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On Tuesday, May 1, in downtown Duluth, the city was filled with it’s usual mid-afternoon bustle, that was, except on the corner of Lake Ave. & Superior St. where the Duluth Mayday Festival of the 99 percent was in full swing. Members of Occupy Duluth along with other activists were gathered in a general strike against corporate greed. May 1 has long been regarded as a day for worker’s rights and demonstrations have been common on the date and they seem to be gaining in intensity in recent years.
At around 3 p.m. at the MN Power Plaza the hip-hop group, Strictly Hammers, were in the middle of performing a set through a PA that had been brought in. The event had been going since Noon and the band Lion or Gazelle had performed earlier that day. Several party tents had been set up to protect the equipment and a table where free food like soup and bread from Food Not Bombs were being served. Vehicles passing through the busy intersection gave sporadic honks of approval as a group of people held up signs that reflected a variety of issues; some against the war, others in support of Occupy, women’s and worker’s rights were also addressed. A few of those who had gathered had their faces playfully painted with bright colors and it appeared that the event was peaceful in nature.
Four squad cars and officers of the Duluth Police Department arrived and started to look over the situation. Officers told some of those attending that the music would have to be turned off. “They told other people for us to turn it down, and we were like, we’re going to turn it up,” said Nick Pawlenty, the DJ for Strictly Hammers. During the end of their performance, the number of officers grew to over a dozen, some in uniform, some in plain clothes. Nine marked police vehicles lined the intersection. “We would have just turned it off if they would have asked us personally. We’re playing Homegrown tonight and wouldn’t want to be arrested before that‚Ä¶We were thinking about playing another song then someone came up and,” Pawlenty then made a shaking head gesture along with a hand gesture indicating to turn it down, “We turned it off before the police came to talk to us,” stated Pawlenty. The band was asked for their IDs and did not receive any citations. One man at the event was cited for using a bullhorn which was deemed as “an illegal use of a sound-casting device.” Some attending the group continued to play acoustic instruments such as bagpipes, accordions and banged on plastic buckets.
Once the amplified music had been turned off, several of the more spirited of the group began discussing “freedom of speech,” “civil rights” and questioning the fact that there were other crimes going on in the city that weren’t being addressed rather than the peaceful assembly of American citizens with the line of officers. Just as officers started to corner and question one of the activists, another activist, Lara Simpson, walked in to the situation where she reported that she was elbowed and put in a brief headlock by Duluth Police Officer, Lt. Eric Rish, who was surrounded by a crowd of other officers. She squirmed free out of the headlock and started to retreat, but was detained a moment later, cited for disorderly conduct and released shortly after. Simpson stated that she was attempting to stand in solidarity and was initially shoved by one of the officers at the beginning of the very short incident and that she plans on contesting the charge.
The mood of the event changed as officers discussed the right to be there with members of the group and as other officers began to take photos and video of the gathering. One officer confiscated a bread knife that was on the table where food was being served. As the officer walked by, he held it up to a man taking video footage. “That’s our cooking equipment that was by our table of food,” said Jesse Peterson, a member of the Occupy movement. “Why don’t they go down to Last Place and mess with the people killing themselves?,” stated another member, referring to the mass of people waiting to buy incense products down the street that rivaled the amount of people who were gathered at the MN Power Plaza. At the same time a report came on the officer’s scanners that a domestic dispute was occurring in the area, but they diligently held their post at the plaza. Shortly after, Ben Larson from the hip-hop group, Crew Jones, who were supposed to play at the event walked up to the plaza. When asked if he was going to perform, Larson replied, “I guess not.”
Once satisfied that all but one of the tents were broken down, the smallest one remaining, and that there was no more amplified music or apparatus, the Duluth officers started to confiscate the belongings of the people present which were dumped in to the back of a public works truck. People were allowed a short period of time to claim back those belongings.
The interaction with the police only put a dark image on the event for a brief period of time. The group picked up the pace with a march that included members of the Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe shortly thereafter and the day continued with political and social speeches at the Plaza. Although a light rain started up several hours later, fire dancing, speeches with discussions and non-amplified music were planned for the rest of the night.
Although it was confirmed that permits weren’t obtained by the group, the Duluth Police Department also seemed to be scrabbling for city ordinances with which to charge the group. There was really no negativity, danger or strife in the event until an extremely overwrought “show of force” by what appeared to all of the officer’s on duty that day. Although there were certainly incidents that happened on Mayday that did erupt in destruction around the Nation, one is left with the question of who exactly is disturbing the peace when it comes to Duluth.