Liberty or Undeath, by Harper’s Staff

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From a December 20, 2007, deposition of Jacob Sternberg, who, along with six other people, was arrested and jailed in Minneapolis in 2006 on a charge of possessing “simulated weapons of mass destruction.” Sternberg and the others sued the City of Minneapolis, the County of Hennepin, and several police officers and were awarded $165,000 last August. Sternberg, who was thirty at the time of the deposition, lost his lower left leg in a motorcycle accident in 2001. James Moore is an assistant city attorney.

james moore: Tell me what the zombies are.

jacob sternberg: The zombies were people participating in a gathering with music in a public place.

moore: What was your understanding of what was going to happen at this party?

sternberg: That we would be putting on makeup and fake blood made of corn syrup. And that we would be playing music and walking around downtown.

moore: Describe any makeup that you wore to that party.

sternberg: Darkening around the eye sockets and some other kinds of accents to hint at a decaying person. And I think I tried to avoid the corn syrup because it’s sticky and gross, but I failed and I did become a little bit sticky.

moore: Describe your attire when you went to that party.

sternberg: My attire was kind of ragged anyway, so I didn’t really change for the gathering.

moore: Were you carrying anything when you went downtown?

sternberg: Yes. One of the bags carrying sound equipment.

moore: Were any of the wires visible to somebody viewing you?

sternberg: There was a cord coming out of the bag that went to a stick, which had an antenna on top of it and also a sign that said brains.

moore: What’s the meaning of the sign?

sternberg: Zombies are known to be hungry for brains, but because of their limited cognitive ability, their only utterance is usually “brains.”

moore: Describe the activity of the group when you were downtown.

sternberg: We stuck together and played music and walked a kind of a zombie walk, which is kind of a brain-impaired stumble. At times we would speak through the microphone, saying things like “brains” or “brain check in aisle seven” or “come join us, zombie dance party,” inviting people to join us.

moore: Did you have any purpose to send any political message?

sternberg: Yes. To remind people that there are other possibilities of what you can do with your time walking down the street, other than going to or from your job or to the store or just standing there in silence.

moore: What was your contact with the Minneapolis police officers?

sternberg: We were at Borders. We were sitting or standing around the benches there. The police officers walked up to us. One of them said, “All right, you guys, we need to see some ID.” And I replied, “I don’t have any ID, and we’re not doing anything wrong.” And he said, paraphrasing, “If you cannot show ID, then you need to come to the precinct to be ID’d.” So I said, “Are we being detained?” And he said, “Yes.” I asked, “What’s the charge?” And he said, “I don’t know. Let’s call it disorderly conduct for now.” We all walked together, that is, all seven zombies and the officers, to the first precinct. The first thing I recall being said to us was by Sergeant Ed Nelson, who said in a way that I’ll never forget, forgive my language, but I’m quoting, “I don’t give a goddamn about anybody’s constitutional fucking rights.” The way he said this reminded me of a drill sergeant with new recruits. His veins were bulging from his forehead and neck. Then we were directed into a small room. People were taken out, but I don’t remember the order. When I was taken out of the room, I was led to an office-type room. They asked my name, and I said, “I don’t want to answer questions at this time.” They said, “You have to give your name.” I said, “My name is Jake.” And she said, “What’s your last name?” I said, “I have no further answers at this time.” I was taken outside and loaded into a van. We were put in there one by one.

moore: What happened after you got to Hennepin County Jail?

sternberg: I was told to get out of the van and to go in the doorway and face the wall. I heard comments coming from behind me, people saying, “Don’t you think you ought to take his leg? It’s got metal on it.” I was asked for my last name and I said that I was not giving my last name at this time. They said, “We need a last name to put down on your paperwork here.” And I said, “You can put 1 2 3 4 5 if you want.” They said that’s not acceptable. “We need that in order to keep track of your property.” I said, “Well I’m sure you’ll be able to do it. My name is Jake.” So I was led down the hall and put into a room. And it had a wheelchair in it. I don’t like wheelchairs. I spent time in a wheelchair. I’m glad I don’t have to use one. I was told to sit in the chair and take off my leg. I said, “This is obviously a sham to coerce me into giving my last name.” And she said, “No, it’s not.” She asked me to hand her my leg. I said that my leg was very delicate and expensive and difficult to replace. She said that it would be inventoried, and somebody else, standing outside the door, said, “Are you sure you don’t want to give your last name? There’s a lot of Jakes around here, stuff could get mixed up.”

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