A request to display a mural depicting Philando Castile on the south wall of the St. Anthony Village Community Center was denied by the City Council at its July 14 meeting. The vote was 4 to 1; Council Member Bernard Walker was the dissenting vote.
Castile, who was Black, was killed by former St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a traffic stop in July 2016. Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter and acquitted.
The discussion about the mural ranged from residents wishing to support the young people of color in the community, to residents saying it would be divisive, to one Council Member questioning the stated motives for the mural, saying it was being proposed “for spite.”
Addressing the Council, St. Anthony Village High School student Semhar Solomon outlined what she hoped the proposed mural would achieve. “His name will forever be remembered in St. Anthony when we talk about injustice … . This is the step, the smallest step we can take moving forward together as a community.” She spoke of the mural as engendering change, growth and inclusiveness. “This begins our journey with a starting image of the equity and accountability that our community, specifically our black and brown families, strive for.”
She also said that it would serve as a reminder to the police. (The police station is adjacent to the Community Center.) “If the police want to be viewed as protectors, don’t you want them to have a daily reminder to grow?”
Solomon said she collected 3,400 signatures from within and outside the community. Following her remarks, City Manager Mark Casey read from emails from residents supporting the proposal, and about a dozen residents in attendance took the podium, most in support of and three opposing the mural. One resident weighed in supporting the mural via phone.
Several of those in support encouraged the Council to listen to and support the youth of color in the community. Speaking of her two children of color, Mel Chaput said that especially since the death of Castile, they feel “invisible.” “They don’t feel that this is a place that they belong. I don’t think this is an uncommon thought for kids of color in this community. I think this is going to give our kids hope that they’re seen and that they’re heard and that they’re valued. And I think that kind of representation is incredibly important.”
Others, including James Wald, talked about how the mural would be a symbol of anti-racism and affirm the voices and presence of people of color in St. Anthony. “What a mural like this does do is let every single person in this community note that as a city, we will not sit back and allow racism to fester. As a city we will value the voices of people of color just as much as we do their white counterparts every single day,” said Wald.
Randy Andersen spoke against the mural, saying that some people in the community “may not be comfortable with Black Lives Matter, either with the philosophy behind it, or those who represented the damage that has been as a result of it,” and thus the mural would not be healing. “No matter what their color is, no matter what their philosophy is, whatever their political view is, there should be stability and enjoyment of each other, rather than promoting symbols that may actually bring greater uncomfortableness and division and disunity in this in the community.”
Kara Ballot, who identified herself as a Native American, said that the mural would open the city up to requests for other murals. “Where does it stop? Where does the line be drawn?”
Thomas Randle was the first Council Member to speak. He was not in favor of the mural but said he was open for “some type of compromise.” “I think it will further divide us. I also represent St. Anthony as a whole, those who choose not to speak in public, afraid of repercussions, or of being bashed … on social media.” he said. “I don’t just reach out and talk to white people I talked to other people of color, other Black African-Americans specifically, but not only … .”
Randle also said he was “not pleased” with the location. “I don’t think anyone in that police department needs reminding what happened four years ago. They’ve made major strides since then.”
Council Member Bernard Walker addressed Andersen’s comments about Black Lives Matter being divisive. “That’s more rhetoric than substance. When someone says they don’t like the term, that offends me, because I am Black and my life matters.”
“The Civil Rights Movement was often called divisive and the leaders were called agitators. So I’m not puzzled that when a mural is being proposed that the same rhetoric is used again,” Walker said. He also described the mural as a manifestation of a form of justice, restorative justice.
Council Member Jan Jenson read from prepared remarks, saying that he attended the July 6 demonstration in St. Anthony, organized by Solomon, which commemorated the fourth anniversary of Castile’s death.
Jenson said he attended with the hope of broadening his perspective and taking additional steps toward repairing and reconciling relationships in the community. He said he “felt quite unnerved” by the arrival of individuals armed with rifles. He also said the tone of the rally changed then.
“Vulgar chants of ‘F- the police’ and marching on our city streets with automatic assault weapons do not represent the spirit of healing and reconciliation. Quite the opposite. Following the rally, my impression is the message of the mural is to be put up for spite, and not supporting our goal to ban systemic racism.”
St. Anthony resident Paul Verrette took the podium for a second time to explain the presence of the MN Freedom Fighters (formerly MN Freedom Riders), the armed individuals who were there to protect people in the marches, some of whom, Verrette said, had received death threats.
Council Member Walker addressed Jenson’s concern about the tone of the chants. “Let’s listen and focus on maybe why they were doing this. Often when people come across like that, they’re fed up, they’re done talking. For those of us who want to make a change, we should listen to that, not focus on how negative the words were, but let’s listen to what it means. And then say, ‘Hey, if they’re fed up, maybe we need to step up to the plate and and take the first step, initiate some kind of restorative justice, some kind of reconciliation.’”
Council member Wendy Webster said that she supported the idea of the mural but cannot support it on a publicly owned building and that she supports exploring alternatives. “How might we look at this mural as a way of generating conversation, traveling to other communities, through our faith communities, through Silverwood, and looking at other options?”
Before the vote was taken Mayor Randy Stille said that he found the evening “inspiring a lot of thought, a lot of words that ring true … so maybe let’s try and be cordial and let’s try and work together. That’s my vision.” He recognized Solomon for her passion.
The proposal was presented in the meeting packet along with information about the City’s Gifts to the City Policy, which does not allow donations with conditions of displaying names, nor allow any facilities or events named other than that of the City. Several Council members referred to that in expressing opposition to the mural. Jenson said that he could not support any kind of advertisements or political statements on city walls. Stille said that the concerns with the mural were about precedent and unintended consequences.
Stille also spoke about the mural’s possible effect on the mental health of the police. “Common sense tells me that “daily punishment of the police when they walk in that door, it’s not a good thing.”
In an interview the next day, Solomon said that she will continue to raise the mural proposal with the City. She said she wants to get “all of the city, not just the ones on social media, active and learning and understanding what I’m trying to do, because this is a community effort.”
Below: Semhar Solomon, left. Council Member Jan Jenson and resident Randy Andersen, below. (Photos by Karen Kraco) The mural was painted by volunteers during the demonstration four years after Castile was killed. See related article, pages 1 and 14. (Photo by Cynthia Sowden)