War protesters wonder why Burnsville police give a beep

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • July 21, 2009 - 12:22 AM

The Burnsville Police Department is no doubt made up of 75 dedicated, hard-working officers, doing their best to keep the peace and serve the community.

According to the annual report for 2008, they've curbed methamphetamine manufacturing and sales, busted gangs and conducted prevention programs in the public schools. Last year, they handled 1,300 domestic abuse cases, arrested 686 drug suspects, kept an eye on 70 registered sex offenders, issued 3,500 moving violations and gave 2,500 speeding tickets. They did this while dissolving their street crimes unit and losing two officers to budget cuts.

Remarkably, they have also had the time in recent weeks to assign two squad cars and two officers to the corner of Burnsville Parkway and Nicollet Avenue to keep an eye on a ragtag group of war protesters and issue tickets to people who honked their car horns.

For peace.

It is the second time the Burnsville P.D. has tangled with the group, one of whom is former FBI whistleblower and congressional candidate Coleen Rowley. After police ticketed a woman for giving the group a toot of support last fall, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota took her case. Since the right to honk for a political cause has been upheld repeatedly across the country as free speech, the ACLU persuaded the police to drop the citation and agree that they wouldn't bother honkers unless they were a public safety hazard.

Police linked an accident in which a pedestrian was hit by a car to the commotion caused by the weekly protest. But it's probably not wise to wing it when up against a former FBI agent. Rowley got the police report, which said the accident happened a block away, and an hour before protesters arrived at their corner.

Yet, two of the past three weeks, Burnsville's finest were back at it, taking videos and pictures of these threats to the public safety. And they ticketed one man because he allegedly honked 52 times, which Rowley agrees is excessive.

Besides the former FBI agent, the group, which numbers between five and 20, contains working people, students and senior citizens.

"We do have a very serious purpose," said Rowley, who began protesting on the corner about two years ago under President Bush, but will continue as long as President Obama keeps troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. "It transcends politics. It's almost like we are in a perpetual war," said Rowley, who told on FBI honchos who blocked Minnesota agents from aggressively pursuing terrorism leads before 9/11.

Capt. Eric Gieseke sounds like a reasonable officer with a vexing problem. "For us, this is very simple," he said. "We support their First Amendment rights, but that intersection is chaotic at best. Some neighbors have complained we haven't done enough. It's a pretty thorny bush."

Free speech usually is, especially up against cranky neighbors.

Efforts to rein in the blasted beep go back to at least 1912 London, according to a Slate online magazine article. In the 1930s, there were similar efforts in New York, Paris and Stockholm. Some of those efforts were aimed at noise reduction, others safety issues like the one in Burnsville. In 1936 in Berlin, however, the Nazis put yellow spots on the cars of people who honked unnecessarily, according to Slate. Gieseke doesn't sound like the kind of guy who would favor spots.

I sympathize, but will always lean to free speech. Over the years, I've heard people respond to bumper stickers and honk because they were Norwegian. I've heard them honk because they loved honky-tonk. And I've heard them honk "because they're horn-y."

But I've never heard of police ticketing them.

"When are they going to set up across from a church and ticket people honking after weddings?" asked Teresa Nelson, an attorney with the ACLU of Minnesota. "We're very troubled by them taking photos of people just holding signs. We've seen this before when people are engaging in free speech."

Nelson said there has been no evidence that the protesters have been a threat to the public safety. In fact, attorneys could find no instance of anyone being ticketed for honking for anything else in Burnsville.

Not long ago, a group of local cheerleaders even held up signs that read, "Honk for hot dogs," Nelson said.

Although several people have been tagged for the audacity of honking for peace, Nelson said, to her knowledge not one person was ever ticketed for honking for a hot dog. • 612-673-1702

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