‘Falcon Heights will never be the same’

The site where Philando Castile was shot and killed last July has become a daily reminder for Falcon Heights residents that “the nation is watching.” Photos by Kristal Leebrick

 

Philando Castile.

Twelve months ago, most Falcon Heights residents had never heard the name.

That changed July 6, 2016, when Castile, a 32-year-old black man from Robbinsdale, was shot and killed by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a traffic stop on Larpenteur Avenue.

Now, the man whose mother said “never talked much here” is “making a lot of noise.” Those words of Valerie Castile are etched into a wooden pillar erected at the makeshift memorial site next to where her son was killed, and Philando Castile’s legacy is shaping public policy in this small St. Paul suburb.

Valerie Castile’s words “struck home with me,” said Falcon Heights Mayor Peter Lindstrom. “Philando Castile was not a member of our community, did not live in our community, but what happened to him was transformational for our community and hopefully far beyond. People are talking now, and we have been since July 6.”

Yanez, 29, was charged with second-degree manslaughter in the shooting and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm for endangering Castile’s passengers, girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter.

Prosecutors argued that when Yanez stopped Castile for a nonworking brake light, Yanez failed to follow protocol when Castile told Yanez he had a gun. Defense attorneys argued that though Castile volunteered he had a gun with him, he did not disclose that he had a permit to carry it. When Castile reached for his pocket, Yanez claimed he believed Castile was reaching for his gun.

Yanez was found not guilty on all counts on June 16.

“This is not the verdict that we should have gotten,” said Melanie Leehy shortly after the verdict was announced. Leehy served as co-chair of the Falcon Heights Task Force on Policing and Inclusion, which came together in December to help the city develop new police policies and establish inclusive and welcoming practices for all residents and guests in the city.

“This case was supposed to be different,” she said. “This shows that we still need reform in police unions, in our judicial system. The way things are written, it favors the police.”

“My heart hurts for Philando’s family and friends,” said Paula Mielke, a Falcon Heights resident who is part of a group that pushed for police reform in the city after the shooting. “For their sake, we can’t stop pushing for changes in policing that so desperately need to happen. We have to continue to be loud for Philando.”

“Falcon Heights will never be the same,” Leehy said, “but I’ve got to believe we are on the path to bring about change that will be a lasting improvement on us as individuals and as a collective called the city of Falcon Heights.”

As the green signs that dot lawns throughout the city say, the nation is watching Falcon Heights as city officials and residents continue to deal with this high-profile shooting, the trial and its aftermath.

 

Center of the volcano

Mayor Lindstrom got the call from the city administrator around 10 p.m., less than an hour after Castile was shot last July. When the mayor showed up at the scene just a quarter mile from his home, he was told only that there had been an officer-involved shooting.

Mayor Peter Lindstrom

He’s not sure when he first saw the viral video of the shooting’s aftermath that Reynolds had posted on Facebook, but it didn’t take long for him to learn that the news had spread quickly—and widely.

“My phone started ringing off the hook about midnight with calls from people across the globe,” he said. Some callers were reporters, but most were angry people who saw his cellphone number after it was posted on social media.

He unplugged his landline and turned off the cellphone. The next morning, more than 60 messages were waiting for him.

He described those first days as being “at the center of the volcano.”

Lindstrom has lived in Falcon Heights since 1996. He’s married, has two boys ages 8 and 10, and said the city has “good schools, good neighbors” and is “a great place to raise a family.” He often rides his bike to his day job as local government outreach coordinator for the Clean Energy Resource Teams on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus. Lindstrom ran for mayor in 2007, after serving two terms on the City Council. He was re-elected to his third term in 2015. He loves to work with people and “brainstorm solutions, try things out,” he said. Before July 6, 2016, the city’s brainstorming sessions tended to address issues such as whether or not to install a sidewalk in front of the elementary school, he said.

Now Falcon Heights, which does not have its own police force, is preparing to end its long-term contract with the St. Anthony Police Department and is in contract negotiations with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. Along with that, the five-member City Council is looking to institute recommendations from the Task Force on Policing and Inclusion.

“We did have total trust in the St. Anthony Police Department. For 22 years, it was a good relationship,” Lindstrom said.

He was aware that the stretch of busy, four-lane Larpenteur that crosses through Lauderdale and Falcon Heights and is patrolled by St. Anthony police had a reputation for an easy traffic ticket, “but I can honestly say it did not come up with racial overtones, that [police] were racially profiling,” he said.

