Organizing a rally for Philando Castile on the four-year anniversary of the night he was killed by a St. Anthony police officer was the catalyst of Semhar Solomon’s activism.
The 16-year-old entering her senior year at St. Anthony High School isn’t backing off her goal of getting a Castile mural painted at City Hall, despite the St. Anthony City Council recently denying her proposal on a 4-1 vote.
While Solomon plans her next course of action, a massive mural that she and several friends created for the rally earlier this month on the anniversary of Castile’s death is moving around the city.
The six sheets of painted plywood, inspired by artwork depicting George Floyd, reads “Rest in Power Philando Castile & many more,” with an image of Castile smiling.
A long list of people have volunteered to host the plywood mural until a new one would go up on the side of City Hall. Its first stop was across the street from the home of Council Member Jan Jenson, who opposed the Castile mural. He felt it’s meant to spite the police department, which is adjacent to the City Hall and community center building where Solomon wants to paint the mural.
Mayor Randy Stille said at the July 16 council meeting that public facilities must remain “neutral.” An unintended consequence of the mural, he said, could be to affect the mental health of officers.
“I think we do need to be supportive of our police department,” he said. “Common sense tells me that daily punishment of the police when they walk in that door [is] not a good thing.”
But Solomon said the mural wouldn’t be anti-cop, and dozens of residents who voiced support for the mural said it’s about honoring Castile’s life.
An online petition has garnered more than 3,000 signatures backing the mural. Solomon plans to start a resident petition and discuss the mural with police. She has raised money for supplies and upkeep.
Existing policy bars such a mural from city-owned property, according to City Manager Mark Casey.
“There are no facilities named after or otherwise pay tribute to any individual,” he said in an e-mail, adding that the city doesn’t accept gifts that come with naming conditions.
Resident Sandi Sherman said applying the policy to the mural proposal is “a big stretch” because no one is donating money or asking for a building to be renamed.
“We are asking for a piece of art — art that reflects something that happened to our community ... as a way to acknowledge, to memorialize and as a way to heal,” she told the council. “
Council Member Bernard Walker, who cast the only vote for the mural, said he’s open to amending policy and working with the community to come up with a solution, since most residents he’s heard from support the mural.
“We don’t simply say, ‘No, let’s move on.’ That to me is like a slap in the face,” he said. “If this is reflective of the community, then we have a policy that is incongruent with sentiments of the community.”
Solomon said getting city approval for public art shouldn’t be this difficult, but that any fight for justice creates division. “The mural is going to represent the face of change in St. Anthony that’s long overdue,” she said.
The six-panel mural will continue moving around St. Anthony before Solomon gives it to Castile’s mother, Valerie, for permanent display at the Philando Castile Peace Garden in Falcon Heights. The memorial off Larpenteur Avenue marks the spot where St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shot Castile during a traffic stop in 2016.
Yanez was acquitted of all charges and signed a separation agreement with St. Anthony. But Solomon said the city hasn’t done enough to acknowledge the tragedy and allow the community to heal.
“A man got murdered by our police department. We should not be turning away, white people should not be turning away because it makes them uncomfortable. They should be facing it and using it to change,” Solomon said. “It’s just making a horrible situation into something graceful and beautiful.”