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AIM leader Clyde Bellecourt goes to trial over Christmas Eve arrest

As he got dressed to head to the courthouse Tuesday, Clyde Bellecourt draped the finishing touch around his neck: his lavalier signifying his membership in the Midewiwin, a secretive Native American religion.

"It's to protect me in court," he said later.

Bellecourt, 77, the Native American activist, is on trial in state court in Hennepin County on a misdemeanor charge of trespassing. Last Christmas Eve, he refused a security guard's demand that he leave the IDS Center's Crystal Court during a Canadian Indian group's flash mob-style protest.

The guard called the cops. When they arrived, the guard filled out a citizen's arrest form. Bellecourt passively resisted arrest -- he went limp and lay on the floor -- but was later handcuffed, jailed and charged.

The great majority of misdemeanor cases filed by the city attorney's office are settled through plea bargains, but Bellecourt is taking his case to trial. Six jurors must decide if he intentionally trespassed and refused to depart, as Assistant Minneapolis City Attorney Clair Cole said in his opening statement, or whether he was the target of police harassment and selective prosecution, as defense attorney Larry Leventhal of St. Paul said in his opening remarks.

"This case is really not about what he did. He did nothing criminal. He did nothing against the law," Leventhal told jurors.

"He was arrested for who he was," the defense lawyer said.

Bellecourt, who was born on the White Earth Indian Reservation, is one of the most noted activists in the Native American community. The man known by his Ojibwe name of Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun -- "Thunder Before the Storm" -- has a history that includes a stint in state prison, starting schools and community centers, involvement in the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee and having the city of Minneapolis declare a day in his honor.

He also has a long history of monitoring police misconduct. When he co-founded the American Indian Movement in 1968, one of the group's first initiatives was to monitor arrests to see how American Indians were treated. He later served on the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority, a now-defunct group set up as part of a federal court settlement involving claims of police misconduct.

That brand of activism made Bellecourt a target for Minneapolis police, Leventhal said.

"We think it shows they saw an opportunity to harass Mr. Bellecourt, and did so," the lawyer said.

Whether jurors will be allowed to consider that contention is something Hennepin County District Judge James Moore will have to decide. As Moore pointed out to Leventhal while the jurors were out of the courtroom Tuesday, a defendant planning to argue discriminatory enforcement of the law must file a pretrial motion saying they intend to raise that as a defense. Leventhal didn't.

The lawyer said he believed that if the evidence presented at trial supports the contention that Bellecourt was singled out for arrest because of his activism, it is appropriate for a jury to consider it.

The trial is expected to last up to four days. Cole has said he may call six witnesses, and the defense has said it may call 25 witnesses -- including Bellecourt himself and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Much of the opening day of testimony was taken up by jurors watching three videos filmed by the IDS Center's surveillance cameras that showed the protest that started around noon Dec. 24. The demonstration was conducted by Idle No More, a Canadian indigenous rights movement.

While a handful of demonstrators stood in a tight circle and beat a cadence on hand drums, a group of 35 to 40 men, women and children danced and chanted in a wider circle as holiday shoppers walked through the Crystal Court.

From the videos, the protest appeared peaceful. But it was unsanctioned by the company that manages the property, so the demonstrators were told to leave, testified Jaysen Durda, who was supervising the security guards on duty that day.

"It was what is considered a flash mob," Durda said of the group that assembled. He said he and others told the group that they were trespassing and that they had to leave -- and if they didn't, they would be arrested.

Bellecourt had shown up at the event to hand out flyers for a New Year's Eve sobriety pow-wow; he can be seen on the video handing them out. Several people came up to Bellecourt to pay their respects. Seeing that, Durda said he assumed Bellecourt had some leadership role in the demonstration.

Bellecourt, who suffers from diabetes and other medical problems, said he went to the Starbucks on the skyway level to get a cup of coffee and a sweet roll, then came back downstairs and sat on a bench to drink his coffee.

Durda testified that he told the man to leave, but he remained on the bench.

"It didn't appear that he was getting ready to leave, like the rest of the group," said Durda, who has a rank of lieutenant with American Security & Investigations, the company that provides security at the IDS Center. "He was more or less making himself comfortable on the bench."

Durda said he told Bellecourt that if he didn't leave with the others, he'd be arrested.

"He was explaining that he just wanted to finish his coffee, and that he'd leave when he finished his coffee and when his son came back," the guard told jurors.

Minneapolis police were called, and Durda made a citizen's arrest of Bellecourt, who was the only person arrested that day.

On cross-examination, Leventhal asked Durda if he told Bellecourt what authority he was acting under when he told the man to leave.

"Typically, in that situation, the uniform speaks for itself," he replied.

The defense attorney asked him what conduct he saw that he considered disorderly.

"Basically, anything that isn't walking from A to B, or sitting down," he replied.

Leventhal asked him if Bellecourt was singled out because he was well known.

"Absolutely not," Durda replied. "He was singled out because he was the only one who didn't leave."

Minneapolis Police Lt. Dan Christiansen was Cole's second witness. He was supervising the police precinct that covers downtown that day, and went to the IDS Center. At one point after seeing the demonstration, he radioed for every available police unit in the entire city to head to the scene. He later cancelled the request.

He said he believed Bellecourt was part of the demonstration, although he didn't see him participating in it. He said he asked Bellecourt to help disperse the demonstrators, but denied a defense contention that when he did so, he called Bellecourt "the big chief."

At times, it appeared Christiansen's memory failed him. He had testified that some protesters were banging on plastic drums; the video showed they were using traditional Native American hand drums covered with skins.

Also, though he said he knew Durda and had dealt with him on several occasions, he kept referring to him as "she" and "her." At one point in his cross-examination, Leventhal asked him directly, "What gender is Lieutenant Durda?"

"She's a female," Christiansen replied.

The defense lawyer asked him why police arrested Bellecourt and not the others who were at the demonstration.

"The security had not directed me towards those individuals," he said.


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