Was force necessary to break up Dinkytown party?

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 27, 2009 - 8:07 AM

Witnesses and officers differ on the severity and appropriateness of police actions after a U campus party turned into a riot. Some men say they were wrongly roughed up and arrested.

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People attempt to flip a car after starting a fire on Seventh Street near the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis Saturday, April 25, 2009 during the school's Spring Jam festivities. Six people are under arrest after a block party near the university led to Minneapolis police in riot gear subduing the crowd with tear gas.

Photo: Stephen Maturen, Associated Press

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No one disputes that a Dinkytown block party swelled out of control late Saturday, when large tree limbs were tossed onto a bonfire in the middle of 7th Street and rowdy partygoers tried tipping over a car.

But on Sunday, several witnesses accused Minneapolis police of aggravating the situation by showing up in gas masks and firing pepper spray and foam pellets at bystanders.

For their part, University of Minnesota officials thanked the police for quelling "an unacceptable display of lawless ... inexcusable behavior" and vowed to punish any student who violated a conduct code broadened to include off-campus behavior after the 2002 hockey championship riot.

Peter Robbins and Jonathan Rokser, both 21, were among the seven men in their early 20s arrested on suspicion of unlawful assembly and released Sunday on $50 bail after a night in jail. The U juniors displayed large welts from police-fired pellets and insisted that they were wrongly roughed up and jailed.

"I heard something going on and grabbed my camera to snap some photos and document what was going on in my neighborhood," Robbins said.

He and his roommate, Gemma Chubiz, said that about 11:30 p.m. Saturday, they walked from their house on 11th Avenue SE. toward the melee. Both say they weren't intoxicated.

About a block away from the nearest police officer and another block from the bonfire, "I was focusing my camera when after 20 seconds, without any warning, I felt something like a baseball hit me in the groin and dropped to my knees," Robbins said. "The next thing I knew, there were guys on top of me, smashing me into the ground, putting zip ties on my wrists and throwing me in a van."

He wound up with a grapefruit-sized bruise on his thigh from a foam pellet -- and a new distaste for law enforcement.

"I'll never look at a police officer the same," he said. "There's no trust there anymore. And now they're pressing charges for assembly when I wasn't assembling."

Chubiz said that when she asked officers if she could bring Robbins home, she was pepper-sprayed. "It just seemed ridiculous," she said. "Why not send a couple squad cars and a fire truck to put out the fire instead of 60 riot police?"

Police say action justified

Minneapolis Police Sgt. Jesse Garcia said officers were met with flying rocks and bottles when they tried to break up the party. They left and regrouped, coming back with vans of officers in gas masks and riot helmets. By then, he said, 500 people had gathered.

"If you didn't hear them giving the command to disperse, you weren't listening," he said. "We showed restraint [in] only arresting seven.

"Nobody that was coming out of their house just to walk around was mistakenly taken to jail," Garcia said. "The main agitators, aggressors and instigators were identified, selected and arrested. When you have a big crowd like this, you take out the main people, and the rest of the crowd loses steam and disperses rather easily."

He said five other arrests at later parties meant that a total of a dozen people were tagged on suspicion of disorderly conduct, unlawful assembly or obstructing the legal process Saturday night near the U.

As Rokser paid his $50 and left the downtown Minneapolis jail with his friends Sunday, he displayed a nasty welt between his ribs and a cut on his forehead.

"I was walking to my girlfriend's house and heard the police yelling, but not at anyone in particular," he said. "I was absolutely doing nothing wrong when I got hit in the ribs. It knocked me out and I fell to my knees and hit my head and woke up in a police van."

U had beefed up code

Saturday marked the end of the U's Spring Jam week. In April 2002 and 2003, thousands gathered to celebrate the Gophers winning national college hockey titles. Fires were started and cars tipped. Eight people were convicted on charges stemming from the second riot.

The U then strengthened its code of conduct, making it possible to expel students convicted of inciting off-campus riots tied to university events. Before that, students could be disciplined only for on-campus behavior.

"We intend to use that code to its fullest as more is learned about those who were arrested and involved," University of Minnesota Vice Provost for Student Affairs Jerry Rinehart said in a prepared statement. "We'll also be taking a look at the causes ... to determine what changes can be made to ensure it is not repeated."

One witness said police were justified in responding as they did late Saturday.

"It was definitely out of control, and if the cops wouldn't have come, something really bad would have happened," said Samantha Larsen, 18, a freshman. "People were jumping over the fire and trying to tip cars over. It was crazy, and got scary when the cops in gas masks started shooting at people."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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