Another protest, another occupation: The Minnehaha Free State in the 1990s

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Camp Coldwater Spring

On Monday, Mayor Betsy Hodges called on protesters to end their occupation at the Fourth Precinct police station in North Minneapolis. Hodges said the two-week demonstration, protesting the shooting death of Jamar Clark, had become a major health and safety hazard.

“There have been nearly daily threats to burn the precinct, kill our officers and to hurt people, causing harm and fear that must end,” Hodges declared.

But protest leaders, vowing to maintain their occupation, rejected the mayor’s plea. “We will not let politics or politicians drive a wedge between us,” said Kandace Montgomery with Black Lives Matters.

More than 15 years ago, calls by local leaders for an end to another angry occupation also fell on deaf ears. And, like this morning’s eviction of the Fourth Precinct protesters by police, the earlier occupation ended with a predawn routing by authorities.

Then, the protest action centered on a plan by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to extend Highway 55 through a strip of public land running near Camp Coldwater Spring, a site considered sacred by some American Indian groups. While the highway plan preserved Camp Coldwater, activists maintained that the rebuilt roadway would harm the spring by disrupting its water source.

Controversies in ’70s and ’80s

The plan to rebuild Highway 55 had stoked community controversy as far back as the 1970s. Then, the controversy involved a plan to rebuild the south Minneapolis roadway through a corner of Minnehaha Park. In the 1980s, community activists succeeded in winning approval for a new compromise proposal to maintain the parkland by building a landscaped berm over Highway 55. The compromise also called on MnDOT to preserve a strip of the public right of way for an eventual light rail transit line. By the late 1990s a new controversy arose over the final segment of Highway 55, scheduled to run adjacent to Camp Coldwater.

While the highway protests of the 1970s and ’80s were led by middle-class residents, who considered themselves “good government” advocates, the new protests in the mid-1990s attracted activists who relished a confrontation with the public authorities overseeing the reconstruction of Highway 55.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Calling themselves the Minnehaha Free State, the protesters
occupied the proposed highway route for months
at a time in 1998.

When legal and political action by the protesters did not halt the reroute, many of the most radical members of the protest group took matters into their own hands. Calling themselves the Minnehaha Free State, the protesters occupied the proposed highway route for months at a time in 1998, with some perching in trees and others squatting in several empty houses owned by MnDOT.

Protesters evicted

When the Free State organizers refused repeated calls by Gov. Arne Carlson and other public officials to clear the reroute site, a force of 600 officers stormed the site on Dec. 20, starting at 4:30 in the morning. Using pepper spray and bolt cutters, the officers evicted the squatters and arrested 33 of the protesters.

Sporadic protests continued over the next few months even while MnDOT went ahead with its plan for routing the final segment of Highway 55.

Now, 15 years later, the Minnehaha Free State experience points up the difficulty of achieving permanent results from dramatic protests that may capture media attention but lack long-term staying power. That experience may have relevance for a new wave of confrontational activism convulsing this city’s troubled north side. 

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 12/03/2015 - 09:17 am.

    I have a question:

    Chapter and verse; present, past confrontations…when does freedom become a metaphor, slowly evolving into meaningless rhetoric and a police state begin…where is the breaking point?

    Who draws the line in the sand?

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/03/2015 - 10:04 am.

    Simply Wrong

    “While the highway protests of the 1970s and ’80s were led by middle-class residents, who considered themselves “good government” advocates, the new protests in the mid-1990s attracted activists who relished a confrontation with the public authorities overseeing the reconstruction of Highway 55.”

    This is a severe mischaracterization of the Hiawatha Free State. If Mr. Nathan isn’t going to take the time to inform himself he ought not write of comparisons. The Free State was not a “confrontation”, it was pure non-violent civil disobedience. The difference between sitting in a trees and throwing fire bombs should be obvious. The Free State was far less “confrontational” than the Honeywell Project, or Anarchists Bowling League take over of Lake and Hennepin, or the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, etc. etc. The idea that the Free State represented some “new” level of confrontation is simply daft.

