Organizers say offering a space to talk, vent quelled third night of St. Cloud protests

A handful of individuals raised their fists in the air
A handful of individuals raised their fists in the air as they stood together in the Be The Community event at the intersection of Ninth Avenue South and University Drive on Wednesday in St. Cloud, Minn.
Brian Mozey | St. Cloud Times

After two nights of protests marred by arrests and property damage, St. Cloud’s third night in a row of demonstrations on Tuesday was more peaceful.

Community organizers say that's largely because Tuesday night, young people were given space to voice their anger over racism and injustice, issues that they say have been simmering below the surface and fueling the unrest.

"I really think what happened the night before was they were down there, full of energy, full of passion, with no organization, no leader, no nothing,” said Buddy King, chief operating officer of Higher Works Collaborative, a local nonprofit.

"Last night, having adults and people there to be able to help guide their energy and help guide some of the hurt that they were feeling, I feel like we completely changed the situation that could've got really ugly yesterday,” King said.

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Starting around 10 p.m. Tuesday, more than 100 people gathered at the intersection where a liquor store had been looted the night before and police had used tear gas to break up crowds.

A crowd of individuals circle around the person talking on the megaphone.
A crowd of individuals circle around the person talking on the megaphone to listen to their stories and thoughts during the Be The Community event on Tuesday at the intersection of Ninth Avenue South and University Drive South in St. Cloud, Minn.
Brian Mozey | St. Cloud Times

But things were peaceful for several hours, as people were invited to speak out and be heard. After a fight broke out around 1 a.m., police showed up and told the remaining people to leave.

It was a contrast to what happened in the early hours Monday morning, when a crowd marched about 2 miles from south St. Cloud to the Police Department in downtown, after rumors swirled on social media that police had shot two black men. 

But the rumors weren't true. A police officer had been shot in the hand while trying to arrest an 18-year-old man. Sumaree Boose of St. Cloud was charged Wednesday in Stearns County District Court with first-degree assault and use of deadly force against a police officer.

On Monday night, another crowd gathered at the intersection of Ninth Avenue and University Drive South in St. Cloud. Some threw rocks at officers and broke into the liquor store. Forty people were arrested.

Community organizers say the unrest comes from a frustration that runs deep. They say young people are angry and upset — not just over the police killing of George Floyd, but about racism they've lived through in St. Cloud.

"It's not about the last three nights. It's about what they've experienced in their lifetime,” said Natalie Ringsmuth, executive director of the nonprofit UniteCloud. She points to underlying social issues and inequities that simmer beneath the surface.

"When you see black and brown youth that are angry in an area of St. Cloud that is in extreme poverty, then to say, ‘Well, what are they angry about?’ Well, take your blinders off,” she said. “Understand what we're going through in this community with deep poverty and how that's traumatic, and trauma doesn't play itself out in pretty ways."

The Rev. James Alberts speaks to a crowd in St. Cloud.
The Rev. James Alberts of Higher Ground Church of God in Christ speaks through a megaphone to a peaceful crowd gathered at Ninth Avenue South and University Drive in St. Cloud Tuesday night.
Brian Mozey | St. Cloud Times

Kayela Starr started the Black Lives Matter group in St. Cloud and previously worked as a behavioral support specialist at a St. Cloud elementary school. She said people are upset about the police killing of George Floyd, which has ignited protests and outrage around the world. But that was just the “cherry on the top,” Starr said.

“Now they're seeing that they can be heard,” she said. “So now, they're speaking out on the injustices that they're experiencing in St. Cloud."

Starr said growing up in St. Cloud with a white mother and black father, she experienced racism and bullying in school.

She said part of what's fueling the unrest is that young people don't have a lot of opportunities to express their emotions. The goal of Tuesday night's forum was to give them the floor to speak their minds, Starr said.

"They're so young and so scared that they want to talk about their feelings. They just don't know how,” she said. “And they don't have any outlets to do that."

Britton Mikkelsen, lead organizer for TakeAction Minnesota in St. Cloud, lives three blocks from the protest site. She said the public narrative about what’s going on in St. Cloud right now is that a decentralized group of people just wants to be destructive — but that hasn’t been her experience.

Mikkelsen said young people are saying it's time to address racism and inequality in St. Cloud, a city with a history of those problems, because that's not the St. Cloud they want to inherit.

"I'm not seeing people who are intentionally trying to cause chaos,” she said. “What I am seeing is people who've spent their whole entire lives being unheard and being ignored and having their experiences kind of pushed away and finally saying, ‘This is not OK anymore.’"

Community organizers said they think the response by St. Cloud police to the protests has been too aggressive at times and helped escalate the mayhem, especially their use of tear gas and militarized vehicles.

St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Previously, he said officers used tear gas to disperse crowds only when criminal activity occurred.