A City of St. Anthony snowplow barred northbound traffic on Silver Lake Road July 6 as a large crowd gathered in front of City Hall to mark the fourth year since the 2016 killing of Philando Castile by former St. Anthony Police officer Jeronimo Yanez.
The sun beat down on the heads of some 300 people, most of them wearing face masks, as they watched an Aztec dance group, Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli, heard rappers tell stories in rhyme of being stopped by police for “driving while Black,” and listened to Valerie Castile, Philando’s mother, recount the trauma of his death. Others on stage included Anthony Galloway, Monique Walker, Mack OC, Joseph Davis, Indi from Revolution Radio, Chauntyl Allen, John Thompson, Loshira Garraway, and Jiccarra Hollman. While there were many persons of color in attendance, most of the crowd was white.
The demonstration was organized by 16-year-old Semhar Solomon. A senior this fall at St. Anthony High School, she said she is passionate about getting her city’s white population to “see” people of color in the community. “I want to start a conversation about race in St. Anthony,” she said. “Things [like Castile’s death] don’t just happen in North and South Minneapolis. They happen here, too. This is very relevant to the suburbs.”
Solomon started her campaign to hold a rally to remember Castile by emailing. And emailing. And emailing. She began making connections and those connections led her to others. Soon she had a full roster of speakers and performers lined up. Residents lent her tents to use to distribute water and register voters. Volunteers painted a large mural of Philando Castile, which served as a focal point for the demonstration. “I had a lot of help,” she said.
She was pleased with the result. “The numbers were amazing, though I had hoped for even more,” she said. “Seeing all those people listening and engaging was very cool.”
Throughout the three-hour rally, speakers consistently called for change. “American change starts with us,” said Indi from Revolution Radio. “There is real power within the people sitting in front us today. It [the time] will never be as right as it is today.”
Valerie Castile spoke about her son’s death. She talked about how Yanez opened fire on Castile and his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, and asked, “What is so frightening about a Black family in a car? This is not how God intended us to co-exist.”
She noted that 400 Black people had been killed by police since 1984, 87 of them since 2014. “It’s 2020,” she said. “There are 400 women who can’t get their children back. It’s time to change the laws.” She brought the crowd to its feet when she said, “There’s no reason to take a man’s life, but a lot of excuses.”
After she spoke, the crowd was asked to stand in silence, fists up, for 62 seconds, the total time of Castile’s interaction with Yanez.
City Council Member Bernard Walker was present for the speeches and performances, although he did not participate in the march which followed. During a Zoom interview following the demonstration, he said it was important to remember what happened to Philando Castile. “The Jewish community went through a hellish time in Europe during the Nazi occupation,” he said. “The Jewish diaspora today says, ‘We need to acknowledge what happened to us so it doesn’t happen again.’ That’s what’s happening here. We need to deal with the issue and see how we can make it better.”
As the speeches gave way to a march that went up 33rd Avenue NE to Highcrest Road, to 37th Avenue NE and back to Silver Lake Road, some St. Anthony residents were disturbed by the sight of men dressed in all-black militia-style uniforms carrying handguns and assault rifles. They patrolled the area, moving among the crowd. Their uniforms identified them as the MN Freedom Fighters, a community patrol group formed originally as Minnesot Freedom Riders two days after George Floyd was murdered. The group includes white as well as Black members. Their Facebook page (Minnesota Freedom Riders) describes them as “an elite security unit dedicated to protect the citizens and businesses of the Minneapolis urban areas. Our objective is not to be the police, but the bridge to link the police and the community together.”
St. Anthony Police Chief Jon Mangseth said he had received “numerous” calls and emails about the MN Freedom Fighters presence at the demonstration. “They were not hired by us,” he said. “They did not consult with us.” He said the city had a half-dozen of its officers out monitoring the demonstration. “Our main concern was that someone would come along in a vehicle and plow into people, like that semi-tanker on 35W.”
Walker said he had also received phone calls and emails from concerned residents. “A lot of residents are afraid of any large protest. They don’t like bad language. They say St. Anthony doesn’t need that kind of attention.” Others, he said, are looking for confirmation that their beliefs are ok. He said he didn’t see the Freedom Fighters himself.
“Life teaches us that we don’t always get to choose what happens to our communities,” he said. “An officer in our community shot an individual in 2016. To push it away and say we don’t want to be reminded is insensitive.”
He said people need to actively listen to protesters, not just hear them. “When someone says, ‘No justice, no peace. F— the police,’ they’re really saying, ‘I have not been heard. My words have fallen on deaf ears. I’m done with this conversation.’ It’s an expression of a raw emotion.”
Walker said people, like the white protesters who attended the rally, need to become ambassadors who can speak to power. “Don’t go to a protest to assuage your white guilt. Don’t do things cosmetically. Don’t come to Blacks seeking help. Look at the issues of policing, housing and racism. You have all the tools you need to do something about justice, equality, fairness and unity.”
Semhar Solomon said her next project is to advocate for the Philando Castile mural to be installed on the south exterior wall of St. Anthony City Hall. (See related story, page 3.) For Solomon, “One conversation is never enough. Housing, workplace, everyday life needs to be held to the same standard. Help us move forward in a positive way. Staying comfortable isn’t always good. We can all grow.”
Below: Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile, spoke at a demonstration in St. Anthony remembering him July 6. About 300 joined in the march. MN Freedom Fighters, a community patrol group affiliated with NAACP, at left, and Semhar Solomon speaking at the demonstration. (Photos by Cynthia Sowden)