    Free State “occupiers” lived across the street from neighborhood residents for months without incident. There were a handful of complaints about occasional “loud” drum beating, to which the responded by lowering noise levels after dark. Police routinely patrolled the area without incident, and had a cordial daily relationship with demonstrators. MPD didn’t not have to deploy extra officers to patrol the area, nor were officers on station in the area to provide additional security. The streets were not blocked, and normal life in the area was not interfered with. The area was continuously occupied in stages for over a year and in that time police did not respond to a single emergency call.

    No serious comparison can be made between the Free State and BLM occupation at the 4th Precinct. No rocks or fire bombs were ever thrown by anyone involved in the anti-reroute demonstration over the course of two years. No shots were fired, and no one was shot. The organizers at Free State would not and did not allow any violence. Free State Organizers posted a sign at each entrance to the area declaring that: ” no drugs, alcohol, violence, or highways would be permitted there.” and they enforced that declaration. This stands in stark contrast to the BLM “occupation” where a major city street was blocked indefinitely, the relationship with MPD was hostile, daily (and nightly confrontations) occurred, and demonstrators basically ignored complaints from neighbor residents.

    The clearing of the Free State did however reveal a new level of escalated militarized police response to non-violent demonstrations, and escalation that is now all too obvious.

    As far as results are concerned, while the reroute itself went forward, Coldwater Creek is still flowing naturally (instead of being supplied by city water as per MNDOT’s original design) because of the demonstrations.

    • Submitted by Shaina Brassard on 12/03/2015 - 01:02 pm.

      Reconsider your respectability politics critique of BLM

      Paul, I find it incredibly ironic that you take such pains to distinguish the Free State occupiers from the Black Lives Matter occupiers of the MPD Fourth Precinct. Is it a coincidence that the majority of the Free State were white people, and their tactics more “respectable” to you? You seem to applaud Free State- but what about the fact that their movement was not ultimately successful? Considering that, why should BLM protesters be held to your arbitrary standards of acceptable nonviolent protest? They are trying something different because nothing else has been successful, and this is not just about a road, it is about a whole people’s bodily integrity and right to safety in our country.

      Additionally, there is no good evidence that BLM protesters have been violent; rather, violence has been committed against them by the police and vigilante white supremacist terrorists, yet your comment seems to blame the protesters for that. The police, which have attacked protesters with tear gas, openly taunted them and insulted their communities, and forcibly removed the protesters and their communities, have made claims that the police station has been threatened, but have not substantiated those claims.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/03/2015 - 02:42 pm.


        The only way I can respond is to re-state that which I already said in my post. That’s a waste of time since my post is still there, I suggest you re-read it.

        I will point out that gunshot wounds are not “arbitrary” indications of violence, they’re actually pretty clear indications of violence. And again, it doesn’t matter who makes the situation dangerous or violent, once the situation becomes dangerous and violent responsible people try to deal with it accordingly.

        As for skin color, that seems to be your issue, not mine, but you should know that Native Americans were the primary organizers of the Free State, they were trying protect sacred land. If you read my comment you’ll notice I make reference to loud drumming… I’m not talking about white guys banging on bongo drums.

        By the way, since I’ve seen this before I’ll let you know… when you find yourself trying to parse out a definition of “violence”… it’s time to go home, you’re sunk.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/03/2015 - 03:53 pm.


        Thank you Shaina, I should clarify, no rocks etc. were thrown by anyone at the Free State, so the issue of whether or not demonstrators or someone else was responsible for violence never actually came up. I phrased this poorly in my comment and did not mean to imply that anyone affiliated with BLM actually committed an act of violence at the 4th precinct, I’m not making any such accusation. I should be more careful with my phrasing and I apologize. I’m simply pointing out that there has been violence (other than police violence) in one situation and there was not in the other.

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/03/2015 - 11:50 am.

    “Activists who relished a confrontation . . .”

    You make it sound as if they were protesting for the sake of protesting. In reality, there were very real concerns about what the re-route would do not only to the springs, but to all of Minnehaha Park.

    My very conservative Republican father said at the time that he would be out there protesting the re-route too, if he thought it would do any good,

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 12/04/2015 - 10:32 am.

