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Ferguson memorial turns into protest in Minneapolis

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Evening vigil turns into an impromptu protest.
Protesters hold signs during an impromptu protest in Minneapolis on Thursday evening that started out as a vigil for Mike Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., last weekend.
Jon Collins / MPR News

The event was meant to consist of speakers followed by a minute of silence in honor of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri last weekend. But the vigil Thursday evening turned into a protest after Minneapolis officers in at least six squad cars detained a young woman who attended the event as she walked outside carrying a sign. 

After about 150 people protested for more than an hour nearby the Fourth Precinct--and there was discussion between police officials and community leaders inside the precinct--police officials tore up the ticket. 

Police said that the arrest had nothing to do with the peaceful gathering down the street. But for many in attendance, the incident was emblematic of the experience that many African-Americans, and especially men, said they have with law enforcement.

Brittany Robinson, 30, said the officers who detained her put the sign she'd made that said "My son is not your shooting target" in the squad car's trunk. Robinson has a two-year-old named Robbie. She worries about him. 

"It's a shame that my parents look at the news today and look at society today and it's nothing different than what it was back when they were my age," Robinson said. 

An arrest turns vigil to protest

It turns out that Robinson had been ticketed for something she said she unknowingly did before the vigil even started. She was crossing the street in the crosswalk and said she was startled by squad cars approaching her with their sirens and lights activated. 

Evening vigil turns into an impromptu protest.
Signs are made for a protest that started out as an evening vigil for Mike Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., last weekend.
Jon Collins / MPR News

Minneapolis police Lt. Michael Friestleben said the squad cars, which were responding to reports of a stabbing, had to stop and wait for Robinson to cross the street. 

It was about a half hour later that Robinson left the vigil, and officers in at least six police vehicles helped detain Robinson. She said they didn't tell her why, but bundled her into the back of a squad car. 

As those who'd attended the vigil heard about the arrest, they shifted down the block to the Minneapolis Police Department's Fourth Precinct, although they found the doors locked. 

Although Robinson was ticketed and released, the protesters said they weren't leaving until the charge was dropped.

A couple of the vigil's organizers, including University of St. Thomas law Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, spoke with police officials about the incident while protesters outside chanted, "Hands up, don't shoot," which originated in protests in Ferguson following Brown's killing. 

Levy-Pounds said being charged for petty offenses is a common experience for African-Americans. 

"These types of charges have collateral consequences that affect people, on many occasions, for the rest of their lives," Levy-Pounds said as she waited for police to make a decision on the ticket. "It has a cumulative effect on the psyche of the African-American community, saying that we are less than our white peers -- and that's problematic." 

Some who attended the vigil said they'd had bad experiences with law enforcement officers in the past. 

  Justin Terrell said he was 12 when he was arrested in a Minneapolis park.   "The officer grabbed me, turned me around, next thing I know they picked me up, carried me outside, slammed me on the car, and began to do their holds and strikes to make my body go numb and take me into custody," Terrell remembers.   On the way downtown, Terrell says the officer pulled into an alley and threatened to beat him on the spot.   "At which point, I learned a lesson," Terrell said."He felt it was OK for him to do that, that I couldn't fight back."

Like many at the event, Terrell said it's not just about police. He said it's a systematic devaluation of African-Americans, especially men, who are seen as "angry" or "scary."   "If the number of black folks failing out of high school were white, we would burn the education system to the ground and start from scratch," Terrell said."But because of structural racism, we are OK with the amount of failure that the system creates for African-American students."

Chalonne Wilson of northeast Minneapolis said it seems like many Minnesotans don't understand the way some law enforcement officers treat African-Americans, and the trauma that sometimes creates. She's engaged and said she worries her fiance is in trouble when he doesn't pick up his phone. 

"I don't know sometimes if he's going to come home sometimes when he goes out," Wilson said. "When he goes to the store and I hear sirens, that makes me scared." 

Building more bonds

About an hour after Robinson was detained, police officials tore up the ticket that officers issued in view of the crowd, which had surged into the entryway of the precinct, although they hadn't been allowed inside the building. 

The MPD's Friestleben came out to explain the decision to the protesters. He told them that the supervisors had to weigh a number of factors before making the decision, such as how heavy a crime it was and how it could impact the department's relationship with the community. 

"Sometimes officers think they're doing the right thing at the right time, and supervisors, once we get to sit down and look at the totality of things, sometimes we need to make different decisions," he said. 

The protesters declared the decision a victory. 

"If there had not been 150 people here demanding justice for Brittany, she would have had to work her way through the criminal justice system and try to defend herself where the odds would have been stacked against her," Levy-Pounds said. "Thankfully, the people stood up for her and Brittany got justice today." 

Friestleben said later that the incident was absolutely not related to the fact that the event was a vigil to commemorate victims of police brutality.

As the demonstrators dispersed, Friestleben went outside to talk to them again, saying it was an opportunity to build bonds.  

"Those are the taxpayers, that is our neighborhood, those are our citizens," he said. "They have questions, and they should know that they can approach their police officers in the city and ask questions, as long as the scene is safe." 

The relationship between the city's African-American community and police has been strained by a number of high-profile incidents in the last year. Last month, longtime community activist Al Flowers said police officers beat him up at his south Minneapolis home. Officers also shot and killed 22-year-old Terrance Franklin last year in the basement of a house in south Minneapolis after they said he grabbed an officer's gun and wounded two officers. 

Friestleben said police and the community need to work together. 

"We are not going to make the city safer if just the police are doing things, it's not going to be safer if just the community are doing things," he said. "It's our job to fix it together, and when we start fixing things, then we can have trust both ways." 

The vigil's organizers are planning another event next Thursday evening at the Minneapolis Urban League.