At the first St. Anthony Village City Council meeting since the shooting of Philando Castile, council members listened as 20 area residents talked about how the shooting affected them, about their personal experiences with racial issues, and about the changes they would like to see effected in how the city approaches policing and addressing racial justice and equity.
Many of the speakers said they were angry or disappointed in what they perceived as silence on the part of city officials after the shooting, but the tone of the meeting was respectful–and very emotional. Some speakers’ voices broke, as did those of some council members as each responded at the end of the public forum. There were audible sniffles as others in the nearly-full room wiped away tears during the course of the evening.
The perspective of the citizens speaking ranged from those who said that this was their first awakening to racial issues to those who said they grapple with racial concerns regularly, being persons of color or having children or other family members who are.
“I’m nervous because I’ve never done this before, and that’s part of the problem,” said St. Anthony resident Kate Martin. “I’ve wanted my community to be one that is compassionate and equitable, but as a white suburban middle class suburban homeowner, I’ve let myself become comfortable with the status quo,” she said.
“It’s clear that I and we as a village have failed in many ways. Our intentions may not be based on bigotry, but certainly it’s clear that the outcomes of our actions – and in my case, my inaction – proves that there’s significant work needs to be done,” Martin said.
Martin and others called for measures for greater citizen participation, including creation of a human rights commission and a citizen advisory board to review police policies and oversee the police force, for the reopening of the police chief search and including community input, and for community forums on racial equity issues.
Speakers encouraged the Council to consult with leaders of racial justice and civil rights groups and to bring in experts to examine city data to make sure policies weren’t adversely affecting minorities. Former Northeast Minneapolis resident Julie Pierce, now living in New Brighton, asked the Council to accept the help of residents who recently have mobilized to take action.
“There is no expectation from the public that you attempt change or even know where to start on your own. None of us have all the answers. But we are here in front of you, a group of highly educated, impassioned people willing to navigate these difficult issues with you,” Pierce said.
She was referring to St. Anthony Villagers for Community Action, an action group organized via Facebook after the July 6 shooting. Members of the group have met several times and have focused on racial justice issues and civic engagement. Many of those who spoke at the Council meeting are members of the group.
Rossi Bistodeau Cannon, whom the group chose to lead off the public forum, described her own motivation in speaking out. “I cannot bear the thought of someone’s black child growing up afraid of our police or believing that people assume that he or she is bad. And I cannot bear the thought of my white children growing up and finding out that I did nothing,” she said.
The Council, which is comprised of all white members, and those attending the meeting, who numbered about 70 and were almost all white, listened as Mali Franzese, a dark-skinned electrical engineering student at Arizona State, talked about what he said was still a painful memory. He had been arrested a few blocks away from his current St. Anthony residence when he was sixteen – he had been accused of stealing his own car, he said.
New Brighton resident Robert Jones, whose children are in the St. Anthony-New Brighton schools, explained that being black shapes his daily decisions – what to wear, what route to take to work. “I have that fear, I live that fear every day,” he said.
After saying that he loved the community and appreciated the support he’s received since the shooting, Jones said, ”For so long, being a black male with these issues that you face, you feel like you’re on island.”
White parents of children of color also spoke of their concerns and fears.
Mitch Martin of Saint Anthony is afraid for his son’s life, he said. “I have a very dark black son and it scares the heck out of me to know that he might not make it home one night. No matter what I tell him to do, to be nice to the police officer, say yes sir, no sir, he might not make it home.”
Jones’s wife, Julie Pierce, talked about their biracial daughter’s reactions to the shooting. “Her safety bubble burst,” Pierce said. “She needs reassurance that you care about her life,” she said to the Council.
Except for approval of items on the consent agenda, Mayor Jerry Faust chose to devote almost all of the Council meeting to the public forum. The only other action that was taken at the meeting was Faust’s directing City Manager Mark Casey to look into establishing a working group looking at police policies. Faust said that the group would need to involve the cities of Falcon Heights and Lauderdale, since St. Anthony provides policing for them.
Faust addressed some of the points raised in the public forum. He said that the officials were not in hiding, nor being afraid of being sued, as some speakers suggested. “We’ve been quiet because we’ve been working to fix the community,” he said. He also said that the Council will take the criticism about lack of communication to heart and “do more for it.”
During the course of his remarks, Faust described or alluded to behind-the-scenes actions taken by himself or the city manager since the shooting: speaking with Governor Dayton, with black religious leaders, a national police officer association and the Department of Justice. He said the city has been talking with communities throughout the state about policing.
