What started Wednesday night as a Falcon Heights City Council work session turned into a shouting match between protesters who demanded their voices be heard, residents who were just as angry and a mayor who briefly tried to talk over the verbal melee.
For more than an hour, there was palpable frustration in the room from the audience of about 150 people. That frustration stemmed from the death of Philando Castile, 32, who was killed by police July 6 after a traffic stop in Falcon Heights.
But after council member, the mayor and city administrator had fled the room and tensions eased, a 15- to 20-minute dialogue occurred between the mostly older, white residents and the mostly black protesters. The crowd listened to each, and one woman called it “the best listening session I’ve ever attended.”
The council was supposed to discuss a proposal by Mayor Peter Lindstrom to create a 12- to 15-member Inclusion and Policing Task Force that would advise the council on policing issues, from data collection to training, “especially implicit bias and de-escalation training.” The plan called for the group to make its final report by May 2017 and for the St. Anthony Police Department, which patrols Falcon Heights and Lauderdale, to implement the recommendations within 30 days or explain why.
They also planned to talk about a proposal from the city of St. Anthony to create a tri-city task force with four members from each community that would address many of the same issues.
The task force plans came after Castile was shot to death by officer Jeronimo Yanez. The aftermath, including Castile’s last minutes of life, was videotaped by his girlfriend, prompting nationwide attention and dozens of protests throughout Minneapolis, St. Paul and the suburbs.
City administrator Sack Thongvanh reviewed comments and questions received at two previous public comment sessions and one previous listening session. Lindstrom read a prepared statement and talked about some of the people he’s heard from who are worried about their sons or grandsons, who are black, having run-ins with police. He said he especially wanted to thank the Castile family, “who have engaged in a meaningful, thoughtful way with this council.”
Both men reiterated that there would be no public comment at Wednesday’s meeting.
About 50 protesters stood quietly for the first 30 minutes, as Thongvanh read through the mayor’s one-page proposal. Many held signs: “Justice 4 Philando,” “We want action, not lip service,” “Convict Yanez Now” and “You still don’t get it.”
But when Lindstrom said he had no racial data on police stops — “We need good data as a council to make good decisions on policing,” the first shouts from the crowd of at least 150 people erupted.
“False! Liar! How can we have the data and you don’t!”
Lindstrom and then Thongvanh tried to keep talking, but one protester shouted, “Why don’t you tell St. Anthony that if they don’t fire Yanez, you’ll cancel their contract?”
“If you want democracy, this is how it’s done,” the mayor responded.
“No, it’s not,” a protester yelled.
“You don’t need a task force, you just need to drop your contract with the St. Anthony PD,” another protester yelled.
When three St. Anthony police officer appeared in the room, they were swarmed. “When you guys take your badges off, you’re people, too,” one protester, who refused to give his name, said to the officers. The officers moved back into a kitchen attached to the room where the council members and mayor had gone.
Thongvanh tried once to restore order and told the crowd, “You will be able to speak at the next council meeting if the council moves forward on the resolution.” By that time, though, the audience wasn’t having it.
“Philando’s blood is on your hands,” protester John Thompson told resident Chuck Laszewski.
“Yes, I do,” Laszewski said. “But I’m trying to wash it off.”
“I’m scared for my life when I come through this city,” Thompson continued. “Don’t try. Do something about it.
“I’m scared for my life,” he said. “As long as I have breath ... Philando doesn’t have breath. As long as I have breath, I’m going to speak Philando out of my mouth.”
Thompson said the same problem exists in every other suburb, too. He was enveloped in a group hug as he broke into sobs. A short time later, he was enveloped in another hug by resident Dick Carlson and another by Laszewski.
“We have a duty to fight for one another,” Carlson said.
By then, Lindstrom and the council members had left the building. But the conversation continued.
“All the white people here are very mad,” said Sandy Harrigan, a resident for 35 years. “It calmed down because we convinced each other we were here to listen.
“This was really a remarkable situation,” she said.
Of the mayor and council, said Harrigan, 69. “I think they’re scared to death. They didn’t know how to handle this situation. They needed to let everybody talk.
“Even at these ages, there’s more to learn,” she said.