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Narratives diverge on Longest Walk II-police encounter

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Differing narratives have emerged from an encounter between participants in the Longest Walk II and members of the Columbus police department.

Some walkers said that the police, without any provocation, violently attacked them, terrorizing women and children, targeting one member with a Taser to the head and throwing another to the ground before arresting him.

The police said the walkers didn;t have a permit and violated traffic laws, and that they have no report of a Taser being pointed at anyone, and that a walker who was thrown to the ground and handcuffed after running at an officer was issued a ticket and released.

The Longest Walk II is a five-month journey that began in San Francisco and will finish in Washington, D.C., in July. The walk is bringing attention to environmental protection and Native rights. It marks the 30th anniversary of the original Longest Walk in 1978, which resulted in historic changes for American Indians.

The walk is a spiritual appeal under the message ''All Life is Sacred, Save Mother Earth,'' according to www.thelongestwalk.org.

Accounts of the incident between the walkers and the Columbus Division of Police first appeared in audio reports on the Web site www.earthcycles.net June 2, when the walkers arrived in the city.

Luv Mezenger, who was issued the citation, gave an account of the incident in an audio report, saying the walkers were deliberately on the road ''for people to see what's going on ... and help bless the community.''

The police arrived in several squad cars ''and they commanded - as I know they would put it - for us to get on the sidewalk. They asked if we had a permit and I said, 'No, we don't need one for what we're doing. There's other authorities that know we're here and what's going on.' I didn't have to explain myself or the walk because there's other people there to do that because my work there is to pray, but also to secure the walk, make sure the walkers are safe and make sure that drivers, you know or anybody like that, know we're coming.''

He did not explain why he didn't let the city know the walkers were coming.

Mezenger said he directed the walkers to get on the sidewalk ''for the moment'' when the traffic lane they'd been walking in became a parking lane.

When he blocked traffic at an intersection for the walkers to cross, an officer began shouting at them to stop blocking traffic.

Mezenger told the police they were violating his rights under the Native American Religious Freedom Act and that the Department of Transportation was aware of the walk coming through the state.

Police cars then blocked off the support cars and an officer ''ran up'' to a car with children in it and began shouting at the driver, Mezenger said. Michael Lane, Menominee, whose wife was the driver, intervened.

Mezenger said he saw the police aim a Taser between Lane's eyes ''for maybe a minute or two or more,'' and that he ''came around'' from the sidewalk ''and ''I chose to stand in front [of Lane].''

An officer told him to get onto the sidewalk and Mezenger refused. He said he stepped aside when an officer approached him from behind, because he ''was going to turn around to start communicating more ... and he tackled me to the ground with all his weight.''

The police cuffed him and put him into a paddy wagon and soon released him after giving him a ticket.

Amanda Ford, the public information officer with the Columbus city police, told Indian Country Today that Mezenger was taken to the ground, handcuffed and put in a paddy wagon because he ''charged at the lieutenant; he took off, basically running toward him. Obviously, you can't run at a police officer in that situation - they don't know what you're going to do and so they're probably going to take you to the ground.''

Mezenger was ticketed for jaywalking and released, because arresting him would serve no purpose and could escalate the situation, Ford said, adding that she could find no report of a Taser being ''pulled out, let alone pointed at anyone.''

''I asked the lieutenant at the scene and he said he doesn't carry a Taser and nobody pulled a Taser out. I'm not sure where the Taser information came from, and sometimes we don't have all the answers, so I don't have a solid answer for you on that.''

The department appealed to anyone with videotape of the incident to come forward, promising to hold accountable any officers who violated their duty.

''If our officers did something wrong, we will hold them accountable by all means. We encourage them to give a copy of the video to our internal affairs department and file a complaint. That's what it's there for,'' Ford said.

She said the whole incident was ''unfortunate from the get-go - not having the right permit and we just didn't know who they were or what they were doing.''

The 30 to 40 walkers just appeared in the road during the day's traffic and began to pray; ''and it was, like, 'Well, you're still breaking the law, can't you stay on the sidewalk?' They believed they didn't need a permit because it was a spiritual walk and the laws in their view didn't apply to them.''

The incident was not reported in the city's daily, the Columbus Dispatch. Two days later, a story appeared on http://bsnorrell.blogspot.com and spread to other blogs.

''We were surprised that no other newspaper [other than Indian Country Today] called us about it,'' Ford said. We had heard that blog had stirred up a lot of trouble.''