Minn. police chief 'disgusted' by violence at protest; 21 officers hurt
The officers were hurt from demonstrators "throwing rocks, bottles, fireworks and bricks"
By Paul Walsh and Claude Peck
ST. PAUL, Minn. — About 100 people protesting late Saturday and early Sunday in a sometimes violent response to the police killing in Falcon Heights of Philando Castile were arrested, either during an hourslong human blockade of Interstate 94 in St. Paul or during a follow-up gathering elsewhere in the city, authorities said.
The violence perpetrated by some of the protesters against the police prompted denouncement in the strongest terms by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Police Chief Todd Axtell, who called the pelting of officers with rocks, bottles and other items "a disgrace."
Axtell said 21 officers from all law enforcement agencies on the scene were injured in the mayhem. The State Patrol said six of the 21 were troopers who suffered minor injuries from what the protesters were throwing.
President Obama weighed in Sunday on protesters directing violence against police, saying at a news conference during a one-day stop in Madrid that "whenever those of us who are concerned about failures of the criminal justice system attack police, you are doing a disservice to the cause."
Gov. Mark Dayton, whose official residence on Summit Avenue has become a focus for many protesters over the past several days, said Sunday that "the occupation and shutting down of Interstate 94 last night were unlawful and extremely dangerous. … I urge all Minnesotans to remain calm and peaceful during this very difficult time."
Roughly 50 of the arrests came during the "freeway riot," which began shortly before nightfall Saturday and continued until police began taking people into custody shortly after 1 a.m., allowing the interstate to be reopened in both directions, said police spokesman Steve Linders.
The officers were hurt from demonstrators "throwing rocks, bottles, fireworks and bricks," Linders said. The injuries were not considered serious, he added. Demonstrators were seen on a pedestrian overpass throwing objects including bricks and rebar at officers and dumped liquid on them.
At a hastily called news conference at police headquarters, the mayor called the violence "shameful" and said it "doesn't honor anyone's memory … including Philando Castile's."
Axtell was even more blunt, starting his comments by holding up a piece of concrete as an example of what his officers confronted. He also held a bent metal officer's badge in his hand, illustrating the force of what police absorbed from the demonstrators.
"This is the first time in my 28 years we have observed this level of violence toward our public servants," Axtell said. "It's really a disgrace."
The chief said the protesters "turned into criminals. I am absolutely disgusted, [and] I am not going to tolerate it. … I just can't believe this occurred. This is just something that doesn't happen in St. Paul."
At the governor's residence more than 12 hours after the freeway shutdown began, protesters were encamped Sunday morning under the watch of a few police officers. A stretch of Summit Avenue was blocked off in what is a low-key presence by the demonstrators, who have been using tents and tarps to stay dry from the morning rain.
The scene is reminiscent of when protesters camped for many days outside a north Minneapolis police precinct late last year following the fatal shooting of a black man, 24-year-old Jamar Clark, by a white police officer. Authorities declined to charge that officer.
Demonstrators also used the freeway-blocking tactic after Clark's killing to draw attention to their message.
Activists were gearing up for another march Sunday, this one scheduled for 2 p.m. at the St. Anthony Police Department. The officer who shot Castile is a member of that city's police force.
Minneapolis NAACP chapter President Nekima Levy-Pounds vowed to fight through a hoarse voice and speak to the gathering about "last night's horrific events on I-94."
As police Saturday night advanced on I-94 near Lexington Avenue, some among the hundreds of protesters retreated up an adjacent hill and left the freeway. Some people began to march back to the governor's residence, where demonstrators have kept a constant presence since shortly after Castile's death.
Another 50 or so arrests were made about 4 a.m. near Grand Avenue and Dale Street in connection with the uprising following the death of Castile, who was shot by a St. Anthony police officer who stopped the St. Paul man as he drove Wednesday. Those demonstrators were cited at the scene and released, Linders said. The freeway protesters who were arrested remain jailed, the spokesman said.
The moments after the killing, captured on video by his girlfriend sitting next him, has become a key chapter in the latest national narrative about police shooting black men.
Also, last week, a black man was fatally shot by police in Baton Rouge, La., then a black gunman who vowed to shoot white police killed five officers in Dallas during a demonstration in that city Thursday night, staged in protest to the killings in Minnesota and Louisiana.
The unrest in the Twin Cities has drawn the head of the national NAACP to Minnesota. Cornell Brooks is scheduled to meet with Gov. Mark Dayton sometime Sunday afternoon and also speak at Progressive Baptist Church in St. Paul.
Brooks said he wants federal and state legislators to pass laws to counter racial profiling by police.
And in a nod to the presidential campaign pitting presumptive nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Brooks said, "We want them to clearly state their commitment to address criminal justice reform and the issues of racial profiling, use of excessive force, and stop and frisk abuses. … We must demand that they support legislation to reform our fractured criminal justice system and end the murder of black and brown men and women at the hands of police."
On I-94 Saturday night, the key east-west highway thoroughfare in the Twin Cities, dozens of police officers decked out in riot gear used smoke bombs and pepper spray to disperse the crowd that gathered mostly at the Lexington Avenue exits and spread east to Dale Street. State Patrol squad cars had the interstate blocked for 5 miles in both directions and entrance ramps sealed off from Hwy. 280 east to downtown St. Paul.
Around 11:15 p.m., police began arresting people one by one, escorting them to a re-purposed Metro Transit bus.
In the heat of the protest, as many as 300 people were spread across both the eastbound and westbound lanes. Many sat down on the asphalt roadway while others stood, the air filled with yelling and chanting. Protesters had moved a small pickup onto the highway and were broadcasting with sound equipment.
Around 10 p.m., officers had issued their 16th order to vacate the interstate, and protesters were not budging. At one point, two dozen officers in riot gear pressed on the crowd, a paddy wagon following behind.
Patrol Col. Matt Langer, joining the mayor and police chief at the Sunday morning news media briefing, said, "The freeway is not one of those places" where people on foot are allowed, whether for purpose of protest or under any circumstance. "It endangers those on the freeway and the motoring public."
Those who marched to the interstate, some of whom having earlier demonstrated at the governor's residence, were beating drums and chanting slogans, including "Black lives matter."
About 9 p.m. on Twitter, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis posted: "We shut down 94 for Philando. We are gonna need bail money. Please make a gift now."
The protest quickly grew into the day's biggest and most disruptive demonstration in the Twin Cities, following a peaceful daylong gathering at the governor's residence and a separate rally at Loring Park that spilled into the streets of downtown Minneapolis, where protesters briefly stopped traffic at 9th Street and Hennepin Avenue, blocked an entrance at the Basilica Block Party and marched past Target Center.
Castile, a 32-year-old school cafeteria worker from St. Paul, was fatally shot by a police officer Wednesday night during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. The aftermath, as he lay dying in the driver's seat, was live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend sitting alongside him while her 4-year-old daughter sat in the back seat.
The girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, said Castile was shot for no reason. The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, has said through his attorney that Castile was displaying a handgun and was warned to comply with the officer's orders.
Copyright 2016 the Star Tribune
- Philando Castile