John Thompson remembers the last time he talked with Philando Castile.
It was July 4, 2016, two days before his friend was shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer in Falcon Heights.
Thompson chided Castile about working in the summer school lunch program while most St. Paul Public Schools staffers were on break.
“I love those kids, man,” Castile told him. “I love everybody.”
Before Castile’s death, Thompson had no interest in political activism. Afterward, the 44-year-old from St. Paul started going to rallies, marches and City Council meetings to counter negative comments made about Castile in the news media and on social media — that he smoked marijuana, or that he endangered his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter.
To Thompson, Castile was a man with a quirky sense of humor who loved to play chess and video games. Castile also knew the name of every child at J.J. Hill Montessori School and greeted them at the door with a high-five.
So when Thompson gets angry, and he’s angry a lot, his message isn’t always polite or politically correct. He shouts anti-police rhetoric. He’s loud. He breaks into tears.
But over the past 14 months, his message has evolved, if not moderated. He is now demanding change and calling for justice for others he believes have been harmed by the actions of police or the inaction of politicians. Black, white, Latino, it doesn’t matter.
Powerful people, including police chiefs in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, are paying attention.
Thompson was invited by Minneapolis Deputy Chief Art Knight to a police training session Tuesday and he has been asked to speak at a symposium for students at Hamline University in St. Paul.
“He wants to see a reduction in the trauma and he also recognizes the historical trauma that African-Americans have endured,” Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said of Thompson. “We will continue to have discussion and look at points of intersection where we can agree on some of the same things.”
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said, “While we don’t always agree, it’s important for us to be at the same table and to be having these difficult conversations about things that are affecting community members and our police department.”
Axtell said Thompson had a bad interaction with two officers while picking up his son at school. Later, the chief, Thompson and the officers sat down to talk about it.
“I was so proud of my two officers who met with John and I,” Axtell said. “The meeting started with some hard feelings and by the end, both those officers and John shared a hug. He humanized that interaction in a way where everybody walked away with a respectful understanding of each other.”
‘Are all cops bad?’
In an interview at a St. Paul coffee shop, Thompson said he respects Arradondo and Axtell and has hopes for them.
“Those two are very serious about changing the culture of police,” Thompson said.
“Are all cops bad? I want to say yes, but I can’t,” he said. “If I said yes, I’d be a hypocrite.”
Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation and a frequent target of Thompson, is no fan of protesters.
“If they’ve done ride-alongs and citizens academy and shoot-don’t shoot scenarios, I’ll talk to them,” he said. “Until then, they’re just blowhards.”
Thompson said Kroll falsely called him a “convicted felon.” (Minnesota court records show no convictions.) Video shot outside a Peace Officers Standards and Training board meeting on July 27 appears to confirm Thompson’s claim. Kroll said he wasn’t referring to Thompson but to another longtime activist. Of Thompson’s charge that Kroll is a member of the KKK, Kroll said, “That is a false narrative.”
Kroll said, “I’ve never had any issue with John. When I’ve dealt with him, he’s been cordial.”
Thompson has marched in countless protests, but hasn’t blocked a freeway or thrown rocks at police. He has spoken passionately at council meetings and community forums in Falcon Heights, St. Anthony, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Richfield, Bloomington and Crystal.
He’s talked one-on-one to elected officials, from U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton to suburban city officials. He’s formed alliances with groups such as St. Anthony Villagers for Community Action (SAVCA) and mourned with Justine Ruszczyk Damond’s fiancé and neighbors in southwest Minneapolis in the weeks since her July 16 fatal shooting by Minneapolis police.
“If you’re not mad about what happened to Justine, something’s seriously wrong with you,” Thompson said.
He has been at walks to raise money for breast cancer research, too, and on Facebook Live he has advocated for more basketball courts in city parks.
“I’m a product of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Nekima Levy-Pounds, Danny Givens, Tyrone Terrill,” Thompson said. “I’m a product of these people who did it before me.
“I can remember my mother saying to me, right after Philando was gone: ‘Something good is going to happen.’ So I just keep going. It’s for my mom, it’s for Philando’s mom, it’s for my 8-year-old son most of all.
“I need to be everywhere because we already tried segregation,” he said. “We created this problem together so we got to fix it together.”
Falcon Heights Mayor Peter Lindstrom has grown to respect Thompson.
“John opened my eyes to his reality,” Lindstrom said. “It’s not always wise to follow who’s the loudest. But I have a great respect for John, not because he’s loud, which he is, but because he’s doing it with constructive action.”
Attorney Nancy Robinett, a candidate for St. Anthony City Council and a member of SAVCA, said Thompson “has a singular ability to channel and communicate an ‘everyman’ raw, emotional response and communicate a message that is very authentic. He is not a scholar, he’s not an academic, but he does channel the temperature of the time.”
Strong role models
Thompson grew up in Chicago, where his mother and grandfather were strong role models for him and his five siblings. He is married with two children, a son, 8, and daughter, 12. He has another adult son.
“My grandfather taught me a lot about being a man,” he said. “Mediocrity wasn’t accepted in our household.”
Thompson went to Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
“I wanted to be a psychologist,” he said. Plans changed when his first son was born. He became a machinist and has worked for St. Paul Public Schools for 11 years.
Thompson has formed a company, Fight for Justice LLC, to bring his message to greater Minnesota.
Thompson and Castile met in 2005 at Chelsea Heights Elementary School.
“I always thought he was a nerd till he opened his mouth,” said Thompson.
Chuck Laszewski, a member of the citizens group Falcon Heights We Can Do Better, encountered Thompson for the first time last September at a City Council work session that turned into a shouting match between protesters and residents.
“You have Philando’s blood on your hands,” Thompson shouted.
“Yes, I do,” Laszewski replied then. “But I’m trying to wash it off.”
Said Laszewski, “We had a little back and forth, he and I, and it occurred to me, ‘He’s not my enemy.’ Then we sort of went to our separate corners. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw him coming up and he gave me this big hug.
“By doing that, the temperature of the room changed completely,” Laszewski said. “People were now talking to each other, not even shouting back and forth, breaking up into little groups, exchanging thoughts. We’ve had many conversations since.”