Residents attending a community forum one week after the shooting shared anecdotes that indicated a different view.

“Right away, there were groups of people—both from within the city and outside the city—that were encouraging us to cut the contract with [St. Anthony police] right then,” Lindstrom said. “The council didn’t feel comfortable breaking the contract until we had a chance to really think it through in a thorough and deliberate manner.”

He called for the creation of a policing task force at a July 13 community forum. “And it took a while to get it up and going. We had to, as a council, identify what the goals of the task force and what the charge of the task force would be,” he said. “And, quite frankly, what really was challenging was anytime we met, there would be 100 people in the audience. It was challenging to have a conversation when people were shouting you down. But we got it done. We created the task force.”

 

‘We Can Do Better’

With a background in public relations and marketing, Paula Mielke came up with the slogan “Falcon Heights We Can Do Better” for a coalition of residents who came together after the shooting to ask: “What can we do?”

A resident of Falcon Heights since 1990, Mielke loves the community, she said, so much so that when her family outgrew their first house on Arona Street, they bought a larger home across the street. She was heavily involved in the PTA and in volunteering at Falcon Heights Elementary School while her two sons attended. Her husband, Bruce, served on the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission and helped establish the Neighborhood Commission in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11. Community activism runs deep in the family: While in high school, the Mielkes’ older son, Luke, also served on the Parks and Rec Commission and younger son, Isaac, served on the Environment Commission. “We’ve always been involved in our community,” she said.

Paula Mielke with John Thompson and Thompson’s son, My’zjoh.

Mielke lives six blocks from Larpenteur and takes it daily to her upholstery business in Minneapolis.

“I drive past that spot every day,” she said.

When she heard about the shooting, she was filled with shock and disbelief, she said. “We always thought we were this progressive city, right? We’re a highly educated community. We have U of M professors everywhere,” she said. “When this happened, we asked, ‘What were we missing?’

Her first reaction was, “We can do better,” a reference to the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone’s renowned quote: “We all do better when we all do better.”

Then her marketing skills kicked in: She had T-shirts printed with the slogan and “started getting them out to people.”

For Mielke, doing better meant the City Council needed to move more quickly in communicating with residents and making decisions about the city’s relationship with the St. Anthony Police Department. The City Council held a special meeting just after the shooting to consider hiring a public relations person, but ultimately decided not to.

Communications from the city were “lackluster,” said Mielke, “so a group of us started meeting. We have met pretty much every Sunday since July 31.”

One of the first orders of business for the fledgling Falcon Heights We Can Do Better group was to submit a letter to the City Council requesting that it tell the acting St. Anthony police chief that he must appear before the next council meeting. When Lindstrom’s call to form a task force appeared to be stalled, the group submitted a resolution on Aug. 10 to the council proposing a task force on policing. And when it was learned that neither Falcon Heights nor the St. Anthony police had analyses of data on arrests and ticketing in the city, Mielke’s son Luke gathered it.

The group’s initial mission was to help the council, Mielke said. “We had this mindset that we were this small city, with a council of five, nonpartisan, that we should do something.” But when communication and responsiveness from the city “wasn’t happening,” Mielke’s group organized its own panel discussions at the Falcon Heights United Church of Christ (UCC).

The first We Can Do Better panel addressed Models for Community Policing on Sept. 29. More than 200 people showed up.

 

‘I’m just so tired of this’

Michael Wade attended the Sept. 29 meeting after co-workers brought it to his attention. It was in his neighborhood and “I was interested in hearing what people had to say,” he said.

Michael Wade

Wade lives at 1550 Larpenteur, the Falcon Heights Town Square apartment complex at the corner of corner,” he said, in this community of 5,384 people, 7.3 percent of whom are black, according to 2015 census figures.

Town Square consists of “two realities,” said Wade, who has lived there for three years. The complex has two buildings: One is for seniors, who are mostly white, while the other houses mostly African- Americans and Somali immigrants, he said.

“There have been people at these community meetings, white folks, who have claimed that it’s considered the black corner,” Wade said. “‘We try to avoid walking around that corner,’ they said.”

He smiled, adding: “I was glad for the honesty. People need to know that that ideology is out there.”

Last July 6, after spending a day in the heat laying asphalt, Wade drove down Larpenteur on his way home from work.

