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'Chaos or community'? Let's choose community

REUTERS/Adam Bettcher
At about 9 p.m. a police officer informed those of us on the bridge that they were in negotiations with the protesters to make some arrests and that then the freeway would be cleared without incident.

On July 6, one day after Alton Sterling was shot by police at point blank range in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Philando Castile was killed by a police officer after a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. These events left me — like all of us — bewildered and sad. They also left me thinking I needed to do something to help change the course we are on as a nation.

Jeff Kolnick

On July 7, I attended the demonstration at the J.J. Hill Montessori School. Then I marched to the governor’s mansion with hundreds of peaceful and grieving citizens. All of us demanded solutions to the ongoing tragedy of a criminal justice system embedded in a 400-year history of racial oppression. The mood at the school and at the governor’s mansion was hopeful in the face of enormous sadness. Everyone who attended will long remember chanting: “I Believe That We Will Win!” 

On July 9, I answered a call to join a protest at the governor’s mansion. When I arrived, the demonstration had just begun to move west on Summit Avenue and then turned right on Lexington Avenue. I joined the march not knowing where it was heading. There were hundreds of people, including many families with children. I had not expected to march, and asked those around me if they knew the route. None of us did, but we assumed that the march would loop back to the governor’s mansion. When the march reached Concordia Avenue, hundreds of us entered the freeway on foot. My sense is that very few of us anticipated this, including me. I knew when I walked onto the freeway that I was breaking the law, but swept up in the emotion of the moment and emboldened by the feeling of power that comes from acting in community, I decided to continue.

The assembled walked slowly from Lexington to about 100 yards west of the Dale Street off-ramp. At that point, march leaders advised that those not willing to risk arrest should exit the freeway at Dale. Not having prepared myself to commit civil disobedience, I walked off the freeway and onto the Dale Street Bridge, where I joined a group of about 25 onlookers. It was about 8:15 p.m. or so when I left the freeway. At about 9 p.m. a police officer informed those of us on the bridge that they were in negotiations with the protesters to make some arrests and that then the freeway would be cleared without incident. He expected things to end shortly and peacefully.

Peaceful and calm at 9:40

Around 9:15 p.m., I walked to the Griggs Street pedestrian bridge, where I joined a much larger group of peaceful onlookers. I stayed on the bridge until about 9:40 p.m., when I left for home. When I left, the scene was calm. The last thing I saw was a small group of protesters who chanted and danced on the eastbound lanes of the freeway. I can say that as late as 9:40 p.m. I witnessed no violence of any kind. Rather, I saw well-disciplined protesters and extremely well-disciplined and professional law-enforcement officers.

On Sunday, July 10, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman called the demonstration on I-94 a riot. It was not a riot. That a small number of people — unaffiliated with Black Lives Matter — acted in ways that are criminal and completely unacceptable does not make what happened after I left a riot.

On Monday, July 11, Mayor Chris Coleman was questioned on MPR about his use of the word riot. Coleman explained that “the definition in Minnesota state statute of riot is three or more people gathered and engaging in the kind of activity that we saw. Up to the point where people were peaceful … where they were sitting in the freeway, they may have been unlawfully assembling, but they weren’t rioting. The minute that brick was thrown” and fireworks were thrown at police “that’s riot.” Just because a statute allows you to charge people with rioting, does not make something a riot. I hope and pray that St. Paul does not see a genuine riot. I respectfully refer the mayor to the Kerner Commission Report to help us distinguish between unacceptably violent behavior and a riot.

The use of the term riot is unnecessarily inflammatory and only serves to further divide the protesters and their allies from city authorities. It also diverts attention away from the conditions that necessitated the protests and will make addressing those conditions more challenging. 

I agree with Coleman and Chief of Police Todd Axtell that the law-enforcement officers on the scene were remarkably professional and conducted themselves admirably under extremely difficult circumstances.

I will make no excuses for those who used violence. I condemn their actions as stupid, counterproductive, and an example of everything that is wrong with this country. At the same time, I think that law enforcement and the mayor should consider how they might have acted in ways that could have cleared the freeway without incident.

