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.
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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