort west on 12th Street, south on LaSalle Avenue and west on Grant Street to Loring Park.
As they approached Loring Park on Grant, they turned onto Spruce Place in an area of streets closed for construction and engaged police near 14th and Willow streets.
There was a loud bang and what appeared to be tear gas exploded near the police line. As protesters moved toward Loring Park, a group of police in riot gear confronted them.
As protesters with stinging eyes tried to pass through the police line, several officers used pepper spray on them. The group finally rushed through the police line, and several officers struck them with their riot sticks.
A short time later, a group of protesters marched down Hennepin Avenue and had a second, smaller clash with police. Finally, others headed back toward Nicollet Mall but were surrounded by police on 12th Street, and many were arrested quietly. Those arrested were taken to Hennepin County jail
About 1 p.m., the McDonald's at 24th Street and Nicollet Avenue was evacuated when two young men spilled cyanide on the floor, apparently as part of a protest against the genetics conference.
McDonald's staff noticed residue on the floor and tried to clean it up, when it began emitting noxious gas. Several people felt short of breath, and the police and fire departments were called and four people were treated at the scene. There were 15 customers and nine employees in the store.
Witnesses heard two men in their mid-20s talking in the restroom, and a note was left in the restroom that led authorities to link the incident to the protests, said FBI spokesman Paul McCabe. He would not elaborate on what the conversation was or what the note said.
Cyanide attacks the central nervous system and can be highly explosive, McCabe said. The restaurant had not reopened as of 7 p.m.
Police are preparing for two more days of possible demonstrations.
``So far, they've been following the schedule. But we don't know what we've got for the next two days, so we've got to be on our toes,'' Olson said. Staff writers Rachel Stassen-Berger, Phillip Pina and Lisa Donovan contributed to this report.
© 2000 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press
Photos © Copyright 2000 Star Tribune