      Very True and Little Known

      Thanks for this one, RB. Most all of us who frequently drove the Mendota Bridge/Hwy 55 route to downtown Minneapolis knew nothing of Camp Coldwater Spring, a truly important element in the ancient trail from the prairie bluff to the Falls later named for St. Anthony. This trail became the soldiers’ trail in the building of Fort Snelling and subsequent excursions.

      The peaceful protest and somewhat heated reaction was an early recognition of Native American sensibilities in the midst of pro-forma departmental SOP. I recall that the driving public saw all of this (initially) as a trivial objection and pesky impediment to the long-awaited completion of the Hwy 55/Crosstown 62 interchange. The revision works just fine now, as finally built.

      Since then, we have developed a properly respectful view of many other ancient points of reverence. Yes, some objections still seem petty to many; however, this unseen Coldwater Spring as publicly unknown as it was, changed the way MNDOT road routes and other public projects are planned and built. Since then, ancient burials under the Mall of America have been re-consecrated or re-located, as have many others many places.

      We are all enriched through our re-connection with ancient peoples and shared histories. Next time we drive the route or board a plane at MSP, let’s please envision the ancient tall grassland that spread across that bluff-top prairie, with its walking trails to St. Anthony Falls, to Lakes Harriet and Calhoun and elsewhere now becoming known a little better by their shared Native names. Contemporary peace of mind can be aided by visions of past peaceful lives and daily activities.

      Anyway, accept this very belated thanks for reminding us of Coldwater Spring and the important relevance of Minnehaha Falls, still my favorite urban place since childhood

      [And, after all the gnashing of project budgets, the ultimately revised highway interchange works very well. Coldwater was the turning point in project planning.]

      I also embrace these peaceful breakthroughs as extension of personal reverence for Pipestone and its significant symbolism of Native interaction and trade. I was born there, and am proud to own a Four Winds pipe carved by one tribal member. I wish we knew so much more about those ancient lives and traditions.

      [And, I am as English as an American can be, all the way back on all sides of my families, and directly to 1650s bondsmen/planters on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.]

  4. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/03/2015 - 10:30 pm.

    Yep the running of

    the spring using the “natural flow” of water was spared. This came after the encampment was closed down by Jesse through continued legal battles. The trees ancient oakes did not do as well. There was the disgusting argument over whether some local Lakota were a tribal group or not. And of course that was affected by treaties being used as legal clubs, the misery of 1862, etal. Seems to my memory some of people who’s homes were taken did not fare so well either. Not a good memory nor one that much seemed to be learned from witness the shutting down of the Black Lives Matter encampment at least in my opinion. The “build it and they will come” has a corollary “tear it down, and they will forget!” So glad to see Hwy 55 Revolt is still being discussed. Thanks for the piece.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/04/2015 - 09:51 am.

    More on “confrontation”

    I’m sorry but I just can’t get over this bizarre claim that the Free State was a confrontational demonstration. More comparative examples from the 80s: The P-9 Union strike at the Austin Hormel plant (Provoked a mobilization of the National Guard). The farm opposition to that high voltage power line (Farmers actually blew up a few towers), The anti CIA recruitment demonstration on the U of M campus by the Progressive Student Organization ( A day long battle between students and campus police)… Seriously, you think sitting in a tree is “confrontational?”

