Semhar Solomon was 12 years old when she went to her first protest. It was four years ago, shortly after Philando Castile was killed in Falcon Heights. That political moment hit her hard. An officer from the Police Department in St. Anthony, where Solomon had lived her entire life as an African-American in a majority white community, had fired five shots into Castile’s body.
On a steamy afternoon four years later, Solomon, now 16 and a rising senior at St. Anthony Village High School, stood on that same street outside that same police department. Spurred by the outpouring of rage and activism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May, she had organized Monday’s protest to commemorate the four years since Castile’s death on July 6, 2016.
The street was blocked off. Vendors sold buttons to support the foundation started in Castile’s name. Volunteers registered new voters. When an activist shouted, “Say his name!” the crowd reacted with confusion: Half of them shouted “George Floyd!” while the other half shouted “Philando Castile!”
That was exactly the point.
But to Solomon, Monday’s rally — indeed, all the protests in the aftermath of Floyd’s death — felt very different from her first protest four years ago.
Because this time, the crowd chanting, “Black lives matter!” was mostly white.
“Now I have people behind me, after George Floyd got murdered, and it’s not just a Black and people of color community standing behind me,” she said as 300 people watched a Mexica Aztec dance troupe perform. “So I feel like my voice is actually amplified more, and that I’m not yelling into a wall. Because four years ago, the community members that spoke up against the police department in St. Anthony were silenced.”
Six weeks after Floyd’s death outside of Cup Foods in Minneapolis, Monday’s protest in St. Anthony — as well as another protest outside the governor’s residence in St. Paul — underscored that the movement that started with protests and riots in the Twin Cities then spread across the nation continues to have momentum.
And Solomon’s words about the color of these protests rang true: Black Lives Matter’s national approval rating increased more in the two weeks after Floyd’s killing than it had in the previous two years, according to Civiqs, an online research firm.
Like the memorial at the intersection of 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis where Floyd was killed, Monday’s event had a dual purpose: a memorial for a 32-year-old man and a call to action.
Valerie Castile, Philando’s mother, took the microphone from Solomon and told her family’s heartbreaking story: That Philando had been stopped by police “75 to 80 times” in his 13 years of driving, which she said indicated institutional racism, she said. That he followed all the rules when the St. Anthony police officer pulled over his vehicle. And that he was still killed.
“He was murdered right here in this area, this nice, little area here where all the white folks say they got the best police department in the city,” Castile told the crowd. “ ‘Our police department is the best in the city!’ I say, ‘For who? For who?’ You don’t have to worry about driving down Larpenteur after it gets dark.
“That man shot my baby five times,” she continued. “Not once, not twice — he shot him five times. While he was seat-belted in his car. Can you, just for a moment, think about how Philando felt, starting down the barrel of a gun? Them bullets just ricocheted off every bone, every organ, just tore his body up inside.
“And 12 civilized people said that was OK. That was OK.”
Earlier on Monday, Valerie Castile stood beside John Harrington, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, and announced updates to the state driver’s manual to give motorists legally carrying firearms — as her son was when he was killed — more guidance on what to do if they are stopped by police.
Simultaneously, a Black Lives Matter protest of about 80 people gathered at the governor’s residence.
There stood Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s fiancée who was in the car when he was shot. Reynolds said she and her 8-year-old daughter, who was also in the car, have been diagnosed with PTSD. Her daughter still has nightmares, and she either gets scared or sticks her tongue out when she sees a police officer.
“Just because you are not affected by what’s going on doesn’t mean that your kids won’t be affected,” Reynolds said. “Four years from now I just hope that police will be more held accountable and that the people will come together more to stand for justice. That is when we’ll know whether a change has been made.”
There also stood Allysza Castile, Philando’s sister. She held her daughter — almost 2, named Philandra after her uncle — and talked about the baby she is carrying. Neither of her kids would ever meet their uncle.
“Twenty years from now I don’t want to be protesting with my daughter and my son. This time it feels different, the reaction that George got,” she said, referring to the aftermath of his death.
“But it’s been suppressed emotions from all these years. There’s been so many people,” she said, listing off Terrance Franklin, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile and Justine Ruszczyk Damond. “It was just like throwing fuel on the fire and you guys wondering why the city is in flames.
“As a regular human, if it wasn’t your family, you’re going to go on with your life the next day,” she continued. “But you can’t keep living if it’s someone in your life who has been taken away from you. Because your life isn’t ever going to be the same again.”
After Castile’s shooting four years ago, protests continued for a while, but had nowhere near the national scope of the protests spurred by Floyd’s death. The officer who shot him, Jeronimo Yanez, was acquitted of second-degree manslaughter. At St. Anthony Village High School and throughout her city, Solomon could feel the status quo return to her community.
Last year, she went on an eye-opening civil rights tour of the South through the ARTS-Us Center for the African Diaspora. But everyday life still felt it had returned to the status quo. Among her friends, she felt like the “token Black person.” She wanted her white friends to feel comfortable around her. She stayed quiet about race.
After Floyd’s death, though, her silence felt like complicity. So did the silence of her community. She didn’t want that. Not when, just four years ago, something similar happened in their own suburban backyards.
“So many people turned away,” she said. “Because they could. Because they had the privilege to, seeing as how St. Anthony is majority white. Now I’m hoping that after George Floyd got murdered, that can get people actually speaking and talking. Because the suburbs aren’t innocent, you know?”
That’s what Monday’s protest was: a way to commemorate a life taken too soon, and a way for Solomon and people like her to force St. Anthony — to force white people — out of their comfort zones. She has lost friends who have objected to her vocal activism, and because she was now willing to call them out for their silence. But she has been heartened by how this time, more white people seem to be taking these issues more seriously.
“I don’t just see it anymore and let it sit with me, and make myself uncomfortable, and stay silent to make them comfortable,” she said. “Now I speak up against it. It’s not just Black people that have my back and are speaking up. We got strength in numbers now. There’s people that are willing to stand up against racial injustice, and I don’t have to force them.”
Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647