“By the time I got home a little bit after 8:30, my muscles were cramping up bad,” he said. “At the same time that Philando was getting shot,” Wade said, he was lying on his couch, icing his shoulder and watching TV. When the news reports broke about the shooting, “I realized this is just down the street. I had just come up that same way.”

He became quiet, and then: “I am glad I didn’t fit nobody’s description that day. I was like, wow, I’m just so tired of this.”

Wade—who in August self-published the book “Mirror on the Wall: Reflections of Racism and

Social Justice,” addressing the struggles of living through the setbacks systemic oppression causes—attended the September panel discussion but found it frustrating.

“The NAACP was there, ACLU was there, the women’s league was there and a retired black officer,

but I got fed up,” he said. “You called us here and you talked for like an hour and a half and you really said nothing. So I got up and I asked them, ‘Why do we have to train white officers not to shoot black children, but we don’t have to train them not to shoot white children?’

“Nobody answered my question.”

Several people came up to him afterward, however, and that’s when he was encouraged to join the task force the city was forming.

“I remember talking to the mayor that night. I thought about it, wasn’t sure I wanted to put myself out there like that. I’ve never been one to stand up for government,” he said. “I’ve been burned by a government that wasn’t developed for me.”

Wade has never been stopped by police in Falcon Heights, but his oldest son, now 22, has. In his front yard.

“He and his buddies were hanging out in front of the [apartment] building” where Wade lives. “Police came up and said, ‘What are you doing?’ Well, hey, they live here. This is private property. If you don’t see them doing anything wrong, you don’t need to stop them,” Wade said. “I mean, four black kids at an apartment building? Is that strange?” He laughed.

“I decided to join the task force.”

 

‘Reform, justice and healing’

Leehy heard sirens and vehicles race past her home the night of July 6 but didn’t learn of the Castile shooting until the next morning. As soon as she heard, she went to City Hall to offer help.

Leehy has lived in Falcon Heights for nearly 12 years and has served on and chaired a number of city commissions. Born in Minneapolis, she attended grade school there until her family moved to Brooklyn Park in the 1970s. There, she was one of three African- American girls in her middle school. In high school, she had no African-American friends.

“Some of my best friends from high school, a decade out of high school, told me that their whole family was prejudiced until they met our family,” she said. “I’ve seen the good, bad and ugly of racism both in the city as well as in the suburban areas.” Leehy, an ordained minister, runs a nonprofit called Mobilizing and Releasing Caring Hearts, or MARCH. She works with churches and other organizations in their outreach missions, work she refers to as “social justice and spiritual renewal.”

Melanie Leehy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One project she’s proud of is her work in Anoka in the 1990s at a coffeehouse that provided a safe place for young people who “didn’t fit into cultural norms and needed to be loved for who they are.” They were all white. She still calls them “my kids.”

Leehy has never experienced police bias in Falcon Heights, and she has friends who are police officers in other cities, she said. Nevertheless, she said she’s “seen it come against me and my family members.”

Despite the good relations built with the Anoka program years ago, “there were times I could not be the last one there and had to have escorts home because my staff knew that there was racism stuff going on [in the community]. They stayed around to protect me,” she said.

When Leehy was asked to cochair the Task Force on Policing and Inclusion, she readily agreed. “I want to help bring about change, to bring about reform and justice and healing,” she said.

She believes all of the public meetings, conversations and work done to create the recommendations for police and inclusion policies in the city will make a difference.

 

Community conversations

The Falcon Heights We Can Do Better group sponsored a second panel discussion at the UCC in

November. This time, the focus was on Implicit Bias and Social Justice. More than 200 people attended.

On Dec. 13, the City Council’s newly formed Task Force on Policing and Inclusion held its first meeting. As part of the task force’s work, the city scheduled five monthly Community Conversations. The first was held Feb. 15 at Falcon Heights Elementary School. Information gathered at these conversations was used to inform the task force as it developed recommendations that were made to the City Council. The council approved two sets of recommendations: one on policing in May and one on inclusion in June.

Policing recommendations include establishing a community police work group with experts on equity, policing and public policy to guide the city; a call for comprehensive data collection on all police interactions and crime in the city; and a list of policing priorities, which includes the recommendation that non-moving motor vehicle violations be a low priority and have police issue more warnings rather than tickets.

Inclusion recommendations include creating a committee dedicated to racial reconciliation and healing; dedicating staff time to forge partnerships, find grants and recruit volunteers to accomplish the efforts; and providing a variety of avenues to get people involved by varying times and locations, providing childcare and minimizing costs to make opportunities more accessible.