  6. Submitted by Susu Jeffrey on 12/04/2015 - 02:03 pm.

    Saving Coldwater Springs

    Minnehaha Free State activists factually saved Coldwater from MnDOT’s original Hwy 55 reroute plans to dynamite for the highway roadbed and pipe in city water. That was the practice employed in the 1980s for I-394 construction which resulted in permanent dewatering of the Great Medicine Spring in Theodore Wirth Park and nearby historic Glenwood Spring. Groundwater from the I-394 corridor is pumped out at the daily rate of 2.5 millions of gallons.
    Because of federal involvement by recognized Indian tribes, MnDOT was forced to negotiate and to raise the roadbed thus saving underground water heading to Coldwater. Unfortunately the lawsuit between MnDOT and the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District resulted in a “compromise” that has lost Coldwater 46,000 gal/day, everyday, since construction was completed in 2002. That loss is more than 35 percent of Coldwater’s flow, now reduced from 130,000 gal/day to 84,000 gal/day.
    So much for “the difficulty of achieving permanent results from dramatic protests.”
    Another factual error in Iric Nathanson’s historical commentary is the presence of 803 officers at the December 1998 blitz on the encampment, not the 600 police quoted in the article. I was there. It was not the “activists who relished confrontation” it was the cops.
    The Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice investigated brutality allegations and concluded in a July 17, 2001 letter signed by Albert N. Moskowitz, Chief, Criminal Section: “We recently completed our review of the results of the investigation provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to determine whether a federal criminal prosecution could be brought concerning allegations that your civil rights were violated by officials of the Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Department….We have closed our investigation and…do not plan to take any further action.” Minnehaha County is in South Dakota.
    Coldwater Springs is the last major natural spring in Hennepin County and is again under threat. The appointed Metropolitan Council is planning a two-year sewer “improvement” construction project at the north end of Minnehaha Park that would intercept some groundwater flowing to the spring. An alternative plan to construct a temporary sewer bypass and replace the old sewer pipe with a new, larger pipe in the same location has been rejected on the basis of cost. What is Coldwater worth?

  7. Submitted by David Miller on 12/15/2015 - 10:26 am.

    Media assassination

    The author of this “journalistic” hit job gets both the #4thPrecinctShutDown and the #MinnehahaFreeState which some called the Four Oaks Spiritual Encampment, wrong. And I would venture to say that is because he was not involved in either one, and as a result, was not transformed or impacted in a personal way by either one.

    And how would I know? Because I was involved with both. I participated for sixteen months, not for “a few months off and on,” but from August 10th of 1998 until that cold December morning in December of 1999 when they came to cut down the four sacred oaks. I was there when the 804 State troopers came in durning Operation Cold Snap, and the SWAT teams in the back of those seven Ryder Trucks. They applied pepper gel directly to my friends eyes, they burned the drums and sacred items of the American Indian Movement and the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakotah Community.

    Those sixteen months saw thousands of people from as far away as Iceland and Ecuador visit. It saw student lock downs, it saw a sustained direct action campaign where many generations and cultures learned about the history of this land from the descendants of Little Crow and those who were forcibly removed from their homeland in 1862. And it saw a twelve mile March from the Northside to the Camp by the spring that brought together low income housing rights activists from the Black community who were trying to stop the demolition of the Holman projects and those fighting for First Nations traditional cultural properties and religious freedom down by the Spring.

    And I have supported the community efforts on the Northside to get #Justice4Jamar and to get an out of control overly militarized Police force back into the hands of the community they are supposed to serve, and to address the history of colonialism and racism that sees the Police acting more like an occupying force than as a useful tool to help keep people safe.

    And, now in my late forties, I spent time at the fourth precinct shut down. I saw young people who love their neighborhood, and who want a change that we so desperately need, handing out free food, clothing, providing shelter, building community, building relationships, not waiting for the politicians and the talking heads downtown that talk a good talk but who carry on business as usual to do something. And that feeling, that community you build stays with you for life. It changes you. It changes your sense of what’s possible. It shakes the power structure to its core, and believe if or not, it creates change deeper than marches or protests because what you are building is the new human society within the decaying shell of the old.

  8. Submitted by Kurt Seaberg on 12/15/2015 - 10:27 am.

    Confrontational activism

    This reporter needs to be better educated. The permanent results can be seen right in the photo at the beginning of the article. Coldwater spring is still flowing, is now the centerpiece of a new, ecologically restored and permanently protected park that never would have been preserved were it not for the two year long occupation and the dedicated activism of so many people. Yes we lost the four sacred oaks but without this resistance that spring would now be destroyed and the surrounding land would be a paved parking lot. And Pilot Knob would be covered with condos if it weren’t for the seasoned veterans of the Highway 55 struggle standing up for that sacred ground too. And think of all the lifelong friendships that were made, lives changed, babies born. Permanent change? The thing about change is that it never ends. In the great expanse of time that highway will be just a distant memory, it will crumble into dust when the forest reclaims it once again, providing food and shelter for our great, great, great grandchildren…

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