Two of its protests were held in the Midway—a Minnesota State Fair demonstration and a light rail shutdown
Article and photos by JAN WILLMS
Black Lives Matter (BLM) began as a hashtag on social media in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. The movement, which has focused primarily on calling attention to Black deaths at the hands of police, has continued to grow with the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and Eric Garner in New York City. Branches have arisen in 31 states, as well as internationally, in the past two years. One of those cities is St. Paul.
Rashad Turner spearheaded the Black Lives Matter chapter in St. Paul. He grew up in the Frogtown area of the city, and he said that he was conscious of Black rights issues and had been doing work regarding those issues. But a trip to Selma, AL last March to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday was a momentous event in his life. Black protesters had started to march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights in 1965 but were driven back as they approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, badly beaten by state and local lawmen.
“There were 150,000 people in Selma this year, and we got to march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge,” recalled Turner. “For me, the trip was going back to how empowering protesting and demonstrating can be.”
Turner said he went on the journey with one of his best friends, Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP.
“Just able to experience that trip was the best time I have had in my life since my daughter was born,” he said. “It gave me that nudge I needed. I came back here and began talking with some people from Minneapolis, where they already had a BLM chapter. We got some tips on setting up a protest and things like that, and we’re rocking and rolling.”
The group’s first action, according to Turner, was at Summit Church at Summit and Victoria in June 2015. “They have had this event called Love the Police, and it didn’t sit well. We went there, had Black Church, and read off the names of black people killed by the police, unarmed victims, mostly black males.”
Turner said BLM met with Rev. Joe Anderson, the pastor of Summit Church. “We sat down for about an hour, both sides listening to each other, hearing each other out,” he said. “Pastor Anderson was receptive, and they changed that event to Love the Community, which is more inclusive. It was the beginning of what we like to say is our collaborative style here in St. Paul. I think that was an action that showed people that we are going to protest and demonstrate, but also that we are willing to sit down and talk, have that dialogue and try to understand each other.”
“That kicked us off, and then we shut down the fair for a little while. The state fair represents a lot of people who come from areas where they don’t have to deal with these issues. Our intention was to reinvent awareness. In January, Marcus Golden was killed by the police department. We wanted to draw attention to that; it was being swept under the rug. Marcus’ mother was a reserve in the St. Paul Police Department and always works out at the fair. We figured this was a good way to honor him.”
About 500 people showed up that day and marched from Hamline north on Snelling to the Fair gates.
“This was our first big protest, and BLM Minneapolis helped with the structure of it. There were a few hecklers, but it was mostly peaceful,” Turner said.
The organization’s next action was in response to Marcus Abrams, a 17-year–old autistic boy, who was allegedly beaten by Metro Transit Police. “We did Black Rail and shut down the Light Rail. There was a lot of backlash and a lot of racism that showed its ugly head during these times, but we still created awareness,” Turner explained. The transit officer who took down Abrams was let go,
BLM St. Paul next met at the governor’s mansion with Gov. Mark Dayton, who had expressed concern about the appropriateness of the protest at the state fair.
“We wanted to send him a message to let him know we are not going to be discouraged, whether we had his support or not,” Turner noted.
But the protest that drew the biggest backlash was the final action of the summer, the protest at the Twin Cities Marathon.
“We got into these spaces that more people see as sacred than light rail,” Turner said, Messages flooded the group’s Facebook page.
Turner said that a lot of people had to realize with this protest that being allies was a 24-7 position.
“Black Marathon allowed us to take that next step as far as being uncomfortable,” he said. “At the end of the day, we measure what is more inconvenient and what is more important. People who I consider followers of the movement or kept close tabs on me all of a sudden were not sure we should protest there. I remember a conversation I had with someone who said he had been training six years for this marathon. I said there had been a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland who had been training for 5 or 6 grades but didn’t get to make it to the 7th grade. That person I was talking to had an aha moment. A marathon is nowhere close to that little boy losing his life.”
