Guards at the Minneapolis Hennepin County Adult Detention Center call it "the hotel," and as hotels go, it's a bargain. When 68 anti-war protesters got arrested for blocking the city's U.S. courthouse on March 25, they got a bus ride and an overnight stay in Hennepin absolutely gratis.
The situation did not please Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He found it "very disturbing," according to spokesmen. Three days later, the Republican governor (elected as Jesse Ventura's successor) issued a letter to the state's chief justice, asking her to make protesters pay restitution for their visits to "the hotel."
It's fair to say the letter backfired. Pawlenty's claim that "while people have the right to free speech, they do not have the right to a free arrest" filtered through the anti-war grapevine with lightning speed. Within days it was appearing in op-eds, speeches, and anti-war fundraising appeals. Michael Cavlan, one of the 68 arrested in March, said that donors to the Anti-War Committee were mentioning Pawlenty's proposal in their e-mails.
Is Pawlenty's suggestion a serious threat? Probably not. "It's never going to stand the test of appeal," says former Hennepin County District Judge J. Bruce Hartigan. The state's American Civil Liberties Union didn't bother to make a statement, and most protesters, such as Green Party chairman Cam Gordon, laughed out loud when asked about the letter.
Still, the letter has inspired some revealing insights into the high-rolling habits of the police. Pawlenty proposed a $200 fine for unlucky protesters; a night in Hennepin costs $250. That's more than twice the price of a single room at the city's four-star Whitney Hotel. Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Doug Grow, digging deeper, found that police were raking in the dough from the arrest of protesters: In a 1998 crackdown on 36 activists who'd chained themselves to trees, 600 cops consumed $7,309.90 worth of food and earned $332,488 in overtime. Three officers also received the Chief's Order of Merit for the raid, but the state didn't release the cost of their medals.
If the judges are wrong and the fee becomes reality, the Anti-War Committee vows to issue 68 challenges. It's unclear how much money the state would spend to settle all those cases, but who ever said free speech was free?