Before Castile Shooting, Minnesota's Racial Justice Movement Was Already Underway

The governor said it's time to confront racism. Groups like Black Lives Matter have been trying for years.
by | July 11, 2016
Demonstrators in March protest the county attorney's decision not to file charges against two Minneapolis police officers in the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark last November. (AP/Jim Mone)

It might have been a bit surprising to hear Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton -- the white governor of an overwhelmingly white state -- talk bluntly last Thursday about racism in police departments. But for the past year, Dayton, like the rest of Minnesota, has had little choice.

The police shooting last week of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old school cafeteria worker, caused Minnesotans to think about racism in their state yet again. Castile was black. He was shot in the predominantly white St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights, by an officer who has been identified as Jeronimo Yanez.

“Would this have happened if those passengers or driver were white? I don’t think it would have,” Dayton told reporters. “I’m forced to confront, and I think all of us in Minnesota, are forced to confront that this kind of racism exists.”

The events of the last year in Minnesota have certainly driven that point home. A separate police shooting of Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis last November sparked protests that, at different times, shut down an interstate, airport, light rail and the Mall of America. At one point, white supremacists fired on a crowd gathered around a police station and injured five protesters.

“People are starting to realize this is something that is not going away. This isn’t something that happens once in a while, or that it’s a weird aberration,” said Tony Williams of Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, a group that advocates for racial and economic justice. “Yes, this is a nationwide issue, but a lot of the things we can actually do about it exist at the state and local levels.”

“We are definitely at a boiling point,” said Maria De La Cruz of the Headwaters Foundation for Justice, a Minnesota philanthropy that funds programs to address racial disparities. “The racism that exists in Minnesota is something that, as Minnesotans, we are really uncomfortable talking about. When the governor says now we have to confront this, we actually have people of color who have been demanding we confront racism for some time.”

Over the last decade, several groups have emerged in Minnesota that explicitly focus on issues of race and how it affects everything from the environment to police brutality. But the police killing of Jamar Clark last November galvanized the movement.

A Minneapolis police officer shot Clark, 24, at a party. Police said Clark interfered with paramedics trying to care for another partygoer. Clark scuffled with two officers before the shooting. Clark was removed from life support and died the next day.

Protests began the night Clark was shot, but tensions were highest during an 18-day standoff between protesters and the Minneapolis cops outside a police station. It was there that three men, apparently counterprotesters, fired on Black Lives Matter activists. Police arrested the shooters, but they also pressed to end the permanent protest outside their station. After several dispersal orders, the police cleared the camp of protesters.

In March, Hennepin County’s top prosecutor announced that neither of the officers involved in Clark’s shooting would be charged criminally. The prosecutor, Mike Freeman, said evidence showed that Clark was not handcuffed when he was shot, and that the officers had no chance to back away from the situation.

“This case is not at all similar to others seen around the country,” he said, referring to shootings in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland and Chicago.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced in June that it would also not bring civil rights charges in the case.

The decisions were big disappointments to many black leaders. They did, however, get one concession from the Hennepin County attorney’s office: The agency announced it will no longer use grand juries to weigh charges for police shootings. (Such an arrangement generated significant controversy when a Missouri grand jury declined to charge police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.)

Black activists in Minnesota made more progress in the statehouse than in the courthouse this year. A coalition of black groups proposed a United Black Legislative Agenda that focused on addressing racial disparities in the economy, criminal justice system and immigration policies. Dayton, the governor, pledged to spend $100 million to support the agenda.

Several of the measures the groups sought passed despite paltry minority representation in the Minnesota legislature. In a state where 19 percent of the population is non-white, less than 5 percent of the lawmakers are members of minorities. Not all of the measures passed the legislature, but the two-year budget includes $35 million for programs addressing racial disparities.

Williams, the organizer for Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, said his group and others want to emphasize ways to reduce violence without police. They want more programs to work with youth, improve mental health treatment and give poor residents more economic opportunities. When it comes to police, Williams said simply improving training is not enough.

“We have videos showing the killing of black people that people think are outrageous, but we can never get any convictions and almost never any indictments,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that the use-of-force standards are beyond the bounds of what people think are acceptable.”

Even as the governor voiced his support for revisiting issues of race, protesters kept vigil outside of his mansion calling for justice in the Castile case. The crowd of people, mostly minorities, was a jarring juxtaposition in one of the richest, whitest neighborhoods of St. Paul, said De La Cruz of the Headwaters Foundation.

“We have an opportunity, our leaders have an opportunity,” said De La Cruz, “to provide an example for the country about the ways in which justice can be realized when these kinds of civic disasters happen.”