One of several Twin Cities protests four days after the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile 16 months ago may have been organized in part by Russian hackers, according to national media accounts, before skeptical local organizers took over.
The reports by CNN and the Wall Street Journal alleged that Russian agents were behind eight Facebook accounts that publicized or financed at least 60 rallies in the United States, including one in the Twin Cities on July 10, 2016. The Journal said it examined archived versions of now-deleted Facebook posts and interviewed activists familiar with the events.
Some local activists said Tuesday they didn't believe it was Russians promoting the demonstration. Instead, they said, out-of-state protesters were trying to meddle.
One of the Facebook pages, hosted by a group called "Don't Shoot," publicized a demonstration scheduled for that day outside St. Paul police headquarters, recalled Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality. She and other organizers were suspicious, saying St. Paul police were not involved in the Castile shooting, and that no one had heard of the group. "This was pretty crazy," Gross said. "Who was calling this?"
The local General Defense Committee (GDC) of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Gross' group worried that protesters might not be safe, and both posted notices urging people not to attend.
Thousands of people RSVP'd that they would attend. Some organizers said they wondered whether it might be a police provocation or white supremacists.
Several local groups, including the Green Party, were listed on the "Don't Shoot" page as organizers, but when calls were made, everyone disavowed knowledge of it.
Local GDC members reached out to determine who was behind the page. Its purported creator wrote in a text message: "We're not from Minnesota, however we have lots of followers and supporters there. We're planning to open our first chapter in MD [sic] in November. We're already cooperating with several local organizations and activists."
Pressed for details about those "followers and supporters," the unnamed person behind the page wrote: "We're trying to get the (Black Lives Matter) and NAACP involved now. Waiting for their response. Student Unions, the Green Party, Together We Stand."
At that point, "Don't Shoot" organizers agreed to move the protest from St. Paul police headquarters to St. Anthony police headquarters. St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Castile during a July 6, 2016, traffic stop in Falcon Heights. Yanez, who is no longer with the department, was found not guilty of manslaughter charges last June.
For a time, GDC organizers urged protesters not to participate, adding that the "Don't Shoot" page was linked to a defunct website for the group. The domain, they said, was addressed to a Clerk York in Riverside, Ill., and the attached phone number rang to a fax machine or modem. "In other words, it's a front for something … total troll job," GDC organizers wrote.
Monique Cullars-Doty, then of Black Lives Matter St. Paul and the GDC, said in an interview that she tracked down the Facebook organizers and spoke to them by phone.
She said she spoke with three people, two of whom had American accents and one of whom appeared to have a German or Swedish accent.
She vaguely recalls talking to someone named Daniel, who said the group was from Portland, Ore., or Seattle. They did not say exactly who they were, and claimed they would be coming to the protest, which she said turned out to be false. "They said it was important for people to take a stand against police homicides," she recalled.
After some pressure, the "Don't Shoot" organizers agreed to relinquish control of the July 10 protest to local organizers. "They offered to reimburse our expenses but we didn't want their financial support," says Cullars-Doty. She provided the Star Tribune with a phone number of the Facebook organizers she had called.
It has a Los Angeles area code but when a reporter called Tuesday, no one answered, and there was no voice mail.
Despite the encounter, local organizers are skeptical that Russians were involved.
"I think it's nonsensical," said Gross of Communities United Against Police Brutality. "We don't need the Russians."
Brandon Long, chairman of the Green Party of Minnesota, said he also doubts Russian meddling. People have "actual grievances," he said, and did not need Russians to agitate.
"It marginalizes communities for us to turn it into Russian thing," he said. "It's kind of offensive to me."
Staff writer Mark Vancleave contributed to this report.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224