Black Lives, Pokemon, and Double Standards from St. Paul PD

By Rachel Wannarka and Jason Sole

In recent weeks, Rice Park in St. Paul has become a popular spot for Pokémon Go players to congregate. Twitter comments include, from August 2 at 10:12pm: “Crowd of about 100-200 people out at St. Paul's Rice Park playing Pokémon Go at 10:00 on a Tuesday night” with a video showing exactly that, and from August 7: “People playing Pokémon Go last night in Rice Park, St. Paul MN” accompanied by a video showing about 150 mostly white people running, talking loudly, and laughing in the dark. A Pokémon event for Rice Park on August 4 was officially scheduled to run 7pm to 11pm. Tony Haom, 36, of St. Paul writes: “I took the kids Wednesday night around 10pm and there were probably 200+ people there at Rice Park. If I had to guess, it’s a minimum 50 people at all times and that excludes people in their cars or hanging out on the opposite side of the streets. There seems to be more people after 10pm than in the daytime in my opinion.” Multiple people have noted that some Pokémon players bring blankets, coolers, folding chairs, etc, including at night as they stay. Rice Park officially closes at 9:30pm but police have obviously elected not to enforce this; instead, they have taken a lighthearted approach, as a tweet from 11:51pm July 30 documents: “St. Paul PD just drove by Rice Park blasting the Pokemon theme song.” We admit to not understanding the appeal of Pokémon Go ourselves but are happy to see people enjoying themselves in the park.

Police are not always so relaxed about park closing times. Friday night, a new black youth group called Awareness and Resistance 14 (AR14), which includes a large percentage of LGBTQ identifying individuals, was showing a documentary in Carty Park. According to organizer Chauntyl Allen of St. Paul, who advises AR14, the group was developed by the youth themselves for education, healing, and self care following the trauma many experienced at the hands of police during the occupation at the Governor's mansion. Allen says that the education component of AR14 is essential: "This type of information is not available in school. The youth haven't been taught history that looks like them." On Friday, "The youth were sitting in a public park trying to get information from people who care."

At the documentary showing, St. Paul police showed up in riot gear immediately after the official park closing time and six people were arrested with two actually booked into the Ramsey County Correctional Facility on charges of trespassing. The official police statement made no mention of either the selective enforcement or of the aggressive tactics, glossing over the disparate treatment.

Earlier this year, the Pioneer Press put out a comprehensive report on the racial gaps in Minnesota, which are among the worst in the nation. They highlighted that “Racial prejudice also continues to be an important factor” in these gaps, citing a Metropolitan Council study that controlled for age, education, and language skills. The criminal justice system is laced through with bias: “While blacks make up just 5 percent of Minnesota’s population, they make up 36 percent of the prison population.” A recent ACLU study of Minneapolis found “a startling disparity in the way police enforce low-level offenses” with black and Native American citizens disproportionately targeted. Meanwhile over the last seven years St. Paul police have killed more suspects than any other department in Minnesota – again, disproportionately people of color. These troubling gaps are one reason why activists sometimes refer to Minnesota as Jim Crow North.

Black youth in the Twin Cities know the statistics and they also know their lived experiences. Community outreach events with police and youth can be positive, but it is how police treat youth whom they encounter on the street, at the mall, or in a park that is remembered. Far too often those encounters are needlessly antagonistic, even traumatizing, for black youth. When black youth are treated differently than are white people in Minnesota, the police must be receptive to complaints and need to actually implement corrective changes. Youth and organizers who were at Carty Park Friday night provide a firsthand view of discriminatory, routine mistreatment by police.

Yhanté Williams, 18, describes the evening. “This black and LGBTQ youth group started AR14, they decided to hold an educational event about Rondo Days and the Black Power movement. It wasn’t any type of protest besides the march to the park to claim it as a new occupation space. No alcohol, drugs, partying, everyone was sitting there watching a movie. There were kids at the park, everyone was learning and having fun together. It was kind of a chill out after what had happened at the mansion. Everyone was tired after what had happened.”