Had the move to make the arrests come earlier, much earlier, say at 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m., there would have been no violence. It was not the people who walked onto the freeway who engaged in violence. It was a combination of a small number of people who were not affiliated with BLM and self-described anarchists.

With a less intense show of force, the crowd would have dispersed much sooner, fewer undisciplined elements would have been on the scene, and the arrests that a small number of the protesters insisted upon would have been made without incident.

How do we overcome suspicions and heal wounds?

That the rhetoric describing this moment is becoming more, and not less, intense (for example, calling the events a riot), shows that we are rapidly unraveling as a nation. How can we start to overcome our suspicions of each other and heal our wounds?

One key is to get out of our cocoons and start living with and trying to understand people who are not of our "tribe." NPR commentator Gene Demby reported on a study from the Public Religion Research Institute in 2013 that asked people to identify people they'd had important conversations with in the last six months. “They found … that … the social networks of white people were 91 percent white. In fact, three-quarters of all white people had entirely white friend groups. They were not talking to people of color at all.” As long as this is true, we will never solve the problems we face as a nation.

After the events of the last week and a half, we can either come together as a people or move further apart. This is not the first time we have faced such stark circumstances. In 1967, less than one year before he was taken by a hate-filled assassin’s bullet, the Rev. Martin Luther King wrote:

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. ... This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community.

I choose community, and I dedicate myself to helping us build a community that has room for everyone to live together with love, justice, and genuine respect. Please join me.

Jeff Kolnick is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University and a founding member of the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy. His reflections here are entirely his own. 

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Comments (13)

Logic

"Had the move to make the arrests come earlier, much earlier, say at 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m., there would have been no violence"

"With a less intense show of force, the crowd would have dispersed much sooner"

It sounds like you are blaming the police for the protesters (by arrest or dispersal) not leaving sooner. Maybe the protesters could have just left on their own. Or even better, since walking on the freeway is extremely dangerous and a terrible idea for many reasons, just not done it in the first place.

I get it that the violent protesters were not part of BLM, but when you take on a protest of this nature, you kind of own the whole thing.

Purely as a matter of tactics,

I don't understand the present choice of entering and blocking highways, nor does anyone else with whom I've spoken, nearly all of whom are supportive of the cause. I don't comprehend the assessment of present conditions on which the decision to undertake these actions rests, and I don't understand what is hoped to occur as a result of these actions. I happened to be driving on 35W heading north on Wednesday morning, observing the lines of cars sitting still on the other side of the highway stretching from University Ave up nearly to 694. I can't imagine the blockage advanced support for the cause in a single person sitting in any of those thousands of cars. Indeed my spouse and I wondered whether law enforcement might have taken their sweet time clearing the highway specifically as a counter-tactic.

I feel that I have an understanding for the purposes of civil disobedience and the circumstances in which it is tactically sound. Blocking highways for the present cause doesn't fit at all into the framework that I hold. It seems that conditions now exist for the "coming together" that Mr. Kolnick urges, and that, for example, there is a need for some very concrete demands for very specific actions that would be supported by a majority and that those in power could be convinced to advance. Accordingly, I fear there is a real risk of opportunity being lost because tactically useful approaches are being bypassed in favor of actions that are not well chosen and will only alienate and exasperate.

I don't presume to armchair quarterback. But I would be very interested in the tactical argument for these actions.

Advertising

The purpose of these actions is publicity. If you have a couple of people on a street corner, that doesn't make the news. Block a freeway and it does. I'm not sure why that is so hard to figure out.

Of Course!

"Rioting" is a chargeable offense. Certainly it was invoked for that purpose. How else might authorities separate good marchers from the bad, as this author seems to propose.

BLM certainly is not assuring quality control here. It'll be interesting to see what happens should BLM succeed in shutting down Rosedale this weekend. Let's remember that the person who untruthfully calls "Fire!" is held responsible for adverse results of panic and injury. Until BLM demonstrates it can act responsibly in controlling its own demonstrations, it must be held somewhat responsible for actions within its congregation, BLM members or not.

