Wess Philome: Fighting bias, finding support in Fargo

Organizer and activist Wess Philome
Organizer and activist Wess Philome, 32, came to North Dakota to play football for Valley City State University, but has made Fargo his home for the past 10 years, thanks to a strong sense of community. Philome counts signs, flags and a camera among his key advocacy tools. “As a photographer, I’m a gatekeeper of this time,” he said.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Protests large and small have emerged across Minnesota since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

All this week, MPR News is talking to some of the people behind rallies, marches and demonstrations happening beyond the Twin Cities metro area — about their experiences with race in Minnesota, why they march and what they hope for the future. See and hear all of the conversations here.

Wess Philome didn’t intend to become a prominent voice for racial justice in Fargo.

But the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month created an urgency to do something.

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“The entire week my heart was just bleeding,” he said. “It felt like I had lost a family member.”

He thought about driving the four hours to Minneapolis to join protesters there. He’d done that after the death of Jamar Clark in 2015. Instead, he stayed home, answering a call for marchers in Fargo organized by Angelina Sam Teewon and Anyiwei Maciek on May 30.

An avid photographer, he brought his camera and stayed at the front of the throng of several thousand as they marched for miles through the streets.

The peaceful march that day turned into a standoff with police that evening. And quickly, Philome became an outspoken critic of the Fargo Police Department’s role in the chaos.

That was a month ago.

Now, he’s among the people leading the call for police reform — and challenging city leaders to listen to the voices of people of color.

"And here we are where I'm able to create change in my community,” he said. “I just knew I needed to be out front with my people and that's where I ended up and here I am now advocating for them."

Organizer and activist Wess Philome holds the Pan-African flag
Organizer and activist Wess Philome holds the Pan-African flag while standing in front of a statue of Henrik Wergeland at Fargo’s Island Park. Wergeland, a celebrated Norwegian poet, historian and playwright, has been called “the Abraham Lincoln of Norway,” according to the North Dakota State University Archives. Philome maintains “Justice Island” would be a more appropriate name for the downtown area park.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Fargo is far from Little Haiti, the Miami neighborhood where Philome, 32, grew up, the son of Haitian immigrants.

Violence, he said, was casual and constant. He remembers as a young child watching for weeks to see how long it would take for blood stains to fade from the street after a person was shot or stabbed. He recently went public with his struggle with depression, anxiety and PTSD from the experience.

In 2006, he moved to North Dakota — to play football at Valley City State University.

He moved an hour east, to Fargo, in 2010.

"I work for a large telecommunications company. I have my own production company. And most of all, I'm an activist," he explained, sitting in a city park near downtown Fargo that’s been a gathering point for several rallies and protests.

Activism has taken over his life in recent weeks. He’s been overwhelmed by offers of help and support, the requests for interviews and the sense that he must seize this moment to hold local police and politicians accountable.

He said he’s found a sense of community in North Dakota, and he refuses to paint Fargo with a broad brush.

"I've had some really racist experiences, but I've met some of the most loving people in North Dakota,” he said. “I've been part of one of the most loving communities in North Dakota, as well. That's kind of what's kept me around and has me fighting for what I'm fighting for now."

Philome is fighting for change in the Fargo Police Department. He wants the city to address what he believes is the department’s systemic bias against people of color. He talks about a string of experiences he’s had with police that leave him feeling singled out because he’s a Black man.

Last year, he said, while he was driving for Uber, he needed to check his directions to a tucked-away local brewery. He pulled into an empty parking lot downtown behind another car that was using the lot to make a U turn.

“I park and I call the rider,” he said, “and all of a sudden, I'm surrounded by two Fargo police officers, questioning me about making a possible drug deal in the parking lot on Main on a Friday night."

Another time, Philome said he had called the police because someone was trying to break into his apartment. But when they arrived, he felt as though he was the one being interrogated as a suspect.

And while protests in some other places have called for abolishing the police or moving funding from law enforcement to other community services, Philome doesn’t want to destroy the Police Department; he and his fellow activists want to fundamentally change how it functions.

"I'm not here to burn down the Fargo P.D. I'm here to correct what's wrong and get us on the right path,” he said. “My brother's in law enforcement, which doesn't allow me to have the view of others, where some genuinely despise the police.”

Philome believes Fargo’s May 30 march devolved into a violent clash that left several downtown businesses damaged because Fargo police overreacted to protesters. He believes that, because the march leaders were Black, marching under the banner of Black Lives Matter, that there was an expectation they would be violent.

Cristie Jacobsen
Sgt. Cristie Jacobsen (center) of the Fargo Police Department, receives hugs from organizers at the end of a George Floyd memorial in Fargo, N.D., on June 5, 2020. Jacobson was brought up to the stage at Island Park while musicians performed the song "Lean on Me." Hundreds of people attended the rally, which included speeches, live music and dancing.
Dave Kolpack | AP file

He was angry afterward, when protest organizers’ records request to the city uncovered an email in which Police Chief David Todd called the protesters “thugs and domestic terrorists.”

Todd later said he regretted his words.

"I don't expect us to ever be policed the same way that white folks are. My hope is that we can be policed as human beings, and not as animals. That's the goal, it's really minimal. It's really minimal, and that's what I'm hoping to get to at least as a start before I start expecting more than that," he said.

Fargo’s activists have drafted a list of demands to the city. They want police to be better trained on cultural diversity. They want a citizen review board to oversee policing. And they want changes to police tactics they believe too often emphasize a violent posture.

“A lot of our cops in Fargo come from smaller towns. And in these smaller towns, they have very limited interaction with people who don’t look like them,” he said. “So when they get to a place as diverse as Fargo is, that’s something they’re going to struggle with.”

Organizers of the group called OneFargo — Angelina Sam Teewon, Anyiwei Maciek, Ritchell Aboa and Philome — have taken their demands to rallies, marches and City Hall. Discussions with city officials over the past few weeks have sometimes been fraught with tension. But Philome said he is willing to work with anyone who is honest about making change.

Organizer and activist Wess Philome
Organizer and activist Wess Philome holds a sign while standing at Fargo’s Island Park. Philome refers to the park — located in the downtown area — as “Justice Island.” Philome is activity seeking conversations with elected and community leaders.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

The past few weeks have been rife with frustration and hope. The frustration comes from conversations with the people he said continue to minimize the oppression of Black people.

"They'll say, ‘I'm really sorry that George Floyd died. It's terrible that happened.’ And you can hear them talk about that acceptance, but you're just waiting for the But,” he said. “‘I understand that he shouldn't have died, but the rioting and the looting.’ Or: ‘Yeah, Black lives matter, but it's all about all lives matter.’"

That frustration, he said, is tempered by the hope he derives from community support — and a rejection of racial bias that he sees being led by the young people around him.

“The younger generation does not want to live in a world where their young Black friends are uncomfortable. They don’t understand how racism works the same way that the older generation does that grew up in it. The younger generation wants an inclusive world,” he said.