Who was causing violence at the I-94 protests? 46 charged with 3rd degree riot

Published 9:24 am Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Organizers question if disruption was deliberate

By Tim Nelson

MPR.org/90.1 FM

ST. PAUL — They run the gamut from a relative of a Colorado man killed by police last summer to a staffer at well-known St. Paul-based political action group, to the son of a state legislator and a folk singer.

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All told, more than 100 people were arrested at protests over the weekend — some during what authorities called a riot on Interstate 94. Forty-six people were charged Monday with third-degree riot for the I-94 protest.

Police say they arrested others on Grand Avenue who they believed were on their way to block another interstate.

After a long series of mostly peaceful protests for racial justice in recent months, the situation got ugly on Saturday when some people took to hurling fireworks and rocks at police.

So, what went wrong, and who did it?

Black Lives Matter leaders and some witnesses on the scene say the violence started with just a few people who don’t represent the movement. Police are still investigating.

Darryl Spence, a founding member of the God Squad, a group of pastors that serve as intermediaries in and for St. Paul’s black community, was there. He said St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell called him Saturday night and asked for help.

“So I got about five or six of us, and we went, met up with the Department of Justice, and we stood between the police and the — I don’t even know what to call it. The protesters,” Spence said.

He’d been down earlier to meet with Black Lives Matter leaders, but not this time.

“I did not see the normal Black Lives Matter people. I saw people with masks on. They were ready for combat,” Spence said. “They had gas masks, real gas masks. I was in the Air Force. I know what a gas mask. I was like, ‘Where did they get this stuff from?’”

And then, he said, the trouble started.

“A white guy had a pallet in his hand. He was going to get ready to throw a pallet into the ranks of the police and they looked dead in my face and they said, ‘You don’t understand Black Lives Matter,” and I said, ‘What?’”

Spence said one of his friends took away the pallet, and they decided it was time to go. A brick hit Spence in the leg as he turned to walk back home, a few blocks away.

Rachael Hartzler of St. Paul was also there and told a similar story. She said the trouble seemed to start as someone dropped fireworks from a footbridge over the freeway about 9 p.m. She said Black Lives Matter organizer Adja Guildersleve called for them to stop.

“She yelled at the person above, and said you need to show discipline and focus,” Hartzler said. “This is a peaceful protest and this had been repeated to us throughout the protest. They had been coaching people all along. This was peaceful, no violence will be tolerated.”

Black Lives Matter organizer Lena Gardner said she and her colleagues wondered if the disruption was deliberate.

“We understand this as a moment, that the movement is under attack. We understand that very clearly,” Gardner said. “People from all corners are trying to de-legitimize us by coming to our protests and sabotaging them through violence.”

Activists have even accused police themselves of infiltrating previous demonstrations to discredit Black Lives Matter and other critics of law enforcement.

St. Paul Police chief Todd Axtell called that assertion ridiculous and said his department’s top priority is safety — both of the public and its officers.

He says he too would like to know who is responsible for Saturday’s violence.

“This investigation is active and it continues. And we are combing through any video footage we can find to look for those who were throwing rocks at our officers, throwing Molotov cocktails, throwing concrete, rebar, fireworks and other items that injured our officers,” Axtell said.

But the police chief also said he isn’t excusing people who thought they were doing nothing but inconveniencing motorists by blocking the freeway Saturday night.

“When police officers come under attack, and we continue to give orders to get away, it’s a dangerous situation,” Axtell said, “and they continue to sit there, I can’t even put it into words how disappointing that is.”

46 charged with 3rd degree riot

By Cody Nelson

MPR.org/90.1 FM

ST. PAUL — All 46 adults arrested in the protest on Interstate 94 in St. Paul face third-degree riot charges, officials said Monday.

Ramsey County District Court has set bail at $1,500. Those who don’t post bail Monday will stay in the Ramsey County jail through the night and court appearances are expected to start as soon as Tuesday morning, St. Paul city attorney Samuel Clark said in an emailed statement.

“The City Attorney’s Office reviewed the evidence from the event, including police reports, photos and video,” the press release said. “In each case, they determined there is sufficient evidence to charge individuals.”

Maximum sentences for third-degree riot in Minnesota are one year in prison, a $1,000 fine, or both.

On Saturday, protesters shut down both sides of the interstate from about 8 p.m. into early morning the next day.

They were rallying against the police shooting of Philando Castile, an African-American man who was fatally shot by a police officer Wednesday night at a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, spurring mass protest around the country.

St. Paul police said people broke from the otherwise-peaceful protest and threw bottles, fireworks, rocks and construction rebar at officers, making for a tense atmosphere in which police responded by using smoke, blast balls and marking rounds.

“There’s no question” it was a riot, Mayor Chris Coleman told MPR News Monday morning before charges were filed.

“Up to the point where people were peaceful, up to the point where they were sitting on the freeway, they may have been unlawfully assembling but they weren’t rioting,” he said. “The minute that brick was thrown, the minute fireworks were thrown towards the police officers, that’s riot.”

Coleman said the city wanted to make it clear “you can’t riot in the city of St. Paul. You can’t riot and have the kind of conversations this country needs about policing and communities of color.”

Protest leaders from Black Lives Matter have blamed the violence on outsiders who don’t represent the group.

Black Lives Matter is also asking for donations to help with bail and legal fees.

One juvenile was arrested, in addition to the 46 adults. A charging decision will be made by the juvenile division of the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, the city attorney said.