Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


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

Calling themselves the Minnehaha Free State, protesters occupied a proposed Highway 55 route for months at a time in 1998.

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.

Article continues after advertisement

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.