“With the marathon, more people who considered themselves allies of the movement had to look in the mirror. Are they doing this because they regard themselves as allies or because they don’t want to be considered racist?”
In the end, BLM St. Paul did not interfere with the marathon runners but held a meeting with Mayor Chris Coleman.
As to criticism that BLM is harming its cause by trying to disrupt events and inconvenience people, Turner said he thinks that a lot of people have a false narrative when it comes to the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s message has been whitewashed in textbooks,” he stated. “They think he was just all about peace. But when you think of some of the actions and demonstrations they did, Dr. King’s goal was pretty much to uproot racism and white superiority, so he was right in peoples’ faces. During that time, Dr. King was the most hated person in America.”
Turner said that racism and police brutality are not as overt for today’s protesters as things were during the ‘50s and ‘60s when fire hoses were sprayed at people and Billy clubs, canines and horses were used.
“I don’t feel we have to deal with that, so we should be able to have even more courage, based on what our people had to go through back in the day.”
He said it frustrates him that some young people today don’t understand history. “When you hear them saying ‘This isn’t your grandma’s civil rights,’ it’s an obvious indication they are not aware of what the history really was.”
Turner said that division between the elders and young people just slows the movement down. “This movement is strong and going to continue, but we are missing some of the knowledge and wisdom they had back in the civil rights movement,” he said.
“We’ve come a long way from the horses and the fire hoses,” Turner continued, “but we still are not where we should be 50 years after Bloody Sunday. When I went down to Selma back in March, you would have thought based on the buildings and the town it was still 50 years ago and that not one thing had changed in that town. When I talked to local kids down there, they said that Selma’s been the same since the civil rights era. We think about social injustice, but when you think about the economic injustice, it is still very prevalent, even right here. When you look at every disparity, it is the same group at the bottom.”
‘We’d like to think that since we have a Black president, we’ve gotten somewhere but based on how he is treated by these white males in Congress, and people yelling stuff at him, it is just real disrespectful treatment. Even though he was able to organize our country, and the majority of people are not racist, at the highest levels of power you either have people of color who get these positions and are tokenized and don’t do much for their community, or you get people like the president who are trying to do stuff, and they are just undermined at every step of the process.”
In addressing critics who wonder why BLM does not protest Black-on-Black crime, Turner said the national platform of the organization is to fight against police brutality. Although he said the St. Paul chapter is more community-based, addressing Black-on-Black crime, or what Turner calls self-hate crime, is not the group’s main emphasis.
He said that Black-on-Black crime is near and dear to his heart because his father was killed at age 19. “He and another Black guy got into it, and the guy killed him,” he said.
“People know that Black people killing Black people is just as tragic to me as police killing unarmed Black people,” Turner reflected.
As he prepares for a run for House District 65A in the state Legislature, he said he realizes that he is going to be performing a balancing act in some ways, focusing on the goals of BLM but also expanding his concerns to education, cutting down on violence, giving kids more opportunities to have different outlets than just hanging in the streets.
He said he does not consider his position with BLM to be a hindrance in his legislative race He ran for the school board as a write-in candidate and garnered over 1,000 votes.
“Being with BLM definitely helps. It gives people an opportunity to see me in a leadership role,” Turner noted.
He encouraged anyone who might want to join the group or serve as an ally to check out BLM’s Facebook page.
“We’re always looking to build the group, and now’s the time,” he said.
Turner said he thinks the rapid growth of BLM nationwide is primarily due to so many youths being involved.
“They’re the ones with the energy to keep things going,” Turner said. He also attributed the growth to the fact that people are finally starting to wake up and realize something is wrong, and things need to change.
“The awareness created over the past two years has been tremendous, and it has given a lot of people space to use their voice. Once you go to one protest or demonstration and see how peaceful things actually are, you become empowered and want to fight for justice and be a part of the change that’s coming to make this a better society for everybody.”