After a night of protests following the acquittal of officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of Philando Castile on Friday, black activists in the Twin Cities are struggling to balance despair at the outcome with the hope that it could turn into a catalyst as they seek a broader movement for police reform.
In the wake of the verdict, at least 2,000 people, according to police estimates, gathered at the steps in front of the large dome of the Minnesota State Capitol in downtown St. Paul on Friday. Civil rights lawyer Nekima Levy-Pounds, a mayoral candidate in Minneapolis, rallied the mostly young crowd of different races, just as she did during the protests and marches that swept St. Paul and Minneapolis last summer after Castile’s death. A peaceful march followed, with some protesters blocking Interstate 94, one of the main corridors between the Twin Cities. Eighteen people, including two journalists who were trying to film the action as it unfolded, were arrested in the early hours of Saturday as police moved to clear the road.
Saturday, Levy-Pounds said she had received an outpouring of messages from people, most of them white, who had been shocked at the outcome. She hoped that this could shift the debate.
“Philando’s case is one of the most blatant examples of police officers being allowed to kill people with impunity, and I think it will be a wake-up call for people who thought that at a minimum, at least in this case, there would be some semblance of justice,” she said.
But if the verdict was a wake-up call for some, it was a confirmation of their worst fears for others. The video that Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, filmed as he lay bleeding and dying in the passenger seat, drew international attention to the case unlike anything in Minnesota’s recent history, and it also helped bring many previous politically inactive youth to their first street protests.
A gathering point for them became an occupation in front of the governor’s mansion in St. Paul, which lasted for 20 days until police cleared it July 26, arresting more than 40 people in the process.
Jason Sole, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, said he worried about the impact the verdict would have on the young people who had been drawn into activism by the case.
“I noticed a large group of new activists when Philando was killed last summer, and now I am seeing those new activists feel defeated,” he said. “As a black man, this is nothing new to me so I’m ready to continue the fight.”
Fatuma Ali, 24, is an organizer with the Black Liberation Project, a network of black youth activists that has been a mainstay at protests. She said that although she wasn’t surprised by the acquittal, it still came as a blow.
“You don’t realize you’re holding on to hope until it’s not there anymore,” she said.
Like Levy-Pounds, Ali sees the case as a possible catalyst, but one that might further radicalize people already engaged in the movement.
“Philando was the perfect case for a lot of people. And I think it is kind of a tipping point. This was as perfect a victim as you could get,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s always something, you know with Mike Brown he was charging the officer, he wasn’t paying attention, he wasn’t following orders. They even managed to justify Tamir Rice’s murder — he pointed his gun, he shouldn’t have had it, they brought up his father’s criminal record — but you couldn’t justify Philando Castile’s murder because he did everything he was supposed to do. He was a model citizen.”
Ali said she thinks activism needs to move beyond “galvanizing around every murder” to address deeper issues and policy. Her organization plans to focus on a campaign to remove police officers from public schools.
Others, like community organizer Chauntyll Allen, are directing their energy to get black candidates elected to local office in Minnesota. For her, the verdict could also serve as a wake-up call for older, more well-off African Americans who have viewed police shootings as a problem that didn’t affect them.
“People are waking up, even the older generation, those who felt like ‘No, we overcame’ — now they see we didn’t overcome,” she said.