The last week has been hard in the US. It’s been especially hard here in St Paul, the nearest large city to Falcon Heights. That is where St Paul resident Philandro Castille was gunned down at a traffic stop, and the city that has seen the brunt of the protests as his home and the capitol of the state.
More than the horror of this shooting and the protests which turned ugly afterwards, the situation appears to be spinning out of control. For those of us who support the Black Lives Matter movement as well as our excellent St Paul Police there is a lot to be concerned about.
If cooler heads prevail, as they usually do in this city, we’ll be allright. But we have to keep our eyes on the prize and no longer accept the “Us versus Them” mentality destroying our nation.
The death of Philandro Castille was a horror, the kind of thing we never think could happen to one of our own. As Governor Mark Dayton said, “If he were white, he’d still be alive.” The governor has gotten a lot of heat for that statement, but I back it.
There is little doubt that the situation was made more tense by the fact that Castille was carrying a firearm, properly permitted by the tough but excellent laws of this state. He may have made a small error by explaining to the officer who pulled him over that he had a weapon – a situation where there is not a completely standard protocol to follow for de-escalation. It was a situation where the benefit of the doubt, usually all there is to white privilege, can be the difference between life and death.
St Paul has been home to many protests since this tragedy by Black Lives Matter (BLM), many of them centered on the Governor’s mansion. Despite Dayton’s clear support for improved justice across racial lines the group wants action – so the heat remains on him for now.
The Governor’s Mansion is a short distance away from Interstate 94, cut through the predominantly black community of Rondo more than 50 years ago. The emotional scars are as fresh as the asphalt scar across the urban landscape. For this reason, BLM chose to shut down the highway on Saturday night in almost a ritual statement demonstrating victory over institutional racism.
Times are different, however. BLM was in constant contact with St Paul Police through this march as they have been since the protests started. Riot gear never come out, no one became tense, and everything was peaceful. We do not tolerate racism in St Paul anymore and take first amendment rights very seriously.
The protesters went down the Lexington on-ramp and stormed the freeway about 7:45 PM. State Troopers closed down the freeway and re-routed traffic, but everything was calm. It remained calm until about 9:15, 90 minutes later, which is where this video shot by local activist videographers Unicorn Riot takes over judging by the emerging twilight sky.
I believe that this video speaks for itself. We have a group of people who are clearly prepared for a riot and are expecting one. You may judge their motivations as you wish. The order to disperse is given for the first time, suggesting that a 90 minute occupation of the freeway was agreed to in the communication between BLM and the St Paul Police. Most people obeyed the order and left.
Forward another 90 minutes and nothing has yet happened. Police were patient. Another 30 minutes later a call went to get the children present out first, which turned into a strange altercation – the truck taking them away is rushed and the protester blocking it were pepper sprayed and scattered with flash-bang grenades. But the kids did get away safely.
After this, another 30 minutes passed during which a total of 21 officers were injured by thrown concrete, fireworks, and other debris. Tired of standing around as targets, they then advanced on the crowd and removed them.
It would take two more hours to clear the debris from the freeway so that it could reopen. In total, the freeway was closed for six hours, 21 police were injured, and more than 100 protesters were arrested – but none were injured.
What happened this night was that the BLM protest was hijacked by people not associated with BLM – predominantly white protesters who are more interested in “smashing the system” than racial justice issues specifically. They clearly enjoyed the thrill of causing mayhem in our city, as many of them would go home to somewhere else and let the Rondo neighborhood deal with the aftermath of their poisoned relations with St Paul Police.
On that last point, however, I am not too worried. St Paul’s finest are multi-cultural and very professional. They know what went down.
What is important is that BLM’s peaceful protest was hijacked by an outside group, as local activist Rashad Turner explained the next day. And this could easily happen again. This is not about anger boiling over, this is not about justice, this is not about support for serious change. This became about punks out for the thrill of sticking it to the system and looking for an excuse for mayhem.
The problem is that the tactic of occupying a freeway is an empty one, divorced from a strategy to reach a goal. There was no endgame to it, save the protesters leaving at an appointed time. Without nearly perfect discipline, it could only have ended when the police forced an ending. That is what happened.
What is most painful here is that tragedies are sweeping St Paul and especially Dallas – two communities know for excellent and highly professional police forces. They are not the problem, and blaming “The Police” as a unit for the situation will get us nowhere.
Black Lives Matter knows this. They will work to make good things happen as surely as we are all St Paulites.
We need action now. Campaign Zero has outlined the agenda for BLM, and it is a good one as we have discussed before. If you look down the page you can see how candidates stand on their demands. We must see this action and we must see changes in the system immediately. Those are plain goals and they are achievable. We must all keep our eyes on the prize.
More to the point, white people like me who want this all to stop have to take a strong stand. Blacks and other non-majority races have felt a need to be “race players” as long as there has been a US of A. It’s time for whites to be race players, too. It’s time for us to be respectful and show everyone that we are not all clueless idiots who care only for ourselves. It’s time to say, “I’m sorry, that’s racist and inappropriate” when someone makes a racist comment around us, no matter how uncomfortable the situation is.
Most of all, it is long past time for any of us to ever accept an “Us versus Them” situation. A free people cannot build a decent civilization on boundaries of hate and mistrust.
Philandro Castille’s death was a terrible tragedy, and it will soon be in the capable hands of Ramsey County Attorney John Choi to see how justice plays out. It was also a call for all of us to wake up and demand action. Since his death, the vacuum filled by a lack of action was filled by punks hurling rocks who don’t care about the hard work we’ve done so far to overcome what racism we have.
We must all act. There must be improvement. Everything will fall apart if this continues to be about “Us versus Them”. There is only “Us” and nothing more – all of us, working together to achieve decency, respect, order, and progress.
This is not a time for empty tactics. It is a time for action. We must all do our part.