ST. PAUL — A week of protests in St. Paul over the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project last month ended in a pair of law enforcement encounters with vastly different outcomes.
Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington hailed his department's work on Aug. 27 negotiating the removal of a teepee that no longer had a permit to be on the Capitol grounds as a "triumph" of community centered policing.
The next day, however, police arrested 69 people outside Gov. Tim Walz's residence as a demonstration escalated to levels state law enforcement leaders say they have not seen in past protests outside the Summit Avenue mansion.
"From a public safety standpoint we are simply trying to hold the ground so that public conversation, that civil conversation, can take place without anyone being in fear and without anyone being intimidated unnecessarily," Harrington said.
Taken together, the multiple protests and police actions both in preparation and response offer a glimpse at how state authorities are navigating a wave of demonstrations, ranging from the controversial pipeline to police reform.
Harrington's department and the Minnesota Department of Administration agreed to install another security fence around the Capitol days ahead of last week's Treaties Not Tar Sands event at the Capitol, which drew 2,000 people one day.
Event organizers criticized the decision to erect the fence — which has since been removed — and the increased police presence throughout the week. Tensions escalated as demonstrators kept a teepee on the Capitol grounds a day after the event's permit expired.
Col. Matt Langer, who leads the Minnesota State Patrol, said state troopers worked with three tribal liaisons to communicate with the teepee's owners and ensure that the structure would be removed in accordance to Native American custom.
"It wasn't a content-based decision, it was the reality that we don't allow for unpermitted structures on the Capitol complex," Langer said. "For a host of reasons, not the least of which was that the very next day on Saturday there were other people with permits for that exact same space."
Saturday's Capitol demonstrations included an anti-mask rally and a demonstration for voting rights. Langer said troopers were able to separate the two to avoid conflict.
A day earlier, Langer said, the State Patrol deployed "a strong showing of state troopers" once a group surrounding the teepee began to swell. He said six people were arrested at the Capitol when they "charged through" a perimeter tape and into a group of troopers "unprovoked." A captain also presented a gift of tobacco and water to the owner of the teepee and Langer said three State Patrol staff later participated in a water ceremony and exchanged handshakes once the situation diffused.
"We didn't need to do anything fast," Harrington said. "Slowing things down has become a topic as we think about crisis management, and the colonel and I [said] let's not be precipitous. Let's get all the information, let's talk to the people. Let's give it enough time because in some cases time works in our favor and it did in this case, I think."
The gesture was not well received by all. Members of the Camp Migizi "Indigenous anarchist" collective who were on the Capitol grounds believed they had the right under the American Indian Religious Freedom act to continue with ceremonies there even after the event permit expired. The group's leadership said it did not approve "of those who allow law enforcement to participate or respond to our ceremonies and culture as a political ploy."
A Saturday march to Walz's residence took a decidedly different turn than Friday's peaceful resolution: troopers loaded 69 people onto a bus following a wave of arrests that Langer said began when protesters started locking themselves to the gate around the property and "violently pulling and shaking" the gate.
"That right there was an unprovoked, deliberative move by the demonstrators to get a response from law enforcement," Langer said.
Most of those arrested in connection with the protests are not Minnesota residents, according to the Department of Public Safety. Of the 75 people arrested between the two days, all but 14 were from out of state.
Langer said no chemical munitions or less-lethal weapons were used in what he called a "methodical, strategic, peaceful mass arrest." He added that tactics deployed by protesters set the demonstration apart from past gatherings outside the governor's residence.
"It was really unacceptable behavior that terrorized a community, terrorized residents and terrorized those who care for or live in the governor's residence and it cannot be accepted," Langer said.
Jaike Spotted Wolf, a leader for the Cloquet-based Camp Migizi, said that demonstrators handcuffed themselves to the gate outside Walz's residence that day as a "last ditch effort" to prompt the governor to engage in conversation and not a deliberate move to get arrested.
"We have very few options in terms of what can garner one's attention," Spotted Wolf said. "If it is Biden or Gov. Walz, we don't have a lot at our disposal in terms of trying to get help and explain why we are out here and what we are doing. Protest is one of those things. Nobody goes into those wanting to be arrested."
The governor's office said that while Walz protects First Amendment rights, "attempting to break through a fence and chain the entry and exit gates outside a family home with a child inside is unlawful and poses a serious threat to the safety of the family and state employees."
Harrington said he has grown concerned by the evolution of protests increasingly being staged outside the homes of elected officials and other public figures. He points to the prospect of future Line 3 protests or the response to the November ballot question over the future of policing in Minneapolis.
"I wonder if this isn't a symptom of things to come for other equally contentious issues," said Harrington.
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