When the police arrived, they didn’t simply send one officer to say that it was past closing time (which, again, would already be a selective enforcement), but instead: “the police pulled up in like 8 different big black vans and they got really close really fast. They were taking their batons saying ‘move back, move back’ we said ‘we’re not going anywhere we’re sitting in the park. Is this how you approach other people sitting in the park?’ I went back to grab the rest of our blankets and stuff. Next thing I know they’re surrounding us telling us to leave, but they wouldn’t let us leave. A protester tried to leave the circle and they pushed her back in with their batons.” Williams was arrested and requested a female officer to handle the check for weapons, but a “male officer lifted up my skirt, I looked at him and he put his hands up in the air like he didn’t do anything. He was just there holding my hand up on the car and I felt my skirt go up. I was like, “what are you doing?” He was like ma'am get in the car.”

Frustratingly, “They wouldn’t tell me why i was arrested until way after, no one would tell me why I was being held. You asked why and they literally looked in my face and said ‘we don’t know, you have to wait.’” Williams was held until 5am and was apparently detained because she had been previously arrested in front of the mansion – where police also surrounded large groups of protesters and refused to let anyone leave. The legality of all these arrests in public spaces seems to us to be rather dubious, which is perhaps why police don’t employ these tactics against a neighborhood that shuts off their street for a spontaneous block party, or Pokémon Go players in a park after closing.

Activist Michaela Nichole Day filmed the police raid on the movie watchers. She gave us her perspective: “Under Chief Axtell’s command, Mayor Coleman and Governor Dayton’s police force showed up in riot gear about 50 deep for around 30 people watching an educational movie in the park that was organized by youth with the support of the Rondo neighbors and community. St. Paul police shouted for people to leave whilst simultaneously surrounding people so they couldn’t leave. They even pushed people from the sidewalk onto the park grass while telling them to leave the park. They made a point to target youth (and their supporters) who organized educational events. Police needlessly and violently tackled Black females to the ground but were less violent with “white” people they arrested without tackling them. This is another example of Jim Crow Minnesota as usual. The irony is not lost on us that there was a public relations photo op earlier in the day with St. Paul police officers playing basketball with youth on the West Side. They will take a photo op with Black and Brown youth any chance they get, and turn around treat them like three-fifths of a person.”

Chauntyl Allen wrote her thoughts about the incident. “It’s very disappointing that young people have organized hard to build within the intergenerational gaps that formed through systematic design to oppress. These students took the initiative to set up classroom space to learn about things that are eliminated from standard education. We were sitting on the grass watching a documentary to educate the youth in this movement when St. Paul police moved in and surrounded us with fully loaded semi-automatic weapons and began to violently arrest people. There were specific organizers targeted. The organizers that spoke at the rally, and earlier on the news, were first to be surrounded and detained. I’m really starting to be concerned for my safety and other organizers attempting to inject truth, love, and humanity back into the system. The police brought trash trucks and disposed of our entire classroom. Everyone claims they want youth involvement but when it shows up they shut it down. They thought that they could break our spirits and we wouldn’t continue this powerful work, but the positive response from the community tells us we need to do it! They come at us with guns but it won’t work because our thoughts are bulletproof.”

We write here as parents of young children who are inspired and impressed by the passion, insight, and effectiveness of youth who are working for change. These are the future leaders of our communities: future business owners, scientists, politicians, writers, teachers, cops, firefighters, artists, reporters, or whatever else they aspire to be. These youth are actively creating a better Twin Cities for our own children, and their friends, and the next generation. How can we best support these efforts to address the injustices that continue to plague our communities of color? Accountability for wildly disparate treatment is a necessary first step. Antagonistic and unnecessary arrests at a park movie event can’t be the answer.

It is not justice when black youth in a park for education are met with riot gear and forceful arrests, while hundreds of people playing Pokemon Go at all hours in a park are met with support and songs. There needs to be justice for Philando and also for the youth who are spearheading efforts to ensure fairness, justice and equality.