Thousands of protesters spilled onto Interstate 94 Thursday, blocking traffic through the heart of the Twin Cities for nearly an hour.
It’s illegal to walk on a freeway, but law enforcement officers arrested no one.
And while that frustrated some motorists stuck in a jam, law enforcement officials said Friday a nonconfrontational approach can be one of the best ways to deal with protests. They said handling street demonstrations is a balancing act that these days often tilts toward free speech rights.
“When you get thousands of people in the same location and they’re emotionally charged over an issue, that environment needs to be de-escalated, not escalated,” said Michael Campion, former state public safety commissioner. “You can get too heavy-handed if you get too much of a military presence. It adds fuel to the fire. It adds to the emotionally charged environment that already exists.”
Ginger Jentzen, one of the organizers of Thursday’s demonstration, was pleased by law enforcement officers’ actions.
“They gave way in a respectful manner,” she said.
Still, many drivers were left feeling helpless and angry, their need to travel to and from jobs, appointments and errands placed at the mercy of the protesters.
“Time to lock them all up!” one commentator wrote on a news story about the protest at www.startribune.com in a view echoed by many others. “Tired of this childish behavior!!! Why can’t they do something actually productive instead of always disrupting everybody else’s life?”
Representatives of the State Patrol, which has jurisdiction over the freeways, declined to be interviewed about their tactics for managing protests. But State Patrol Col. Matt Langer issued a statement, noting that it was illegal to walk on the freeway and dangerous to pedestrians and motorists.
“We respect the right of everyone to express themselves under the First Amendment, but the freeway is not a place to do that,” he stated. “We will continue doing the best we can to manage these complex situations.”
The anti-Trump protesters, denouncing the president-elect’s views on race, sex and immigrant rights, gathered at the University of Minnesota on Thursday. They continued through the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, drawing in more people, including East Africans who live in the area, said Jentzen, a member of Socialist Alternative.
Then they marched on the freeway.
Another, smaller march took place Friday afternoon, when about 300 Minneapolis high school students left their classrooms and marched downtown to protest Trump’s election and construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. On their way downtown, they briefly blocked some city streets. No one was arrested or hurt.
Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan said the political climate has changed in recent years in the way protests are handled by police. During the Occupy movement when he was chief, he noted, many unlawful demonstrations were allowed to proceed.
“There is a balance,” he said. “How much are they encroaching on the rights of others and how much of a problem is this? … And today that balance is leaning a little to the left, which is to let them be — a more liberal approach.”
But, Dolan said, had the protest continued all night and looked like it would go into rush hour, the patrol likely would have cleared the protesters from the freeway.
Said Campion: “It was an inconvenience, but it didn’t last all day and nobody got hurt. It seems to me to be a successful way to handle these things.”
Campion’s view was underscored by former State Patrol Chief Kevin Kittridge.
“I think they were doing the right thing by easing them off [Interstate 94] without having a confrontation,” Kittridge said. “The country is in a little pain right now. I’m not convinced that confrontation right now would be a good thing for us.”
Assistant Minneapolis Police Chief Kris Arneson said the department respects the First Amendment, and “we always want people to have a good First Amendment event.”
“We are hoping people don’t get confrontational — keep it to what they are protesting about,” she said.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek concurred with the State Patrol’s decision not to arrest anyone. They were exercising their free speech rights, which he said law enforcement must protect, and the protest was peaceful, even though they broke the law.
“There is a fine line between civil disobedience and unlawful behavior,” he said. “Unfortunately, law enforcement has to walk that fine line and make judgment calls in the best interest of public safety … If it had been violent, arrests would have been made,” he said.
Police and protesters will have many more opportunities to walk that line in the days and weeks ahead.
“This isn’t going to go away in anytime soon,” said Stanek.
Staff writer Karen Zamora contributed to this report.