You can find the complete recommendations on the city’s website, falconheights.org.

The last scheduled Community Conversation was held Monday, June 19, just after this issue of the Bugle went to press and three days after the Castile trial ended. It is not lost on many that the community event aimed at reviewing the task force’s recommendations and discussing next steps for the city was held on Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the day in 1865 when slavery was abolished in Texas and, more generally, the emancipation of slaves throughout the Confederate South.

Wade was the only black member of the 12-member task force. Co-chair Leehy and co-facilitator Ken Morris, an adjunct professor at Hamline University, are also black. Despite a lack of racial diversity, both Leehy and Wade say there was a diversity of thought on the task force: “I feel there were both sides,” Wade said. “What I would call the pro-police version—‘Well, [Castile] did something wrong to be in that position. He needed to respect the policeman’ ” to “ ‘Hold on man, he said he was a permit-to-carry holder and you asked for his I.D. and that’s what he was reaching for.’ ”

He would have liked more time on the task force.

Leehy agrees that more could have been done had the task force run another six months, but said,“We cranked out a lot in a small amount of time. There comes a point where we have to let go and give it to the City Council and let them do their work.”

 

Ending the St. Anthony contract

Falcon Heights We Can Do Better kept pushing for the City Council to end the contract with St. Anthony and renegotiate it.

In the end, actions taken by the St. Anthony City Council got it done. In late March, the council passed a resolution to change the police contract and make the city of Falcon Heights solely liable for any police incident within its borders.

That move came out of the blue, said Lindstrom, “which was very disappointing to me and the rest of the council. They must have known this was not something that any city would abide by.

“They wanted us to take full liability over officers that we did not hire, over officers we do not train, over officers that we have no oversight over,” he said. “If there was a high-speed chase that started in St. Anthony, went through Roseville and some tragedy happened a foot into Falcon Heights, under their proposal, we would have 100 percent liability—and they did not do that for Lauderdale,” which also contracts with the nearby Minneapolis suburb.

Falcon Heights put out a call for letters of interest to nearby law enforcement agencies. Ramsey County is the only one that answered.

 

Getting it right

Every City Council and task force meeting, every City Council workshop, every Community

Conversation has had at least one member from the Falcon Heights We Can Do Better group in attendance since July 6, Mielke said.

They wanted to make sure Castile was always on the agenda, she said.

The group has connected with “black allies”—groups like the African American Leadership Council and people such as Castile’s good friend and co-worker John Thompson—who also have stayed focused on the council’s actions in regards to St. Anthony police.

“I remember a meeting when [a group of people] turned around and faced us and thanked us,” Mielke said.

“The person who has kept me going all these months is John Thompson. … When I think I don’t have the energy to go to or organize another meeting, I think of John,” she said. “From the beginning, he has said, ‘Falcon Heights, you have to get this right.’ ”

As the group moves past the trial, members are now working on learning “why the city is so white,” Mielke said. So far, research has found covenant clauses on many homes that said you “can’t sell to a person of color,” she said. Mielke’s own house had one, but “it’s scratched out and dated and notarized. It was there. You can read it, but lines are drawn threw it.”

“We think it would be great to look at zoning and policies that have stayed in place, when people don’t realize there’s a racial bias,” she said. “That’s what we’re looking at next.”

 

Say hello

The city of Falcon Heights has a lot of work to do, Lindstrom said.

“Everything was pretty hunky dory for 22 years, but I now recognize it was not that way for everybody,” he said. “The reality is if someone has a different skin color than mine, they may walk through this world with much different experiences than me. My skin color provides me with privileges that others don’t have, and all of us ought to be having those conversations to better educate us about those privileges and how to change it.”

Lindstrom’s advice to other communities: “Ask your police the hard questions around things like training: How much de-escalation training are they receiving? How much implicit-bias training are they receiving? How much critical incident training—which covers things like mental health training— are they receiving? Look at your commissions: Do you actively outreach to make sure your commissions have broad representation?”

Prioritize diversity in the police department, he said. “Emphasize a culture of what I’d call a guardian mentality instead of a warrior mentality,” he said. “You don’t want your officers believing that they are under fire all the time and the occupiers.”

Police need to know that they are partners with the community, he said.

