Ten-Year Anniversary of Minnehaha Free State
August 10 marks the 10-year anniversary of the Minnehaha Free State, the first urban anti-road occupation in U.S. history. On August 10, 1998, the occupation of the condemned corridor of the reroute of highway 55 through Minnehaha Park began, and would last for another 16 months. Although highway 55 desecrates the land in south Minneapolis today, the sacred Coldwater Spring continues to flow.
Below is a history of the Free State, from The Struggle is Our Inheritance: A History of Radical Minnesota.
A recent act of resistance in Minnesota was the Minnehaha Free State. Much has been written on the subject, including two books and countless articles. It is important to look at this occupation, as much can be learned from the motley coalition of direct actionists, Native activists, and neighborhood residents. Some were inspired by British anti-road campaigns, some wanted to save their sacred lands and reclaim their history, and others wanted to preserve their backyards and dwindling parklands. Together, they set in motion an historic 16 months that still reverberate in the mythology of the Twin Cities. This article cannot do full justice, nor will it attempt to; it is a short piece meant to show the power that exists in collectively saying “NO!” to the Powers That Be.
When the legal system failed them, the community resistance to the Highway 55 Reroute invited Big Woods Earth First! to utilize its nonviolent direct action tactics in defense of the area. Through Earth First!, the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota community and the American Indian Movement (AIM) became involved in the struggle. The Mendota were the original inhabitants of the condemned area, and were actually promised this land- and much more- by the US government in an 1863 treaty. On August 10, 1998, the day the first homes were scheduled for demolition, Earth First!, the Mendota, AIM, and others began a nonviolent occupation on the condemned corridor. They declared it the Minnehaha Free State.
The Free State encampment encompassed a portion of the B’dota, or traditional sacred area—stretching from the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers up to Minnehaha Falls. It was bordered by 52nd Street on the north, Fort Snelling State Park on the east, the Bureau of Mines complex on the south (adjacent to Coldwater Spring) and Mailbox Road, 54th Street and Riverview Road on the west.
A multi-tactic, popular campaign ensued, carried out by a broad-based, cross-cultural coalition. While members of the “Stop the Reroute” neighborhood coalition continued pursuing lawsuits and other legal means, Earth First! set up lockdowns in and around the condemned homes. Tree houses went up. The Mendota Mdewakanton and AIM set up tipis, sacred staffs, and a sacred fire, and began effective organizing within the native community. Supporters from all over the city brought supplies such as batteries for the radio communications system, food, clothing, tents, and blankets. An empty shed made way for a free store in order to distribute the goods, and occupants shared labor and food in the free kitchen. Late-season victory gardens replaced neatly mowed lawns.
Soon the occupation became a cultural center in the Twin Cities despite “NO TRESPASSING” signs, which individuals and even families routinely disregarded. A stage was erected to host open-mike coffeehouses. The Critical Mass bike ride made a point of swinging by on its monthly routes. Sweats and other Native American ceremonies were held regularly, including a pow-wow attended by over 500 people. The “diggeresque” presence on state-acquired land challenged the very notion that land can be owned, especially in light of the fact that half the camp was comprised of American Indians, from whom all land on this continent was stolen in the first place.
The urban setting gave Earth First! an opportunity to unite with other revolutionary struggles. The Free State regularly sent large contingents to Free Mumia protests, anti-police brutality marches, and rallies and civil disobedience to end the bombing and sanctions against Iraq. This drew many of the people fighting for those causes into the campaign to stop the reroute. And as a result of Earth First! taking on a fairly mainstream community’s struggle, many seemingly extreme tactics were taken out of the fringe, without compromising Earth First! principles. Entire elementary school classes would tour the encampment, learning not only how to lockdown to a tripod or concrete barrel, but also why someone might do such a thing.
The encampment was one of our country’s longest urban occupations, second only to the 18-month occupation of Alcatraz Island, where thousands of Native Americans occupied the abandoned remains of the island’s federal penitentiary to protest the U.S. government’s human rights abuses, myriad broken treaties, and lack of respect for tribal sovereignty.
On December 20, 1998, just after 4 a.m., seven Ryder trucks stormed into a residential Minneapolis neighborhood at dangerously high speeds with their lights turned off. As each drove up beside a different house, men dressed in black piled out, some wearing gas masks, some carrying tear gas canisters, some touting laser-scope assault weapons. Soon an area about the size of a full city block was cordoned off. Helicopters hovered overhead. Sniper units were visible. Over 800 cops were present in what became the largest police action in Minnesota history, “Operation Coldsnap.”
Inside the houses, young women and men woke to the horror of tear gas-filled rooms (rooms as small as 10’ x 10’ were bombarded with up to five canisters of the toxin). Those who did not vacate quickly discovered troopers penetrating their barricades. The troopers beat some people severely; a woman’s nose was pushed back so hard that it broke, and a man had his head beaten bloody as the raiders carried him out of a basement, forcing his head into each stair. Many of the 37 people arrested had pepper spray applied directly and repeatedly to their open eyes. Nearly all were denied medical attention. In one iconic photo, Santa Claus is shown locked down to the chimney of the EF! house, an image seen around the country five days before Christmas. Nationally syndicated Democracy Now! broadcast the tear gas-induced gasps of two resisters who called during the raid.
On Dec 26, 1998, the Coldwater Nation set up a village in the middle of Minnehaha Park, complete with places to sleep (the “Star Lodge”) places to eat (“Coldwater Café”), places to worship (the Sacred Fire), and places for security—“treesitting” describes one of those. And then there were the Four Sacred Trees, which were originally planted in 1862 at the time of the Dakota uprising, and which represented a spiritual signpost to Native Americans. MNDOT and the state didn’t agree that the trees were sacred, and so, shamefully, the trees were cut down.
The Second Encampment quickly became another hotspot, with daily incursions against surveyors and construction crews. The Summer of 1999 saw resistance at its highest, with tree-sits sprouting up and down the corridor like morels after a rainstorm. Mass trespasses and solidarity actions, including several ELF actions that caused close to $1 million in damages, were cheered by radicals and community members alike.
The final blow might seem anti-climactic in the wake of the preceding events. The death knell sounded just weeks after the WTO protests in Seattle, which were attended by many Free Staters. On December 11, a State Patrol search-and-rescue squad in coveralls and full-body harnesses removed the protesters. Troopers used a cherry picker and even a Minneapolis Fire Department ladder truck to reach the protesters and pull them from the trees. The arrests proceeded mostly without incident, lacking the rancor of the earlier confrontation. This happened because EF!ers and others respected the wishes of Native activists to avoid the scenes of chaos that had become commonplace. Authorities seemed to have gone out of their way to prepare, warning Free Staters of the raid earlier in the week; State Patrol Capt. Kevin Kittridge even joined in an Indian pipe ceremony at the site in November 1999. By the end of the day, dozens were pulled from trees and the Minnehaha Free State became a piece of history.
As mentioned, this was the first urban anti-road occupation in US history. There are many lessons for future anti-road activists, including those currently fighting against I-69, the NAFTA Superhighway. It took EF! out of the woods and into the streets, and became a playground for experimenting with new ways of resisting and living. Indeed, many here in the Twin Cities look back at the Free State as their introduction to radical politics and are still active in the community today. Nothing since has been a focal point (or tinderbox) for so many different people to get active.