Book Review: Our Way or the Highway

Losure, Mary. 2002. Our Way or the Highway: Inside the Minnehaha Free State. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis.

This is the best book I’ve read in a while, probably because it’s regarding a topic I feel very passionately about, and because it’s a case study from right here in the Twin Cities. The book deals with the controversial re-routing of highway 55 around a small neighborhood in 1998-2000. Most of highway 55 between downtown Minneapolis and the airport had been reconstructed through South Minneapolis to its current 4-lane configuration several years previously and all that remained of the old two-lane alignment was about 5-8 blocks near Minnehaha Falls. Losure tells the story of how a small group of protesters, some radical, some not, fought the project to the end.

Losure begins her story in 1998, when MnDOT began purchasing a few houses out by the airport in anticipation of rerouting highway 55. The houses west of Riverview Road would stay, but everything east would be demolished. The new road would be constructed through a large field and several groves of old cottonwood and oak trees hanging on the bluffs of the Mississippi River. The protest brought a wide range of supporters, most notably the Mendota Dakota Indians who claimed that four suspiciously symmetric oak trees marked the four corners of an old indian burial ground, and the more radical Earth First! members who opposed the project simply because it would remove trees and parkland to make room for a highway.

Losure details the events that transpired as a group of protesters established a year-round camp by the river called the Minnehaha Free State dedicated to stopping the project using any tactic available, including camping in trees, chaining their necks to moving bulldozers, spiking trees, and pulling all the survey stakes every night after the workers go home. But the camp realized that these tactics alone would not stop the project.

Their only real hope was for the Mendota Dakotas to recieve national recognition as a tribe and prove that the area was sacred. Losure details the struggles between the Dakotas, who were generally calm and were more likely to try and stop the project through legal procedures, and their allies, the radical Earth First!ers who perhaps sabotaged the Dakotas efforts more than they helped them. For example, on one occasion, the Dakotas were busy trying to convince a certain state legislator to sponsor a bill that would end the project, but a frustrated Earth First!er literally threw a pie in her face, which made the whole lot look wacky.

Of course, the Minnehaha Free State lost the battle, the road was constructed, and now, most people probably don’t even remembered it happened. It was an emotional story for me, however, because I have such strong feelings regarding urban parklands, road expansion projects, and the use of eminent domain. As much as I wanted the Minnehaha Free State to stop the project, I knew they had no hope. The most interesting parts of Losure’s book is how she finds that even the biggest players in helping the project move forward were largely sympathetic towards their cause.

For example, Officer Kittridge from the Minneapolis Police Department was in charge of the police force assigned to the project and led the day-to-day interactions between the protesters, the police, and the construction team. In an interview, he told Losure about how he used to bring his young daughter to this very location to play in the trees near a small lake known as the Longfellow Lagoon (now several feet below Highway 55). He was also sad to see the parkland lost, but the project was too big to stop, he thought, and he wasn’t going to lose his job over it.

Losure also wrote of the excessive force used against the protesters, including using over 800 heavily armed officers to raid the camp of less than 100 unarmed protesters (which today remains the largest use of police force in Minnesota History). She tells of how the police force burned the protesters posessions, smashed the Dakotas ceremonial drums, and slashed their tipis.

While throughout the book, it becomes clear that the tactics used by the protesters are ineffective and ultimately didn’t do anything other than dramatically increase the cost of the project, it is still a call to arms. While one must question the specific tactics used by the Minnehaha Free State, it still provides an inspiring message for those who feel our society has constructed far too many highways and that sometimes the cost of “progress” isn’t worth it.

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