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20 days in St. Paul: inside the weeks-long protest over the killing of Philando Castile

AR-14 members march in front of the gate at the Governor’s Residence on Aug. 8.
Courtesy of AR-14
AR-14 members march in front of the gate at the Governor’s Residence on Aug. 8.

The stage was set for one final act.

From the start, organizers of the encampment that had sprung up in front of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s official residence in St. Paul — an occupation launched in response to the July 6 shooting death of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights — were worried, concerned that pressure from irritated neighbors on Summit Avenue would eventually lead to police action.

So it didn’t come as a surprise when, on Tuesday, July 12, St. Paul Police made a move to clear out the protesters, rustling activists out of their sleep at 2 a.m. with demands that any semi-permanent fixtures — tents, chairs, coolers — be removed.

The cops soon reopened Summit Avenue to traffic, but that didn’t last long. As word traveled on social media, more protesters arrived, and by midmorning, the street was blocked again.   

A week would go by before the scene repeated itself. On Tuesday, July 18, police reopened Summit Avenue, and managed to keep it open for the rest of that week. But on Sunday, July 24, protesters blocked the road again during a demonstration.

So it seemed inevitable that there would be another confrontation. As they had the previous two weeks, police made their move on early Tuesday morning, around 7 a.m. Using a bullhorn, they demanded that demonstrators clear out. But what initially seemed like a standoff soon turned into a negotiation, as St. Paul Police Commander Steve Frazer and Curtis Avent, a protester who at times acted as a kind of de-facto senior organizer for the activists at the site, held a series of sidewalk negotiations.

Frazer, a hefty, middle-aged guy who conducted himself with a kind of patient, methodical, mild-mannered authority, seemed to be able to talk to Avent, a 38-year-old who came across as a passionate but pragmatic voice whose goal, he said, was to avoid arrests.

Frazer and Avent held their last talk that morning at 10:30 a.m. in front of a gaggle of reporters. At the end of their discussion, Frazer laid down his conditions: “From here out, if anything — chairs, tarps, or anything — are brought into the footprint, arrest will be made on a case by case basis, just so you know that,” he said. “This is the way it will be from here. If it’s like this, it can remain this way. You can have a thousand people. You can have 10,000 people from the river to Wisconsin, as long as it says within the laws and ordinances that are here.”

It seemed like a workable compromise had been struck. While Frazer and Avent didn’t give the impression of liking each other, a deal was a deal, and Avent and the other activists began to gather up their things. Police let a pickup truck and minivan drive through to the encampment so protesters could haul larger items away. A few minutes later, when Frazer stopped by to check on things, he actually thanked the activists for keeping up their end of the deal.

And then it all fell apart. Within minutes, police had arrested four protesters, a move that kicked off an extended cycle of action and reaction: Protesters would block the street, police would make arrests, and more protesters would arrive – a sequence that would repeat itself for the next 24 hours, until the site had been cleared. After almost 20 days, and dozens of arrests, the longest protest in St. Paul’s recent history was over.

•••

Sometimes, over the course of those 20 days, as the media coverage of the protest waned, it was easy to forget they were there: a motley, racially diverse crew of mostly young activists in their late teens and early 20s. They had camped out with their signs and drums, chanting and singing, and occasionally dancing, in front of the memorial they had constructed for Castile, the 32-year-old black man shot by St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez during a traffic stop on July 6 — an incident memorialized by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who live-streamed the shooting’s grisly aftermath, narrating her boyfriend’s death.

That night, protesters gathered at the scene of the shooting, on Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights, before marching to the Governor's Residence in St. Paul.

“Part of what we wanted to convey is that this shooting is not isolated to St. Anthony Police or to Falcon Heights, Minnesota,” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP. “This problem is systemic, and we have a very poor track record in the state of Minnesota for holding officers accountable when they kill unarmed civilians.”

And though the 2015 protests at the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th Precinct headquarters, which followed the killing of Jamar Clark, set a precedent, the Castile occupation — thanks to the sheer visceral power of Reynolds’ video — drew the world’s eyes to the police reform and racial equity movements in way that previous cases or protests hadn’t. Even more important, perhaps, was how the gathering served to organize and transform many of the people who participated, midwifing a core group of young activists who have already gone on to hold and plan several more demonstrations.

“It demonstrated the will of the people in fighting for justice, in that they weren’t going to allow the murder of Philando Castile to fade away with breaking news cycles,” said Levy-Pounds. “That they made a sustained effort to keep this on the radar screen of the people of Minnesota and the people in this country.”

•••

The day after the Castile shooting, roughly 4,500 people marched from J.J. Hill Elementary, where Castile had worked in the cafeteria, to the Governor's Residence. Summit Avenue was packed from end to end, and activists stood on the concrete ledge at the top of the mansion's gate to address the crowd. A native group in Aztec regalia presented a dance in tribute. In the days that followed, St. Paul Police kept their distance from the protesters who gathered in front of the mansion, maintaining squad cars on either end of the street, but letting supporters and reporters through.

