Philando Castile verdict: Covering a wounded St. Paul turns into a long night in jail

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Former St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges in the death of Philando Castile on Friday afternoon. The surreal news reached many in their last hour at work.

Some, like Tracene Marshall, didn't want to go home afterward and be alone. She wasn't sure if she wanted to go to the governor's mansion and pound on his door, or head to the Capitol with a sign. She felt like having a long talk with other people about what had happened, so she headed to the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul, where Mayor Chris Coleman had called an urgent meeting of neighbors.

Original civil rights activists had the same idea. Joel Franklin, first vice president of the St. Paul NAACP, said despite his 20 years as an attorney at law, he couldn't understand how the jury arrived at its opinion.

Josie Johnson, an 86-year-old freedom fighter, admitted the day's decision made an old lady cry.

"What we must do is say to our children is we have to return to the struggle of our ancestors, who believed in their possibility and the possibilities of their children," she advised. "They have to have strong black men who are in this room tonight to talk to them, to model for them what our ancestors modeled for us, which is determination."

Brian Williams, a man who attended with his young son, called for an end to all the protesting. "We need to police our own," he said. "We need to stop going to the governor's mansion every time there's a problem and beg, because that's what you're doing."

"We can start our own schools. Have our own lawyers, people who can be police officers. Let's wake up and take a moment to pull back."

Meanwhile, thousands were beginning to gather at the foot of the Capitol, where a rally had been planned days ahead of the verdict.

Here there was anger, and a cloudy misery over a crowd vibrating with energy. Activists controlled the stage, and their message was much the same as what had been shouted over megaphones in countless rallies before. How the police bore down on black communities, the near-impossibility of charging, not to mention convicting an officer who kills. How Yanez had specially noted Philando's "wide-set nose" before pulling him over on Larpenteur Avenue.

Soon the crowd spilled onto University Avenue, embarking on a four-hour march through the streets of St. Paul.

An announcement from organizers at the very start, demanding that media "back the fuck off" and speak to no one but organizers, would set the tone for the evening.

There were times when reporters would strike up conversations with protesters, then watch others force their bodies between them, shoving reporters off. At one point I glanced Star Tribune photographer Anthony Souffle tearing away from a group of men wearing matching "Fuck the Police" t-shirts, while overhearing a woman protester say she'd just had to tell those men to stop beating on a photographer because "that wasn't right."

Much later in the evening, I watched a man threaten to destroy Star Tribune photographer Aaron Lavinsky's camera, and personally march him from the scene of protesters gathering on I-94.

Protesters took the highway at about 10:30 p.m. A man driving a Nissan Altima with license plate 607TJL charged toward the crowds, coursing to the Dale entrance ramp, wove, and made as if to run down people walking down Concordia Avenue before disappearing into the night.

Though police remained out of sight most of the evening, artfully clearing traffic several blocks ahead of the march, a wall of emergency lights could be seen barring the road just after the protester's natural exit of Marion/Kellogg.

The body of protesters split into two, as most heeded orders to leave or face arrest. Many remained, confronting impassive law enforcement in riot gear with taunts and heated questions about their military dress, long guns, and sonic weapon perched high on an armored truck.

The standoff lasted nearly two hours. Law enforcement eventually advanced ranks, shouting at protesters to move. Some fled. Some stood their ground just long enough to bump their foreheads against police helmets.

I watched this from my perch on the cement barrier on the edge of the exit ramp, and as police moved closer, retreated with other reporters to the grassy hill where it appeared police had surrounded a car, and protesters were being cornered.

As police closed ranks, we began to make for the fence. I followed closely after Star Tribune videographer Mark Vancleave, but not closely enough, as a nearby state trooper reached across my body and barred me from leaving.

"Get down there," he ordered, as a nearby woman was firmly forced down the hill.

As protesters around me were snatched, I saw an opening to run but decided against it. Thinking of the very reason for the protests of the day, which demonstrated what could happen if an officer feels his orders are disobeyed, I joined my fellow detainees without argument.

I learned later that Vancleave had his camera trained on me, and as a trooper turned toward him, escaped only by the grace of strong protesters who reached down over the fence he'd been backed against, and lifted him over.

Trooper Michael Eck placed zip-ties around my wrists. Seventeen others would be arrested that night. As Eck led me away, he asked me if I was upset. I answered that I understood he had a job to do. With that he gently led me down the hill to the buses bound for Ramsey County Jail, concerned that I not slip, and refastened my zip-ties so they would not be so tight. My gear was confiscated.

Others were not handled with the same dignity. As the bus filled up, I watched a crying woman with long drag of snot hanging from her nose beg to remove her clothes, which had been drenched in pepper spray and were burning her skin. She was blinded and in pain.

St. Paul Police Officer Drake -- quickly nicknamed White Drake ("You used to call me on my cell phone...") -- pursed his lips and shrugged. It took the bus driver, who had previously complained of having to work late, to take pity and wipe the woman's face.

A young man sitting behind me wanted to know if I was ok. His name was David Clarey, a Minnesota Daily reporter. He'd been immersed in recording the arrests when he was swept up as well.

We were taken to the Ramsey County Jail, where we sat on the sweltering bus in the garage for hours as police processed our charges. An activist made a point to have us all remember each other's names and the number to call for the National Lawyers Guild.

Others complained of losing feeling in their fingers. They begged to be allowed to pee. One woman was so desperate she began to shout that if she had to become violent for police to take her off the bus so she could use the bathroom, she would.

Once we were booked, she was held separately from the rest of the women, supposedly for being uncooperative.

I was put in a cell with four others, including a mother who did not participate in the march, but arrived near the end to pick up her daughter and her daughter's friend, who had also been arrested; a school librarian who'd spent most of the evening trying to keep the peace between protesters and police; and a long-limbed young woman who could slip in and out of her restraints and wristband like an octopus. The woman who'd been pepper sprayed eventually rejoined us in an orange corrections uniform.

She'd been treated so she could open her eyes, but they continued to burn. Two others got on their hands and knees and blew continuously into her face until she felt better.

Because most of us had never been arrested and charged with a crime before, we would be released without bail. But checking our backgrounds and processing our hand prints would take more than eight hours.

We killed that time talking about the Castile verdict, about husbands who would worry and employers who might be angry, one woman's studies in public health, the famous songs another's father had composed, and how we got our tattoos.

We dozed, folded together on a concrete floor that looked like it might have been urinated on. At one point late in the night, we could hear corrections officers blasting music over voices uproariously recounting glory moments when protesters were pepper sprayed and rounded up.

We were told that about 15 people were gathered outside the jail throughout the night. They included activist leader Jacob Ladda, Star Tribune lawyer Randy Lebedoff, and Communications Guild representative Janet Moore.

At 9:30 in the morning, a smiling corrections officer threw open the door. Our personal items were returned, and we were sent off with a hearty "Hope we never see you again." By the time most protesters were released, all three African American arrestees and the woman who had been pepper sprayed remained under watch.

My gear, which had been confiscated by the State Patrol, was returned that afternoon with polite pressure from attorney Lebedoff.

In the days to come, more protests are planned, as well as community conversations about what the Castile verdict means for Minnesota. The next will take place this evening, 6 p.m. at the Wellstone Center in St. Paul.

 


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