I was in Saint Paul visiting friends when Philando Castile was shot and killed. The night of the shooting, Black Lives Matter advocates gathered outside of Governor Mark Dayton’s mansion demanding that something changes with the relationship between black communities and the systems in place that are keeping them on the lower rungs of the social ladder in the United States. Since I was in the city, I went with a couple of other people to the protest the next day, which was of course a new experience for me. While I have always supported the Black Lives Matter movement, I am not one to put myself out there, especially when it is in a large group of people that I don’t know. What I’m about to write is purely what I observed during my couple of hours at the protest. As a white male it’s absolutely impossible to fully understand the intricacies of Black Lives Matter after one afternoon at a rally where it was focused on one specific event in one specific community. I felt much more enlightened about the issues and the activists of the movement after going, so the hope is that this post can shed some light on the very real problems our society is facing and what one group of people is doing to handle it.
I got to the governor’s mansion in the early afternoon, and while there was a pretty good turnout with more and more people filtering in and out over the course of the afternoon, I was actually expecting more people to be there. Granted, it was the middle of a weekday and I would say it was a solid group of people since it was focused purely around various speakers that came to show their support. The protest was organized by a couple of individuals who were moderating those who were speaking and usually tied everything back together to the Black Lives Matter movement after each speaker. The speakers themselves were some of the most passionate, emotional, and moving people I had ever heard speak, and they brought up so many details about what is really going on in Black America and the movement that I would have never even thought about. Some of them had been at the mansion since 11:00 the previous night. Phrases like “brothers and sisters” and “our children” were used in reference to everyone in the community, and there was a huge emphasis on loving one another. While obviously the community was focused around the Twin Cities area, a few of the speakers were from Milwaukee and one even came in from Washington, DC. Having those kinds of connections from people outside of the community that was most directly affected even made me feel more involved, especially with the Milwaukee speakers present.
The sense of community was not only focused around black people, but there were a lot of comments made in support of other marginalized groups in our country as well. One speaker mentioned that the bulk of the supporters that had stayed up all night outside of the mansion were black women and even children. Of course, with the recent shooting at Pulse Orlando, the violence inflicted against the LGBTQ communities has also brought them closer to the Black Lives Matter movement. The speakers empowered these groups, particularly a couple of the black men. What struck me was how aware everyone at the protest seemed to be about the social issues – which was a given – and how they were able to communicate effectively with other groups being directly oppressed by our society on a level that made them all allies.
Another thing I had never really given any thought to was how economics really affects the Black Lives Matter movement and black communities in general. Of course it’s known that black communities are among the poorer groups in the United States, but one of the speakers in particular was going even more in-depth about real solutions to that problem and what can actually be done to change things and make blacks a major force in our society. He focused on keeping money within black communities, not selling out to the huge corporations led by white men that are completely benefiting from the systems that are in place. He also mentioned allowing advancement for black people in jobs and allowing them to get to a point where they can have status and pull in our society, something that I can definitely foresee happening given all of the turmoil and racial tensions of recent years.
All of this was incredible to see and hear, but one of the speakers in particular made me realize that Black Lives Matter is not a straightforward movement. Alex Clark spoke, the cousin of Jamar Clark, who lost his life to police violence back in November. His passion and anger were apparent, and at points his speech felt more like ranting and talking in circles about police/minority interactions. Of course, there is no question as to why his speech became so personal. He lost family. But what he was failing to do was focus on Philando Castile and was more concerned with still finding justice for his cousin Jamar. He was talking for a really long time, and the moderators ended up having to cut him off – which was no easy task – and explain that this protest was not about individual agendas, but for the benefit of the entire black community in the Twin Cities in particular. Alex ended up storming off, but he cooled down and I saw him around afterwards. People were approaching him to have discussions at that point, so it was good to see he was still welcomed by those at the protest. While I firmly believe passion like Alex’s is warranted and necessary for Black Lives Matter – at least from my perspective – it shows how fragmented the movement can be at times. People are involved for different reasons, and they all handle current events in their own ways. Tensions are high all across the United States and people are dying, both minorities and police officers alike. The way I interpret all of this is that the Black Lives Matter movement can be walking a thin line between those that don’t think enough is being done and those that want to conserve the movement as peaceful. But no matter how the movement is used, the fact remains that people are dying.
Alex Clark was cut off so that a young girl could speak. She could not have been more than eleven or twelve years old. She took the microphone and said she wanted to say a prayer. She couldn’t even finish a sentence before breaking down into tears. I just about lost it at that point myself. She was able to regain her composure and prayed for the children who have lost father figures in their lives, for the four-year-old girl in the back seat that looked up to Philando Castile as a father and watched as he was shot. The speaker urged all of those around her to be that father figure or role model to those who no longer had them due to the violence all across our country. She managed to finish, and a teenage girl who I assumed to be her sister took over the mic and continued to pray through her tears passionately and broke out into song pleading for freedom and justice. These two girls were incredible to me. At their age I would have no idea how to handle any of this. It doesn’t help that I’m privileged, but knowing that black children are processing this and watching it happen to people that they potentially know is astounding. And it’s unacceptable. Not having to live with that mentality is privilege to the highest degree.
I was relieved that a few of the speakers spoke directly to the white community in their speeches, especially because there were, ironically, more white people than black people at the protest. Some comments were as simple as “BE THERE” for our minority brothers and sisters, but others went deeper. One speaker described us as “privileged slaves,” that we are victims of the same system that is killing black men and that we need to help change it and advocate for that, to which lots of people responded positively. What really stood out to me though was when a white man stepped up to the microphone. That could have gone several different ways, but I think it went just the way it should have for the protest. He said something to the effect of, “It might seem wrong for a white man to talk about issues affecting black people, so I won’t talk about them.” He then went on to explain that what is happening in society and in the minds of white police officers that shoot black men is a white problem. White supremacy is something that white people can do something about and something that we can act on collectively to help Black Lives Matter and be more effective allies. It’s no secret that I’ve been learning a lot about my place in issues of minority and LGBTQ rights, so hearing the issues phrased like that is something that I was able to latch on to and something that I hope I can utilize as the movement pushes forward and as I interact with those around me in the future.
Friends of mine, minority friends that I have known for years and have seen do incredible things with their lives have posted on Facebook, “Will I be next?” We as a society need to begin to process everything that is happening. Seeing that post on my newsfeed was disheartening because it’s a legitimate question. I don’t want to live in a world where people I know are unsure if they’re coming home alive tonight. I say again: it’s unacceptable. I want to start showing my support for the Black Lives Matter movement more. This is me attempting to do so. To my privileged friends: get involved. We have very real issues that we as a society must face as a united front, no matter what background we come from. To all of my friends directly affected by systematic oppression: I am here for you. I want to fight for you. I hope I can do right by you.