Meet the young activists behind the I-35W shutdown

Leading the crowd
One of the event's organizers, Mica Grimm, helped lead the crowd on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2014 in Minneapolis.
Bridget Bennett / MPR News

The protest that shut down Interstate 35W on Thursday was largely the work of a new generation of activists in Minneapolis.

Young and savvy with social media, they believe in escalated tactics to spread their message of racial justice.

The demonstrators who chanted their way down I-35W included a lot of black, Asian, Latino and white faces new to the Minneapolis protest scene. They include fast-food workers, new moms, a blind man, and some who had never marched in a protest.

Photos: Protest shuts down I-35W

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Momentum for the protest had been building since last week, said Mica Grimm, one of the main organizers. She met with friends at the offices of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, one day after a Missouri grand jury chose not to indict the white police officer who killed a black unarmed teen, Michael Brown.

"We were seeing people all over the country do huge actions. We were all sitting here wondering if anyone was going to do something," Grimm said. "I got a Facebook message from a friend of mine. He asked me if I thought we should take over a highway. And I was like, 'I think we should do a die-in on a highway.'"

Grimm said that exchange over Facebook initially led to a separate protest later that day — the closure of Highway 55 in Minneapolis, between Lake Street and Cedar Avenue.

But when another grand-jury decision came this week to not indict a white New York City police officer in the fatal chokehold of Eric Garner, Grimm and her allies decided they would take another step in their movement.

On Wednesday evening, they declared on Facebook they would shut down I-35W. By mid-day Thursday, they had done just that.

Like Grimm, fellow organizer Adja Gildersleve is in her 20s and African-American. She knows blocking a freeway is controversial, irritating to the public, and might even alienate people who are sympathetic to the cause. But she says it's justified.

Watching the spectators
Sabry Wazwaz looked up at spectators on a bridge above I-35W on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2014 in Minneapolis.
Bridget Bennett / MPR News

"The message we want to say is that, 'There will literally be no peace, like, we're not going to go on as business, unless there's justice.' There are people in this system — Eric Garner said he couldn't breathe. Those were his last words. Well, guess what. We can't breathe in this system. And if we can't breathe in this system, we need to show that to other people."

So, how did they shut it down? The organizers, who go by the name Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, say they sent five or six protesters to block traffic by lining up their cars in a row on the freeway.

The Minneapolis police and the Minnesota State Patrol made no arrests, and even provided police escorts at the rear of the protest to make sure no one got hurt. But there was never a deal brokered in advance with the protesters.

Grimm said the group informed police of the protest route while gathering outside of a Burger King in south Minneapolis, where activists pushed for an increase in the minimum wage.

But as marchers approached the freeway, she said, Minneapolis police officers tried to convince the group to turn back.

"The cop had me roll up to the side of his car, and he told me, 'We're leaving you now, and state patrol says you cannot do this, there is no way this can happen,'" she said. "I guess they anticipated we would keep walking, but we were moving forward with the idea — it didn't matter either way."

Protesting institutional racism
A man held a sign protesting racism as he marched and chanted with the group on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2014 in Minneapolis.
Bridget Bennett / MPR News

The Minnesota State Patrol received a number of calls from motorists upset about the decision to allow the protest to happen.

But Capt. Eric Roeske, a spokesman for the state patrol, stands by the decision to keep the protesters moving. Arresting them would have taken longer and been potentially more dangerous, he said.

Roeske said it's important to remember that no one was hurt.

"Had it gone the other way and we said, 'We're drawing a line in the sand and going to battle,' we would have been all over the national news with police and protesters clashing in Minneapolis," Roeske said. "The fact of the matter is, the thing ended without anybody getting hurt. Yes, it created an inconvenience, and we certainly don't wish to have that happen. But we have to make decisions in the best interest of public safety, and that's what we did."

Nonetheless, organizer Adja Gildersleve said she still was nervous about a confrontation with police.

"It was very intense. I was scared. I'm not going to say I wasn't scared," she said. "I think a lot of people were scared and had those concerns, but at the same time, we're fighting for our life."

Black Lives Matter Minneapolis also got some tactical help from Nick Espinosa, who was the friend who sent Grimm the Facebook note suggesting the idea of shutting down a highway.

Espinosa, an activist formerly with Occupy MN, is known for his high-profile hijinks, including the glitter-bombing of politicians.

Grimm said she thanked the police after the protest for keeping her safe. But she won't preclude shutting down highways in the future.

"It's just going to get more real for people," she said. "If my life can be so easily disrupted with no one caring, then I'm going to have to disrupt society. I have to say something. I can't be quiet anymore."

More protests are scheduled for this weekend, including a meeting on police brutality, and an event Saturday outside a police station in south Minneapolis.