So you go to protest (fine)

start walking without knowing where you are going (ok, I guess) end up at a freeway ramp where you don't go on, go home and those who decided to close down freeway throw bricks/fireworks at police officers and the police created chaos?? So you knew you were breaking the law by storming the freeway by foot but the greater sense of community made you feel it was ok? I wonder if "I got got caught up in the moment" is a defense for breaking the law...

Trying somehow to put this on the police is a stretch too far for me but I am sure many are agreeing with you. Protest all you want but don't break the law, even if you are caught up in the moment, then we will have a community without chaos.

Effectiveness, not just attention

There seems to be a foundational disconnect between the current method of protest and that of the civil rights movement of the 60s. The protests we remember from that time, the lunch counters, marches and others so often associated with ideals of MLK seemed, at least in retrospect, to be much more on point than those of today's groups. The lunch counter sit-ins were protesting the segregationist policies of those businesses and the marches worked because the protesters were disciplined and new the police would be the first to use force. In both cases the media attention that the protests drew made it obvious that the business or authorities in question were actively attempting to uphold a racist system and were willing to use force in order to do so.

Simply clicking a freeway in order to get attention can not have the same impact even with the best execution. The lack of control the organizers have over the protest itself results in a situation that is more likely to end up making the protesters look bad than shift public opinion in their favor. Why don't the protests show a little creativity and work on developing methods that are more focused on the specific issue at hand? An angry toddler can always get attention but it doesn't always end up getting them what they want. The hard part is getting attention in the right way and using it to your advantage. BLM like the Occupy movement previously don't have much real effect because they lack the focus and discipline needed to galvanize public opinion. Things have changed since the 60s and the methods needed to effect the system must evolve to match the cause and the time.

I dig my hole, you build a wall ...

This article seems to ring of coming together as a community, of building bridges, but the author has skimmed over too much truth to get to his layer of sweetness.

I, too, was on 94… from about 8 o’clock on, and I’d like to share a facet of the story, an account of the true nature of the protest, of the protesters.

At 9:02pm, camera in hand, I stood behind twenty or so police lined up across the eastbound lane of 94, just short of the Grotto Street pedestrian bridge. The scene was framed nicely with police in front, protesters blocking the freeway on the other side of them, and protesters on the bridge above. As I snapped pics, the eighty or so protesters on the bridge broke into chants of “F*** the Police.”

Our Saint Paul police acted in the steadfast way one would expect experienced police officers to act. They stood their ground and didn’t respond.

Then, at 9:24pm, I crossed the Victoria Street Bridge to new chants of “F*** the Police,” this time from the two-hundred or so protesters on the freeway, and this time lead by the woman in charge of the protest. To be clear, the whole crowd joined in, not some outliers.

I am not sure what the author experienced on that evening, but the protest was not about bringing the community together. One can sugar coat the event, but pictures and video tell a different story. The protesters built walls not bridges. Community builders, leaders, were either not present or did not show a presence.

Mr Kolnick talks of apples.....

and Mr Wallin brings up oranges.

Mr Kolnick in his entire article talks of peaceful protests around the Govs mansion and Mr. Wallin in his entire response pretends as if the peaceful protests in the article written my Mr Kolnick never happenned. And then proceeds to write a one side tale of self righteousness.

He was there

His comment describes his firsthand observations. It is one thing to disagree with his conclusion that shouting "f**k the police" was not constructive, but are you saying that he made it up? Were you there?

Except.....

There is not one news media link to corroborate his version. The Startribune even has video of the event. Are we to imply that they all covered it up.

Media

I don't think he needs media corroboration for something he witnessed firsthand. The media misses lots of things.

But just for fun, I spent 45 seconds on Google and found a Pioneer Press article about the protest that mentions "f**k the police" being shouted.

http://www.twincities.com/2016/07/09/amid-racial-strife-hundreds-seek-an...

From The Same Article

"During the protest, an officer announced to the crowd, “Stop throwing rocks” and some people watching on a pedestrian bridge over the highway shouted, “(Expletive) the police.”"

The key word, is "some". Which directly contradicts what Mr Wallin has been posting. He claims the ENTIRE crowd was posting. Big difference.

???

I'm confused, Raj. Are you saying that the words used by the protesters were peaceful? Acceptable?