Protests turn confrontational in St. Paul
More than 100 arrested as police are targeted with fireworks and bricks
After two days of peaceful protests, the emotions of a Twin Cities region community still stunned by last week’s shooting death of Philando Castile began to boil Saturday night.
More than 100 protesters were arrested and 27 police officers were injured during two separate standoffs in St. Paul, Minnesota, not far from where Castile was killed by a suburban police officer following a traffic stop last Wednesday.
Tension built in marches across the nation Saturday night as protesters continued to express outrage over the deaths of two black men in separate police shootings last week. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Saturday night, Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson was among more than 100 people arrested during a march held in the memory of Alton Sterling, who was shot to death by police outside of a convenience store last Tuesday.
In St. Paul, the biggest confrontation with police came as a group of several hundred protesters — black and white, and mostly young — left a peaceful rally at the governor’s mansion shortly after 8 p.m. and marched onto Interstate 94, shutting down the main highway that connects Minneapolis and St. Paul. The march was cut off by a phalanx of officers who stood side by side across the interstate to stop the protesters. During a long standoff, police said, they were targeted with fireworks, bricks and other items thrown by protesters and groups of people who gathered on a nearby overpass.
Jeff Martin, the president of the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP, had mixed feelings about the I-94 confrontation.
“I love the passion, the dedication and the mission of the protesters in their attempt to force a conversation,” Martin said Sunday morning. “But in light of what happened in Dallas, where the officers were killed, you put innocent lives in danger when you hit police with bricks and bottles.”
Spike Moss, a longtime community activist in the Twin Cities region, said he understood the growing frustration.
“When young black people here hang out, they get pulled over, they get thrown to the ground, they get guns pulled on them,” Moss said. “Their patience has either worn thin, or it doesn’t exist at all.”
Police used smoke bombs in an unsuccessful attempt to disperse protesters on the interstate. Officers eventually moved in and made over 100 arrests on the interstate, which eventually re-opened shortly after 2 a.m. Sunday.
As that crowd cleared, officers in St. Paul were in a confrontation with a different group of protesters on Grand Avenue, several blocks from the governor’s mansion. After their progress was blocked by police, that group of about 50 marchers sat down, locked arms and began chants, including We Gonna be Alright, from the popular Kendrick Lamar song. After a brief standoff, police moved in shortly after 3 a.m. and began arresting the protesters. There were no injuries.
During a Sunday morning press conference, St. Paul police chief Todd Axtell said he was disturbed by the change in tone at the protests, which had been peaceful up until Saturday night and were confined to the front of the governor’s mansion. And he was bothered that some of the marchers brought their children into a dangerous environment during the confrontation with police. Children have been a big presence alongside their parents at the protests outside the governor’s mansion.
“This is the first time in my 28 years we’ve observed this level of violence toward our public servants,” Axtell said. “It’s really a disgrace.”
On Saturday, the attorney for the police officer who shot Castile said his client responded to a gun, and not race when he fired his weapon. But news reports yesterday revealed that Castile had been pulled over 52 times by police in recent years for traffic violations, raising questions over whether officers are targeting black motorists.
With more protests and gatherings scheduled for Sunday — including a kids march, which will end at the J.J. Hill Montessori school where Castile worked as a cafeteria manager — city officials and activists are hoping for calm.
“We really don’t want to see anyone get hurt here,” said Martin, who will welcome the national president of the NAACP, Cornell Brooks, to Progressive Baptist Church in St. Paul Sunday afternoon. “It’s not true leadership when you lead people into march, and you don’t know where you’re going. So make sure you know what you’re signing up for when you follow these people.”