When St. Paul police last week attempted to clear Summit Avenue of the encampment dedicated to protesting the death of Philando Castile, a black man shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer, a nearly daylong standoff culminated with 70 arrests.
Of those taken into custody, 50 were white.
Two weeks before, 41 demonstrators were arrested for blockading Interstate 35W during morning rush hour to decry the shooting. None of the protesters was black — and none of them was talking.
"As non-Black people committed to highlighting the voices of Black organizers, members of this action will not speak to press," read a flier handed out to reporters.
White Minnesotans are fueling the influx of protesters across the Twin Cities area in the wake of Castile's death and the fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis last November. They share a common view with their Black Lives Matter counterparts: That the killing of black men by police is due to systemic racism of law enforcement and other institutions.
But their participation represents a balancing act for black leaders, who say that while they welcome the support from their white allies, it's crucial that black voices remain the crux of the movement.
"The majority of white allies seem comfortable with black leadership in the movement, and they are reminded to check their privilege when they become involved with the demonstrations," said Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP. "It means we know that white privilege is a real phenomenon; it means they would be willing to take a secondary role and defer to black leadership."
While Minnesota is growing more diverse, its predominantly white population — about 85 percent, according to the latest statistics — is generally considered a major factor in why many Black Lives Matter demonstrations are majority nonblack.
Minnesota's progressive politics may also play a role. "We have so many white liberals here that really, really want to help," said Khulia Pringle, an organizer with Black Lives Matter St. Paul.
Centering black voices
The nonblack allies range from young people to senior citizens, many of them from religious organizations committed to racial equality. And there are also labor activists and veteran protesters associated with left-leaning groups. While mainly white, some protesters are Asian, American Indian or Latino.
The activists are only a phone call, e-mail or social media invite away from key figures in the Black Lives Matter movement who alert them to demonstrations, rallies and disruptions — sometimes on hours' notice. Key among the white allies movement is a network of clergy members focused on rallying white supporters, while at the same time remaining aware of what their whiteness entails.
On several occasions, white ally protesters have stood between police and black protesters, their theory being that police may treat whites more gently.
Several white allies belong to Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) a group that organizes demonstrations but eschews the media limelight.
At a recent public forum, a woman who was arrested in an Interstate 94 blockade three days after Castile's death declined to talk to a reporter.
"I can't talk to the media," she explained. "I'm a white person."
A SURJ activist, the Rev. Meg Riley, senior minister with the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a Unitarian Universalist congregation without walls, said no members of the group would be giving interviews. "We refer you to any of the great Black leaders locally!" she wrote in an e-mail.
Levy-Pounds said it's important for black people to tell their own story.
"White people are always seen as the source of knowledge, the face of different institutions or struggles," she said. "It's a paradigm-shifting approach. You have to listen to people of color and not erase us from our narrative."
Pastor Danny Givens of Above Every Name Ministries is a central figure in Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. He says that while two chapter organizers work with the activist ally groups, he works with clergy allies who approach him about doing possible actions.
"They'll say, 'We want to do A, B, C, D and E, are you cool with that? What are your thoughts?' " said Givens. "They also take direct instructions from key black organizers with the intent of being sensitive to centering black voices when it comes to narrative."
While Black Lives Matter Minneapolis welcomes white support, its meetings exclude whites. The meetings are "for people of color, indigenous and black people or people who identified as African descent," said Lena Gardner, one of the group's organizers. Black Lives Matter St. Paul meetings are open to all races.
Confusion but solidarity
Some white allies concede it's not always easy to step back.
Carin Mrotz, deputy director of Jewish Community Action, describes herself as a white ally. She has protested at the Minneapolis Police Department's Fourth Precinct and at the governor's residence in St. Paul.
She concedes that "it's uncomfortable not to be in charge," but says it's important for whites like her to simply listen and support black leadership.
Kieran Knutson belongs to the Twin Cities chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a labor activist group that recently has focused on police brutality issues. Knutson was a regular speaker at rallies demanding the prosecution of police in the Clark case and is often introduced by black activists.
"Some whites say one should defer to certain black organizations," Knutson said. "But there are different voices and different organizations in the black community, so who do you defer to?"
Knutson said activists need to be critical thinkers who can develop their own ideas as well. "What good is an ally if you are not providing your brain as well as your muscle?" he said. "White people need to be humble and listen to black people, but there are different perspectives and strategies in the black community."
Corydon Nilsson of Black Lives Matter St. Paul said the IWW general defense committee raised the idea of last Saturday's demonstration at a St. Anthony municipal liquor store, and his BLM chapter voted to endorse it.
With so many white activists willing to pitch in, "anything we do will involve white people," he said. "I think it's a great thing. One of the points of the movement is unity and solidarity among all people."
Staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.