For Wade, the path toward change in racial relations can’t start until people start talking to each other. “We have so much to learn from each other and nobody wants to just reach out to the other,” he said. “I used to work at a Holiday station out at White Bear Lake. I was told I was the first black guy to ever work at the store. Period. And my manager let me know that.

“That’s nothing to be proud of,” Wade said. “I’m their first black experience. Me, at 42 years of age, I shouldn’t be the first black anything.

“White folks say, ‘What can I do?’ ” One answer is simple, he said: Say, “Hi.”

“Don’t look shocked if you see me in Cub and I greet you,” he said. “Have a conversation with me. Opportunity comes in the most mysterious ways.

“You’re my neighbor. My interest is your interest. We may be able to help each other out,” he said.

“That’s how it starts.”

 

Yanez ends career at St. Anthony

Within an hour after the verdict was announced in the Yanez trial, the city of St. Anthony sent this notice out to the cities of Lauderdale and Falcon Heights: “The city of St. Anthony has concluded that the public will be best served if Officer Yanez is no longer an officer in our city. The city intends to offer Officer Yanez a voluntary separation agreement to help him transition to another career other than being a St. Anthony officer. The terms of this agreement will be negotiated in the near future, so are not available at this time. In the meantime, Officer Yanez will not return to active duty.”

 

‘Philando’s Garden’

Victor Toso has spent the last year tending the memorial site to Philando Castile next to the Larpenteur Avenue entrance to the Minnesota State Fair, a spot many refer to as “Philando’s Garden.”

Last summer, he coordinated with the fair’s grounds crew and removed all of the signs, flowers and adornments so the crew could mow. Through the winter, he kept torches burning, until he was told by fire officials that the flames were a hazard and he needed to stop. This spring, he decided to mow the site himself.

The wooden memorial erected at the site in February includes this quote from Philando Castile’s mother, Valerie. The memorial was spearhaded by members of Falcon Heights We Can Do Better: designed by Kate Lindgren and constructed by Bruce Mielke, Cody Austin and Chuck Laszewski.

He describes his caretaking as “self-selected.”

Toso lives a quick walk from the site, which makes it easy for him to maintain the area.

The night Castile was killed, Toso encountered the police blockade on the street as he made his way home after picking up a generator from a friend. A storm that had moved through the Twin Cities on July 5 had left areas of Falcon Heights without electricity. Toso stopped to get electrical cords from his shop, the Nada-Chair company on Larpenteur at Hwy. 280. When he got back onto Larpenteur, he saw the emergency lights. “I drove around the back way and because I had no electricity, there was zero news,” he says.

The news came at 6 a.m. the next day in a text from a friend in Europe who sent a link to an article from the London Times.

Toso grew up as a missionary kid in the former French colony of Madagascar. Castile’s death has made him question the U.S.’s colonial past, he says, and his own experience growing up in what he calls “a whole compound set up to be where the white man lives—apartheid with a crucifix.”

His best friend was the family cook’s daughter. “I never went anywhere without her, but whenever we played at my home, she never got past the porch,” he says. “I am 63 years old and pondering these things: How is it that child and I could not play together in my home?”

Victor Toso

Last July’s shooting made him think about apartheid in his own community, he says. “I really would like to see something change.”

The fact that an officer was charged was a first step, Toso says. “They just have to say they feared for their life, but underneath that phrase they are really saying, ‘I’m afraid because he was black.’ The black man has been made into the bogeyman,” he says. “It’s inherent. It’s instinctive.”

There is a movement to make this pop-up memorial site permanent. Sue Gehrz, who served as mayor of Falcon Heights for 12 years before stepping down in 2007, has formed a steering committee to work on that. Committee members include Castile’s mother, Valerie; his sister, Allysza; State Fair general manager Jerry Hammer, and Don Gault, a retiree who worked in violence prevention for Ramsey County Public Health. A public launch of a campaign to fund the memorial is being planned.

Gehrz says she understands that not everyone will be happy. She also expects a backlash from people who she says “will try to make [Castile] into a bad person.”

But Castile had a reputation at his job as a cafeteria supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori School in St. Paul as giving a lot to the kids at that school, Gehrz says. “The principal described him as ‘Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks.’ For many kids who didn’t have fathers, he was a surrogate father. He gave extra graham crackers to kids who were struggling.”

Gehrz envisions the memorial to be a “major healing-related piece.”

It “will mark the future,” Gehrz says. “People are eager to have a way to do something. How do we continue to grow and learn and work with law enforcement? How do we keep the community conversations going?”

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