Occupations are different from protests in several important respects. Because the activists stay in one place, there is plenty of time to kill. Politicized young people “woke,” to use the popular phrase, have the time to talk to each other, and to realize they’re not alone. Near the sidewalks at the Governor's Residence, and under the shade of the big leafy ash trees, a bunch of people in their late teens and early 20s — many with common passions and perspectives — had time to connect.

“There was a lot of brilliant minds and amazing ideas,” says Adrianna Sharp Papagiannopoulos, a 21-year-old activist from St. Paul who is known as “Athena.” “There was so many people from so many different places. If we weren’t able to have this safe space where we were all there for the same reason, we would have never met these people or made these connections and shared these ideas to move forward with it.”

Athena’s mother is Greek, her father half black and half Native American. He was murdered in 1994, “shot and thrown in the street to die,” before she was even born. She only found out what happened to him when she was 10. When she read about Philando Castile’s case, she identified with Diamond Reynolds' 4-year-old daughter, Dae’Ann,  who was in the back seat when Castile was shot.

“Philando’s death was a tragedy, but people are forgetting the police took away that little girl’s innocence and how she will perceive the police for the rest of her life,” Athena said. “The people that are supposed to protect and serve her are the people that murdered someone in front of her.”

Athena was at the mansion nearly every day. She and a group of newly formed friends would pass the time by making banners, singing, listening to music (Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” was one constant), or just listening whenever someone wanted to talk to the group. By the end of those 20 days, she had teamed up with 13 other young people of color to form a new youth-led group, Awareness and Resistance, or as it became known, AR-14. “It was like eggs hatching, everything was coming together.”

•••

The beginning of the end came when a protester threw a sign.

On the morning of July 26, after Frazer and Avent had made their deal, officers put “No parking” signs in front the Governor’s Residence in preparation of reopening the street. The officers were about to walk away, it appeared, when activist Eli Lartey grabbed one of the cardboard signs and threw it on the street. An officer rushed toward him, and Lartey ran back to the protesters who were seated near the gate of the mansion. One of them yelled for the others to come and “link up,” and everyone  — cops, protesters and media — rushed toward the gate.  

The protesters sat down, their linked arms together. It seemed the moment that they had feared had come: They were all about to be arrested, and the police were going to take down their signs and the memorial. A line of officers, some wearing black rubber gloves, some with plastic zip-ties hanging from their belts, stood above them. An officer on a bullhorn told the crowd gathering to backup. Protesters started to chant, “The world is watching, the world is watching.”

An officer pointed at Lartey and said, “You’re under arrest, you have to come with us.” He repeated himself, according to activists who were there, but Lartey did not comply.

The police started to pull at the protesters who were linked up, trying to separate them, amid a din of screams and yells. The police arrested Lartey and at least three others, including Jacob Ladda, an activist who had become one of the more public faces of the occupation.

The incident seemed to be a turning point.

“Up until that point, things had been relatively calm,” said Sgt. Mike Ernster, the public information officer with the St. Paul Police Department. “When [Lartey] picked up that sign and threw it, that was one of the more physical acts of that entire morning. If he’s reached the level where he is going to throw that sign in the street, what’s his next thing?”

Not all the activists in the group were experienced organizers, and from their accounts of the scene, it seems that there was a breakdown in communication within the group at that crucial juncture. When reached over Facebook, Lartey said that when he grabbed the sign, he didn’t know about the agreement between Avent and Commander Frazer. He thought the police were about to move in to take down the makeshift Castile memorial protesters had put up, and was surprised when he heard the audio of Frazer agreeing to let the protesters stay on the sidewalk.

As the morning gave way to afternoon, the protesters' numbers dwindled. When police moved to clear the road again at around 12:30 p.m., an officer sprayed “chemical irritant” — mace — in the face of a 16-year-old boy.

Ernster said police only used the mace to prevent further escalation. “The mace is one of those things where somebody is starting to step over the line of yelling something and they are starting to get to a physical point where you feel like a threat is intimate, a threat as in a physical attack,” he said.

Levy-Pounds, who witnessed the macing incident, said she was “disturbed” by the incident. “I saw them mace a kid … just like they were spraying insects or something with how much mace they sprayed in this young man’s face.”

The protesters were peaceful that day, but they weren’t always friendly. Sometime after the macing, FOX 9 reporter Karen Scullin filmed a video of a protester standing only inches from an officer as he berated him. The officer holds a large wooden stick and looks straight ahead as the man talks. “I can identify a coward a mile away. … back in the day, they castrated men like you,” the man tells the officer. “Men like you were not allowed to give birth to children. This is pathetic, you mace children?” The man saying that in the video doesn’t identify himself, and he wasn’t part of the occupation on a daily basis.

Ernster says that the taunts didn’t influence the arrests, but he acknowledged that they did impact officers. He said the department tried to ensure officers kept a cool head by frequenting change shifts, so no one officer had to face off with protesters for very long. 

“I don’t think you can be a human and be officer and not be affected by things they are saying,” he said. “When they are talking about what they want to do to your family or what they want to do to you personally, all these personal attacks, it’s going to affect you.”

