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Occupy Minnesota in row with authorities over use of tents as temperatures drop

About 50 Occupy Minnesota protestors listed off why they wanted to risk arrest at Steve Payne’s teach-in on Saturday.

Some said their goal was “to end capitalism.” Others said they protested “because the Federal Reserve and banks stole trillions.” Or for others, the end result was “to make a change” or “to stop just talking about a revolution.”

Those broader grievances, though, were tied to a more specific one on the ninth day of Minnesota’s nascent spinoff of the Occupy Wall Street movement that has swept the nation: the desire for shelter to continue protesting in the face of Minnesota’s frigid weather.

The county had told Occupy Minnesota that its members could sleep on the public plaza overnight, and it set up bathrooms and an open-air canopy for them. Closed structures like tents, though, were prohibited, and demonstrators said the canopy provided little protection. “We have the right to shelter when we’re protesting,” Diana Turner, an organizer, said. “Just because we have a winter doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have accommodation for that. We have a right to protect our First Amendment rights.”

Payne briefed group of demonstrators on the plan. “Today we are peaceful and we are non-violent,” he said, starting off the short-teach in, before they moved to the grassy knoll and locked arms around the clear plastic tents they set up in defiance of county authorities. “We are not going to fight the police.”

Raising wiggly fingers in the air, the group came to a consensus that they were not going to resist arrest, while still acknowledging that they faced it. Payne led them in a trial run in forming a circle with locked arms, where they passed around markers to jot a number for Occupy Minnesota Legal Aid on their arms.

The group, which carried the tents to the southern side of Hennepin County’s Government Center after the teach-in, was diverse. At 72, Sarah Martin has three children, five grandchildren and a great grandson. A retired nurse with a long history of anti-war activism, Martin, arms locked in the human chain formed around the tents, said that this one’s for the youth. After pondering how billions of taxpayer dollars could be used other than to fund the 10-year war in Afghanistan, she maintained that there “must be tents” for the occupation to continue.

“This is public land,” Martin said. “Finally, people are rising up in a big way.”

At the other end of the demographic spectrum was Camille Roberts, 23, mentioned the foreclosures sweeping Minnesota homeowners. “Now they’re trying to evict us and foreclose on us occupying a public space.”

Tim Standish, 14, is hardly a freshman in high school. The eventual confiscation of the tents was “pretty screwed up,” he said later, because everyone has a right to housing.

Sitting in a circle around the tents at 8:30 Saturday night with him, Angela Skillern, 18, a freshman in college, helped drape one of the blankets being passed around over herself, Standish and two other friends, who all came out together. The anticipated police action had not yet commenced and it was getting cold. Skillern, who takes a full credit load while drawing a $200 paycheck every two weeks with her job, says the main reason she’s protesting is that education costs too much. But she also focused on what they perceived to be the more immediate injustice of the night: shelter. “I heard a cop say that this isn’t a campground,” she said. “We’re exercising our First Amendment rights. And we have a right to safety.”

On Sunday afternoon, after Hennepin County sheriff’s deputies had confiscated the tents just after 1 a.m., an action committee debated democratically—an arduous process that took hours— about how to react. One demonstrator made the point that a large part of the injustice they were protesting is the foreclosure crisis. Who is controlling the money? U.S. Bank, whose plaza is just across the street, was one answer. The plaza is Minneapolis City property, not Hennepin County property, they said. The committee agreed to take their tent city there.

Mike Bantle, 28, an Army veteran who runs a small business as a painter, wondered about the demonstrations lasting through the winter. “Last night, when they took the tents, it was pretty awesome. People were willing to get arrested,” he said. “We’re losing numbers because it’s getting cold. But I feel like it’s gaining momentum when you look at what’s going on around the world. We’ve just got to stay out here.”

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