A history lesson. A legal briefing. Stories of personal connections with Philando Castile and pleas to council members to put themselves in others’ shoes – the shoes of the children Castile taught, the shoes of young black men afraid of the police, the shoes of parents who have lost children as a result of police action. All of these were offered during the community forum at the August 23 St. Anthony Village City Council meeting.
At the meeting’s close, a few teens and young adults planted themselves within a foot or two of the council desk, looking council members in the eye, fists pumping in the air, chanting along with others in the room: “It is our a duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
The three-hour meeting was packed with people and emotion as speakers took the podium to protest the return to work of Officer Jeronimo Yanez and press for action from the mayor and council members.
The day after the meeting, the news was posted on the city’s web site that Yanez had been returned to administrative leave, and that his status with the department will be reviewed when the investigation of the incident is complete. “Out of respect to the sensitive nature of the tragic incident and the concerns from the community, the Mayor, City Council and City Manager have decided to make this change,” the message read.
Mageen Caines, one of the organizers of the group St. Anthony Villagers for Community Action (SAVCA), said she was pleased with the Council’s actions and leadership in this instance. “We are still in a process, we have more to do together, but to give credit where credit is due, the Council acted within a day to respond to at least one of our concerns,” she said.
There were other signs that the council members have been responding. Bonnie Brever reported that she had attended, at the invitation of a SAVCA member, a discussion of the book A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota at the Ramsey County Library in Roseville. Brever said that the day after that discussion “the light went on” for her, that while before she was questioning the “how” of doing so, she was now eager to move forward with conversations about race in the community. “It’s my hope we can have conversations with our residents of color to hear their stories and understand their journeys. … Together we can build trust and together can call ourselves a true community exemplifying a revised Minnesota Nice. “
Council member Jan Jenson had also attended the library discussion, and council member Randy Stille said he had attended a similar discussion in Minneapolis. Mayor Jerry Faust said he had found helpful ideas in the book, which he said he read cover to cover.
The council meeting was the third since Yanez’s killing of Philando Castile and was almost a week after St. Anthony Police Chief Jon Mangseth announced on August 17 that Yanez returned to desk duty earlier that week. Many of the concerns raised during the forum were directed not only at Yanez being back at work but also at Mangseth’s statements about Yanez quoted in an Associated Press interview. “He has a real sound ability when it comes to communicating and relating to people,” Mangseth was quoted as saying. He also was reported as portraying Yanez as level-headed.
“Your officer was still yelling expletives at a dying man in a car shot four times. That is not cool and level-headed. The way he spoke to the other two people, the other two passengers in that car was not clear and level-headed. But your city is saying it’s okay that he’s back on the force,” said Curtis Avent, referring to the video that Castile’s girlfriend streamed from the car immediately after the shooting.
He also asked them to imagine the elementary school children with whom Castile had worked. “How do you explain to them that the officer that shot this man that they look up to, without the investigation even being over, is back to duty? What kind of message does that tell them about the police?”
Avent and other speakers were from organizations such as Justice Occupation for Philando, the group that has been active in many of the governor’s mansion and district attorney protests; members from Merriam Park Neighbors for Peace and Roseville Racial Equity Task Force also attended and spoke. Also among the speakers were a parent of a student at J.J. Hill Elementary school where Castile had worked and one of Castile’s co-workers.
Members of SAVCA had met members of these other groups at the August 19 protest in front of City Hall, and throughout the meeting, there was an atmosphere of mutual support, with much snapping of fingers to show appreciation of what was being said, with only one intervention by Faust, asking for quiet.
On August 23 as well as at the previous two council meetings, many of the speakers expressed impatience with what they said was the Mayor’s and Council’s inaction. Faust had said at the two previous council meetings that change was going to take time, and at the August 23 meeting he compared the timeline for achieving equity to the five years that it has taken to come up with a plan to mitigate flooding at Mirror Lake, an item of business at the meeting.
Ariane Kokes, a Columbia Heights resident who owns an educational arts business in St. Anthony, contrasted the council’s response to the shooting with what she called a rapid response in Columbia Heights to negative comments about Muslims that appeared on (now former) school board member Grant Nichols social media account. She acknowledged that the Heights incident was of a “different caliber” but said that there was almost immediate formation of working groups that were representative of the community. “For me, hearing a cancelled city council meeting immediately following this incident was a disturbing response to the death of a human being,“ she said.
Kokes said she has questioned her choice of St. Anthony for her business, which she said draws families from throughout the metro area, many of whom are of color. “I realized that a place where an officer could take a life and not offer first aid in front of a 4-year-old girl was maybe only safe for the right kind of people.”
St. Anthony resident Kelly Wilson presented historical perspective. “‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘never’,” she said, quoting from Martin Luther King Jr.’s A Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he addressed eight white clergymen who had written a letter urging civil rights protesters to wait for the courts to deal with the issues. She compared the mayor and council’s reaction to the shooting to the words of the clergymen. “This letter goes down in history as the quintessential lesson of what not to do in confronting oppression and injustice. Please do not make the same mistake,” said Wilson.
New Brighton resident Julie Pierce said that it’s urgent that Faust’s leadership help stem the “hatred, blame, and ignorance,” with which she said some members of the community, in person and on social media, are reacting to the protests and the efforts of the group St. Anthony Villagers for Community Action (SAVCA).
Pierce described a grocery store encounter with a woman whom she said confronted her three times as she shopped about her participation in the August 19 protest, in the presence of Pierce’s 8-year-old biracial daughter. “I fear if silence continues from you the divide will only widen,” she said to Faust. “Please allow us to help educate you on these issues so that you may assist in educating your villagers.”
As at previous meetings, SAVCA members called for community involvement in policing issues. St. Anthony resident and SAVCA member Kristine Lizdas, an attorney who works with domestic violence cases spoke of the lack of checks and balances on police, citing legal cases to make the point that wronged citizens have little means of redress and that citizen oversight is one way to help balance the power of police.
Nancy Robinett, also a resident and from SAVCA, read a list of requests she was going to send to Police Chief Jon Mangseth, asking for information about policing practices, training, and recordkeeping, and his approach to policing. Later in the week Robinett said that Mangseth agreed to a meeting with SAVCA’s police advisory committee, which Robinett chairs.
When the chanting began after the meeting was adjourned, and some of the attendees advanced toward the council desk, Faust and Stille picked up their papers, and stepped back from their desks. Brever and council member Hal Gray remained in their seats, looking the young people in the eye. Many others in the room were chanting, loudly. After the chanting stopped, some people had tears in their eyes.
After the meeting there were conversations and handshakes between council members and forum speakers; some of the conversations were about continuing the conversation about race.