Minneapolis will pay $165,000 to zombies
Minneapolis will pay seven people who were jailed after a street theater protest.

Star Tribune | August 23, 2010
By Randy Furst

The Minneapolis city attorney's office has decided to pay seven zombies and their attorney $165,000.

The payout, approved by the City Council on Friday, settles a federal lawsuit the seven filed after they were arrested and jailed for two days for dressing up like zombies in downtown Minneapolis on July 22, 2006, to protest "mindless" consumerism.

When arrested at the intersection of Hennepin Avenue and 6th Street N., most of them had thick white powder and fake blood on their faces and dark makeup around their eyes. They were walking in a stiff, lurching fashion and carrying four bags of sound equipment to amplify music from an iPod when they were arrested by police who said they were carrying equipment that simulated "weapons of mass destruction."

However, they were never charged with any crime.

Although U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen had dismissed the zombies' lawsuit, it was resurrected in February by a three-judge panel of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which concluded that police lacked probable cause to arrest the seven, a decision setting the stage for a federal trial this fall. The settlement means there will be no trial.

"I feel great that the city is being held accountable for the actions of their police," said Raphi Rechitsky, 27, of Minneapolis, one of the seven zombies, who said he and his friends were performing street theater when they were arrested. He is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota.

Minneapolis City Attorney Susan L. Segal said it was in the best interests of the city to settle. "We believe the police acted reasonably, but you never know what a jury is going to do with a case," she said.

If a jury had concluded that the seven plaintiffs' constitutional rights had been violated and awarded $50,000 to each, plus defense attorney's fees, "it could have been quite substantial," Segal said.

Zombies had no IDs

The four men and three women, all of whom lived in the Twin Cities at the time, were playing the role of zombies to illustrate their belief that people buy and rely on new products "as a replacement for real interaction," said Rechitsky.

They were making their zombielike way along Nicollet Mall around 7 p.m. when police told them to turn down their music and keep a distance from bystanders. Later, on Hennepin Avenue, a young girl with her father became frightened by the lurching zombies, according to court records.

Police asked for the zombies' identification, and when most said they had none on them, they were told they would be detained.

One of the zombies, Jake Sternberg, later testified that police Sgt. E.T. Nelson told the zombies at the police station that he didn't care about their constitutional rights, using two obscenities, according to court records.

"Those words are seared into my mind; I'll never forget them," Sternberg, who now lives in San Francisco, said in an interview. He said he is an electrical engineer.

Sternberg said the jail experience was "real horrible." Because he had lost his left leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident in 2001, he uses a prosthetic leg. The jailers made him give up the artificial leg, saying it could be used as a weapon, and gave him a wheelchair to use instead. The appeals court ruled that the jailers were justified in taking away the artificial leg, though Sternberg said the wheelchair's detachable leg rests were heavier and had the potential to be far more dangerous than his lightweight prosthetic leg.

Rechitsky said the jail experience was "traumatizing," especially after the seven learned that they were being held on the "crazy" charge of carrying simulated weapons of mass destruction. "We had no idea what it meant," he said.

Jordan Kushner, the zombies' Minneapolis attorney, said that originally, the city offered to pay each of the seven $10,000 apiece, plus whatever the court ordered in attorney's fees.

"Under that scenario, I believe the total payout would have been higher, but a lot more of the money would have gone to me," said Kushner, who has represented a number of clients in lawsuits against the police.

The $165,000 settlement works out better for his clients, he said. He declined to discuss how it will be divided among the zombies and himself.

"I think ideally we wanted the city to pay more money for the abuse they committed, but I think my clients weren't really out for the money; they wanted to make the point," he said. "This is enough. They feel they made the point."