Change wasn’t going to happen fast, though, he said, acknowledging that those who pressed for more urgency would not be happy to hear that. “It won’t be fast, but we will be better in a month, in two months, in a year, 10 years. I do believe we are on the cusp of something here that is as great as I’ve seen in my life,” he said, mentioning race riots and his service in Vietnam in the late 1960s.
The mayor also addressed speakers’ requests for instituting use of police body cams, suggesting that recent legislation dealing with related privacy issues paved the way for implementation, which he said probably will happen in a couple months. He denied that the city used traffic violations as a revenue-raising enterprise. With respect to police qualifications and training, Faust said that they are still compiling the data, much of it in the form of paper records, to determine where the training is needed, but that police have been through de-escalation training and that they understand racial profiling.
Before Faust spoke, he asked the council members to each speak first – and later explained that they had not been prepared to make remarks, as he usually does not ask them to address the public at meetings.
All the council members spoke about their personal reaction to the shooting, and some mentioned the toll that the shooting has taken on city personnel. “Our staff is at wit’s ends. We ask for patience, until we can get our legs under [us],” said Council Member Randy Stille.
Most of the council members mentioned that they welcomed the offer of help from community members, and said that there would be change. “Hold us accountable. We don’t have a history of avoiding conflict, we don’t have a history of sitting on our hands and not doing something, and we won’t be starting now,” said council member Hal Gray.
Gray also brought up different types of biases in society in addition to racial bias, such as bias with respect to gender or sexual preference, and the importance of examining one’s own biases.
Council member Bonnie Brever said that the shooting brought up the same “tragic feelings” that she remembers from when her parents were killed in a car accident 30 years ago. Brever said that she grew up in a small town and was a product of white privilege, but also that her Korean-born adopted daughter will be marrying a black man in a month. Her voice breaking, she said that she hope he doesn’t have to have experiences like those described by Jones and Franzese during the meeting. “I don’t want that to happen here or anywhere.”
For Nancy Robinett, a member of St. Anthony Villagers for Community Action who watched the livestreamed meeting from out of town, the remarks of the mayor and the council members were “not civic leadership,” even if their words were heartfelt, she said in a phone conversation.
“As our elected officials, I would have expected there to be a better response in a public forum that was set up to talk about how our city needs to respond to the shooting,” she said, mentioning that the meeting was held 20 days after the shooting, not in its immediate aftermath.
About Bonnie Brever’s bringing up feelings about her parents’ fatal accident in conjunction with Castile’s death, Robinett said, “There is no way in which those are equivalent stories and I think it dishonors the shooting, the death of Mr. Castile. It dishonors what our city should be thinking about. … I’m not at all trying to minimize Ms. Brever’s personal loss or the poignancy of her story, but that was not the point of this meeting.”
During his remarks, the mayor said that he told Governor Dayton that St. Anthony was not a racist city because its voters voted for Rep. Keith Ellison five times in spite of being a predominantly white community. Faust said the governor responded that it was a strange way to look at things. Robinett had concerns about the statement, too: “Saying that St. Anthony does not have racism because we voted for Keith Ellison was misguided at best and shows a significant lack of awareness of racism and of disparate outcomes.”
Just days after the meeting, there were signs that the remarks in the public forum had been heard. City Manager Mark Casey and Chief of Police Jon Mangseth attended the meeting of St. Anthony Villagers for Community Action on Thursday July 29, according to Mageen Caines, one of the group’s founders and principal organizers. Casey and Mangseth, along with the other group members, participated in a training exercise on unconscious bias and the discussion that followed, Caines said. She said the group also talked with the police chief about ways of communicating with residents and encouraging their engagement, including the possibility of creating fliers to be handed out the annual Night to Unite neighborhood gatherings on Tuesday, August 2. At the Council meeting, the mayor said that city officials will be visiting those gatherings.
Also on that Thursday, the city added an email notification option for receiving emails on topics related to police community engagement and sent an email to people who were already subscribed to other city email notifications letting them know about this option.
To subscribe to the police community engagement Listserv, go the city’s web site at www.ci.saint-anthony.mn.us/, and click on “Email Notifications,” which is the last tab in the vertical menu on the left. On that page there is a checkbox for “Police Community Engagement” notifications, along with other options. (Below that, on that page, and also on the Stay Connected tab on the web site’s top menu, there are links to “Police Updates,” which is a separate email notification list that provides updates from the police department itself.)
Since shortly after the shooting, the home page of the city web site has included a video statement from the mayor and, more recently, an open letter from the mayor. Recordings of City Council meetings are also available by clicking on “Watch City Meetings Here” on the right side of the home page.