Nick Brey, Gabriela Trapero and Briar Lenz: This moment is ‘more than a trend’

How three St. James high school students mobilized small-town protest

Three youth sit on a picnic table outside.
Gabriela Trapero, Nick Brey and Briar Lenz helped lead a protest in St. James, Minn., following the police killing of George Floyd. More than 150 people attended the demonstration, which took place June 11 at the town's Memorial Park.
Christine T. Nguyen | 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.

After George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, three high school students decided to share a message with their southern Minnesota town: Racism is never OK.

People don’t talk openly about racial inequities in St. James, a town of about 5,000. But after Floyd’s death, those who supported the Black Lives Matter movement suddenly saw things with razor-sharp focus.

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“We realized that silence is not going to be acceptable or the norm anymore,” said Briar Lenz, 18. “We realized, we’re not doing enough and it’s about taking some responsibility for that and realizing that we have to do something about it from our positions.”

That was when Lenz, recent high school graduate, and two former classmates: Gabriela Trapero, 17, and Nick Brey, also 17, started organizing a protest in town. Trapero is Latinx, Brey and Lenz are white. For them, this movement was much more than just what was being shared on social media or a trending hashtag — it was a reckoning.

“It really changed me,” Brey said. “I was at one point, just embarrassed to be white because it’s just disgusting to see that white people can get away with just about anything, but people of color lose their lives over such simple things. It just clicked one day that I just had to stop worrying about what other people’s opinions were and I needed to amplify the voices of people who are often drowned out.”

Trapero, a senior at St. James High School, said she and loved ones experience microaggressions in her community as well as in bigger cities, like Mankato.

St. James is predominantly white, but more than 37 percent identifies as Hispanic or Latinx.

“I feel like people that don’t live in Minnesota need to know that racism happens and like the tiniest forms, but it still hurts a person,” she said. “I’ve been watched in the store, like double checking that I didn’t take anything. Whenever I talk in Spanish in front of people, they’re always surprised and give me this dirty look after. I just feel like it’s small-minded people who always get offended by people of different cultures.”

When word got out about the protest, the students were criticized on Snapchat and Facebook. Some messages were hateful. Then came anonymous death threats.

“We had a couple of threats of people saying they were going to run us over,” Trapero said. “There were a couple of people saying they’re going to completely crash the protests and stuff. In the back of my mind, I was very scared. But, then I was also really hopeful that a bunch of people in the community would come together and speak their truth and to have their voices heard, especially the youth of the community.”

More than 150 people attended the protest near the band shell at Memorial Park on June 11. As they kept 6 feet apart, protesters wore face masks, hoisted Black Lives Matter signs and listened to guest speakers. They marched to First Avenue South across from the football field, and continued the rally until late that night.

The participants varied in age, race and gender. Organizers said they were stunned, but pleased by the turnout. Their protest was one of many statewide in support of dismantling systemic racism and seeking justice for individuals such as Floyd. The smaller demonstrations changed perceptions, including their own.

“Growing up in a small town, you always hear that small towns have their opinions and a lot of them aren’t willing to change,” Brey said. “My opinion was that if they see it, they’re not going to say anything. … But it’s amazing to see that small communities have such a big voice in an event like this and it’s amazing just to see how many small communities are actually taking part in this movement.”

Yet, all three acknowledge they should continue the work in St. James.

“I can’t stop after the hashtags trend,” Lenz said. “Even people in small towns are realizing that right now the Black Lives Matter movement shouldn’t be a political issue. It’s a human rights issue.”