Last Friday, six black and LGBT youth were arrested in St. Paul's Carty Park, where they and others had organized a peaceful gathering. As the dozens of St. Paul Police Department officers arrived in riot gear, the organizers claim, they were doing nothing more than watching a movie.
Those arrested, and the local NAACP, says the police actions show clear evidence of racial bias, with white kids and adults allowed to play Pokemon Go in public parks long after curfew, while blacks are treated as a hostile threat.
The St. Paul police say the two situations aren't comparable, and their move to clear the park was an effort to stop a budding, unlawful protest before it took root.
Of the six arrested, two were charged with trespassing. The rest were released without charge.
The gathering was organized and paid for by the Black Coalition and the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice, a group that formed to pressure authorities after the police shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis. (Others there that night were members of AR14, a black youth group that was using 's meet-up as something of a launch event.) Yhante Williams, one of those arrested that night, described the park gathering as "kind of a chill out after what had happened at the [Governor's] Mansion," where about 70 protesers had been arrested during the previous week.
An estimated 30 people attended the AR14 event, which organizers say was alcohol- and drug-free, and was centered on screening a documentary. A phalanx of police arrived in more than a half-dozen black vans, Williams recalls, and soon began advancing on the group of civilians, many of whom fled the scene.
That's around when a video taken by Michaela Nichole Day picks up. Day documents the remaining protesters' testy interactions with cops, which mostly feature one-sided exchanges, with activists' questions and challenges to the police left unanswered. Day uploaded the video using Facebook live -- reminiscent of Diamond Reynolds' filming of the killing of Philando Castile -- out of an apparent fear that the police, most of them holding batons, would use violence against the organizers.
"A movie in the park," Day says, "and this is what [St. Paul Police] Chief [Todd] Axtell, Mayor [Chris] Coleman, and Governor Mark Dayton sends their police out to do. This is Jim Crow North at its finest."
Rachel Wannarka of the Minneapolis NAACP says the police demonstrated a "ridiculous contrast" in their approach to different types of people, noting numerous occasions when large (and largely white) groups have been allowed to stay and play Pokemon Go in Rice Park long after its posted closing time of 9:30 p.m.
"It was such an insane overreaction," Wannarka says. "Nobody's saying [Carty] Park didn't close at 11. But then to show up at 11:10, with 30 cops in riot gear, pushing people back with batons?"
Steve Linders, public information officer for the St. Paul Police Department, says participants in the Friday night gathering had been given "at least four dispersal orders," and notes that the majority of people there had left the park before the arrests started. Linders says police were aware of organizers' intention to occupy the park for a 14-day camp-in -- tents and camping supplies are visible in video from that night -- and says that explains the contrast between this group and other late-night park users.
"There’s a difference," Linders says, "between passing through a park looking for Pokemon, and setting up a tent, and saying we’re going to stay for 14 days."
Axtell and his deputy chief have repeatedly reached out to protest organizers to "negotiate different agreements, so people can continue to make their voices heard, and at the same time, we can have a fully functioning city," Linders says.
If Axtell and his police department want to improve community and police relations, as they've said, Wannarka contends Friday night was a step in the wrong direction. She doesn't want police to crack down on the late-night Pokemon players in public parks -- "that actually sounds kind of lovely," Wannarka says -- but says the city should review the use of force against one group while another is left alone.
"They think their job is to control this," Wannarka says. "And they need to address if we have policies that encourage that. That's not the city I want to raise my black son in."
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