With her 10-month-old daughter wrapped snugly at her chest, Mari Fitch marched three miles through Minneapolis on Thursday, most of it up the center of an empty Interstate 35W shut down by protest for the first time since the Vietnam War.
Along with about 150 other demonstrators, some carrying signs that read “Black lives matter,” she chanted the names of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two men killed in fatal confrontations with police officers. The protesters pumped their fists and shouted messages about justice, referencing two grand juries’ decisions not to indict the officers involved in Brown’s and Garner’s deaths.
The high-profile rally had echoes of protests that have sprouted up in other cities around the country, often fueled by crowds enraged by what they say is unfair and often lethal treatment of minorities.
A few times, the crowd stopped in the center of the freeway to stage a “die-in,” lying on the ground and chanting “I can’t breathe,” Garner’s last words.
Protesters bundled in parkas, hats and scarves said they wanted to show their frustration at how police have treated minorities. Fitch, 22, said she worries about the messages sent by the cases of Brown and Garner.
“They can’t take people’s lives just because they feel threatened,” she said, adding, “I want my little girl to grow up in a world where people care about the lives of others.”
Wednesday’s protest began around noon with a separate demonstration on another issue: fast food workers seeking a $15 minimum wage. Demonstrators on that campaign met at the Burger King near 34th Street and Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis, where they were joined by Mayor Betsy Hodges and Council Member Alondra Cano.
As that protest ended, organizers with a newly founded group called Black Lives Matter Minneapolis stepped forward with megaphones and a plan: Head south to the freeway on-ramp, take over Interstate 35W, march three miles north to downtown and then on to City Hall.
After a few speeches on issues ranging from officer-involved shootings to the treatment of transgender people to the 43 students missing in Mexico, the protesters began their march. A few Minneapolis police officers stood by.
Protesters waved and showed their signs to passing traffic in the southbound lanes, where several drivers slowed and pulled out their phones to snap photos.
Organizers urged on the group, reminding participants to document the event on social media sites and to take action at other events.
“This is our humanity, y’all,” one of the march leaders shouted. “Our humanity is at stake.”
State troopers, who had blocked off traffic on the freeway’s northbound lanes, provided an escort at the rear of the demonstration. By megaphone, a trooper repeatedly asked demonstrators to leave the freeway at the next exit. Though only a handful of the protesters followed the direction, troopers didn’t attempt to intervene.
Lt. Col. Matt Langer, the State Patrol’s acting chief, said in a statement that his agency’s concern is “always for the safety of the public.”
“To be clear: It is illegal and extremely dangerous to walk on a freeway,” he said. “In this case, the safest and fastest way to clear the roadway was to keep the demonstrators moving and have them exit the interstate. Arresting more than 100 people would have taken longer and been potentially more dangerous than letting them leave on their own.”
Troopers blocked all of the exit ramps along the protest route, preventing traffic from entering the freeway.
Minneapolis police took a similar tack, standing guard as protesters made their way through downtown, into City Hall and into the lobby of the City Council offices.
No one was arrested during the more than four-hour protest.
In a statement, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau said the department thinks “it is very important for the public to be heard as part of the democratic process and we realize the law enforcement community needs public support to be effective,” adding that “protecting constitutional rights is a fundamental function of the MPD.”
Just before 3 p.m., the group made its way to City Hall, where demonstrators spread out across the lobby and again lay on the floor.
They later headed to the third-floor offices of the council, where the chanting turned to the Minneapolis city budget.
Council members are in the final stages of revising the mayor’s budget plan, which goes to a vote Dec. 10. Some protesters singled out preliminary votes earlier this week on funding for a new Office of Equitable Outcomes, meant to address racial disparities in the city. A proposed cut to that funding was narrowly avoided, with a 7-6 vote of the council.
Five council members — Alondra Cano, Blong Yang, Cam Gordon, Jacob Frey and Lisa Bender — came out of their offices to address the crowd. All attempted to defend their commitment to addressing racial disparities in the city, though some were met with angry responses from the crowd.
Bender urged protesters to come back for the public hearing held before the budget vote.
“I think you’re asking the right questions,” she said.
By day’s end, protesters said they felt the long march had brought attention to their cause, even if they weren’t satisfied with all the council members’ responses.
Janerio Taylor, 33, of Minneapolis, said he felt like the group was “making history.”
“We’re showing people that it’s a human rights issue, even though it started as a black issue, and that’s why I’m in it,” said Taylor, who is black.He held out his hands to show his skin. “I don’t have a choice.”