For Amanda Moore, a 19-year-old protester from the east side of St. Paul, the insults officers received have to be seen in a larger context. “Honestly, the main reason a lot of insults were being thrown is we are sick of [police brutality and the daily interactions between protesters and police]. We are sick of it, we are sick of worrying about ourselves, our brothers and sisters, our family members, and half of these officers were literally taunting us the entire time we were living at that encampment.”

Late that Tuesday afternoon, state highway patrol officers, who are in charge of security at the Governor’s Residence, took down the Castile memorial, a decision St. Paul Police had no input in, said Ernster. 

Avent was there when it happened. He, like others at the scene, said an officer ripped Castile’s photo in half while taking it down. “Not one amongst them had the decency to speak out against it or stop it from happening,” he said.

•••

With all the back and forth between police and protesters, one could easily to get caught up in the tactics, or the he-said-she-said about signs, mace and the taunts and forget that everyone was there because a man had been shot and killed 20 days prior.

But for a moment during the last full day of the occupation, a man named John Thompson arrived to help make that clear again. He wore his blue janitor’s uniform from St. Paul Public Schools, where he had worked with Philando Castile for nine years.

He addressed the crowd, and his voice, raw and full of emotion, filled the space as he paced back and forth. There were lots of speeches given during the occupation, but nobody held the crowd's attention like Thompson. “They are the people that killed my friend. Now they want to surround us like we violent,” Thompson said, pointing to the line of Minnesota State Patrol officers across the street.

Even the officers seemed to be paying attention to Thompson's speech. A few shifted uncomfortably. “I’m standing here because I’m Philando Castile right here,” Thompson continued. “Yes, I work the same job. The same type of man. I’m him. I’m Philando. It’s his voice coming out of my mouth right now. We don’t want a standoff with police. We don’t want to fight them. We don’t want to be here. We dedicated to this shit because it means something. Where we going? Nowhere. We ain't got nowhere else to go.”

•••

On that last day, there were several more waves of arrests in the afternoon. Police would reopen the street, protesters would block it, police would arrest them. More protesters would arrive and the pattern would repeat itself. By the morning of Wednesday, July 27, almost 70 people had been arrested, mostly charged with minor offenses like unlawful assembly or disorderly conduct. Athena, the young activist who helped found AR-14, stayed until about 5 a.m, Wednesday, when she and her group finally left. She felt “heartbroken,” yet resolute.

“I understand that you have to fail a bunch of times to get your point across, so I don’t think the mansion was a failure,” she said.

Looking back on it, Levy-Pounds said she was proud of the people who participated. “Twenty days is a long time in what was sometimes extreme weather, a long time to be committed to showing up in one location in solidarity as a community, demanding justice for Philando Castile,” she said.

Another thing Levy-Pounds noted as part of the legacy of the occupation: the diverse makeup of the protesters. “You had folks from all racial and ethnic backgrounds present at the governor's mansion on a regular basis, a large percentage of whom were white Minnesotans,” she said.

Isabel “Rowan” Kuhnle, 16, was one of those white Minnesotans who joined the group. When she first arrived, she saw a guitar case with a sign on it that said “Play me if you want to.” Later, she remembering standing in circle and listening as everyone shared a story.

“It felt like more of a community than I’ve ever experienced in my whole life,” Kuhnle said. “I’ve never been in a group where I felt comfortable walking up to anybody and saying ‘Hi’ and introducing myself, where as there, at one point we all hugged each other and said I love you to strangers, and that was really powerful.”

Members of AR-14
Courtesy of AR-14
Members of AR-14 including Chauntyll Allen, second from the left, and Adrianna Papagiannopoulos, third from the left.

AR-14, and other groups, such as Justice For Philando Castile, have continued to hold protests. They participated in a brief occupation near Falcon Heights city hall from July 28 to Aug. 1, and six of the young activists were arrested on Aug. 7 when they tried to begin a “People’s Park” occupation at Carty Park. The arrest happen as they had begun to screen a movie. St. Paul Police said the park was closed, but activists noted that police were not as strict about park closing times for a Pokemon Go event at Rice Park a few days later.

The group has drawn lessons from their time at the Governor's Residence, like having more materials ready to explain their cause, and making clear plans and objectives for each action. They have been helped in that effort by Chauntyll Allen, a 42-year-old veteran organizer from St. Paul who has served as one of the group’s informal mentors.

“You can tell they are really passionate about justice, they’re all about this,” said Allen. “I just keep seeing more and more growth out of these youth. They created the bond. They had each other, and they aren’t going to separate.”

Athena draws a stark with contrast with how prepared the young activists in the group are now as compared with when they first met during the occupation. “It’s very easy for anyone to stand there holding a sign saying 'I want justice,' but it’s completely different for youth of all ages to come together, 'OK, this is our plan, this is how we’re going to go about it,' ” she said.

AR-14 is planning  more actions over the next month. None of it, Athena notes, would have happened without the Governor's Residence occupation. “If I wasn’t at the mansion for as long as I was, we would never have all met and we would have never formed.”

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