Every Tuesday afternoon a small group of peace activists stand at the busy intersection of Burnsville Parkway and Nicolet Avenue , just a couple blocks away from the largest park and ride in the southern suburbs and outside the offices of Republican Congressman John Kline. For over two years now they have been coming to this spot in Burnsville , Minnesota to exercise their first amendment right to speak out against the war that Kline is a big supporter of. Over the course of those two years the peace vigil has received a great reception from many in the community and the protesters have received a large number of honks of support from those who pass by.
The Burnsville Police Department never seemed to like the idea of a peace vigil outside Kline's office however. From early on, it appears they needed to find a way to build a case to show that these people represent a threat to public safety.
The police decided to target a sign that was frequently held at the peace vigil that said “Honk for Peace”. There is a law on the books which states that a person can not honk their horn for non-emergency purposes. It is a law that the Burnsville Police were not enforcing in the past, but now people were honking in support of peace and so it was time for a police crackdown.
Officers approached the participants at the vigil and told them that their “Honk for Peace” signs were encouraging an illegal act and if anyone honked the participants of the vigil would be held responsible. Of course there is no legal precedence for prosecuting protesters when people honk in support of them and so the participants of the vigil asked the police to show them the law that prevented them from holding their signs at the intersection. In the words of Coleen Rowley who is a regular participant at the Burnsville peace vigil, “we're not disturbing the peace, we're disturbing the war.” The city of Burnsville had no laws on the books prohibiting anyone from disturbing the war however, and so they tried a different tactic in an attempt to get the protesters to go away. Instead of targeting the protesters, they were going to target the motorists who expressed their support with honks.
Police set up a dragnet at the intersection one afternoon to catch and ticket those who honked while going through the intersection. Over the course of a few weeks, they were able to ticket two or three different motorists. One of those ticketed was very supportive of the vigil's message but was also very upset that the vigil continued after the activists knew police were going to be pulling people over and ticketing them. The vigil participants felt very strongly that the first amendment not only allowed them to be at the intersection but also allowed people like this woman to show their support. Eventually the Burnsville woman who was ticketed sought and received the help of ACLU volunteer attorney Howard Bass.
Bass took up the case to defend our first amendment rights and after a several month battle, he was able to get the city of Burnsville to not only drop the charges but also get a consent decree issued which affirmed the right of all motorists to honk for peace. The police agreed that they would stop pulling people over for honking and allow the peace vigil to continue. It seemed free speech had prevailed and the participants of the vigil breathed a sigh of relief.
For several weeks the vigils went on without police harassment, but then on June 23rd the police showed up and started photographing the peace vigil participants. Greg Skog who is a participant in the vigil had his camera along so he took some pictures of the police to document their actions and then asked them what was wrong. The police said they knew about the consent decree and they were not going to be pulling anyone over, but they did not explain what anyone at the vigil was doing wrong or why they were being photographed.
When the vigil participants arrived on June 30th, the police were already waiting for them. At least one officer was in the parking lot of Kline's offices monitoring the peace activists the entire time. Officers appeared to be recording driver's license numbers on notepads.
It is unclear what kind of case the police are trying to build, what is clear is that this peace group has been at the intersection for nearly two years now and every single week they have remained very peaceful and law abiding. The Burnsville Police Department is targeting and harrassing peaceful protesters and their community supporters by using intimidation tactics, but fortunately the participants in the vigil are not going to give up on their free speech rights. They are intending to be at that intersection every week, rain or shine, until the wars come to an end. Let's give them our support.
A special thanks to Coleen Rowley, Sue Skog and Greg Skog for their assistance with this post.