Falcon Heights council walks out of work session


John Thompson and Falcon Heights resident Chuck Laszewski hugged following a heated discussion about black people’s fears of police at what was a Falcon Heights City Council work session on Sept. 7. Working in the wake of the police killing of Philando Castile in the suburb in July, the council was discussing a proposed city policing task force, though it walked out after protestors disrupted the meeting.

Protesters and residents discuss race issues long after officials are gone

“We have a duty to fight for our freedom, we have a duty to win,” chanted protesters marking the de facto end of the Sept. 7 Falcon Heights City Council work session, an hour after the council members walked out of it.

“We must love and support one another — we have nothing to lose but our chains,” the chant continued. “Power to the people.”

The work session was held two months and a day after Philando Castile was shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer during a traffic stop blocks away from City Hall on Larpenteur Avenue. The session was intended to be a council discussion of a proposed policing task force to be organized by the city.

The task force would, as proposed by Mayor Peter Lindstrom, take a hard look at data collection on policing, best practices, police training and how to implement community-based policing practices, as a means of addressing issues raised by the killing of Castile.

Instead, as council members shared a single cordless microphone and discussed the mechanics of how a task force would function, meeting attendees shouted over them demanding the city take swifter action, including the end of its contract with St. Anthony for police service.

 

Next council meeting cancelled, city to revisit task force at end of month

Speaking the morning after the Wednesday city council work session discussion of policing task force that ended early because of protests, City Administrator Sack Thongvanh said Falcon Heights’ regularly scheduled Sept. 14 council meeting was cancelled, because of ongoing disruptions at city meetings.

He said the disruptions impeded the city’s ability to handle its regular business, such as work on the 2017 budget, which Thongvanh said was running behind schedule.

He said the council would revisit the policing task force at its Sept. 28 meeting. 

Before the council exited its chambers, members said they were mostly in favor of setting up the task force, and Thongvanh said all of them backed the concept.

During the work session, Thongvanh said as an official city task force, any group sanctioned by the city to look at policing would have to abide by state open meeting and data practices law. 

Council member Pamela Harris said it might be difficult for the people chosen for the task force to abide by those laws, which she said could be applied to task force members talking on a street corner.

“I think there’s more to this than people understand,” she said.

Thongvanh said the details of how the task force will function will be finalized for the meeting at the end of the month.

As the council members attempted to continue their discussion, they largely ignored protestors’ comments, and Lindstrom was taken to task for not giving protestors a forum.

Lindstrom had prefaced the work session with prepared remarks, noting that unlike a regular city council meeting, council work sessions did not provide a time for public comment. 

He also thanked the Castile family for engaging with the city the past couple of months.

As people continued to talk over the council discussion, Lindstrom broke previous form and addressed protesters’ calls for action.

“What we would like to do is take action,” he said, adding, “this is what democracy looks like.”

The crowd was unmoved.

“You do not drive after dark through this neighborhood,” said a woman, previewing concerns aired by many about racial profiling by police in Falcon Heights. “How dare you thank the Castile family and this is all you got?” said a different woman. “When is the next election?” asked a third protester.

People in the council chambers continued to shout over the council discussion and protesters walked up to the council with signs, before Lindstrom stood and ended the council’s involvement in the evening.

“The council is in recess,” Lindstrom said. He and the council walked out around 7:30 p.m., an hour after the work session’s scheduled start. They did not return. 

 

Session continues without elected officials

Following the council’s exit, the chambers briefly grew tense during a confrontation between a white St. Anthony police officer and an older black man in attendance, though police left the room shortly after.

Though City Administrator Sack Thongvanh briefly reappeared to talk to attendees, the meeting took on a life of its own as protestors, who were mostly African-American, voiced their concerns about the killing of Castile and policing in general.

“I fear for my damn life coming through this city!” said John Thompson, a middle-aged black man wearing a blue baseball cap that said “Philando” in white lettering across the front.

Thompson and Chuck Laszewski, a Falcon Heights resident who had spoken at previous council meetings calling for an end of the city’s police contract with St. Anthony, were briefly nose-to-nose in a heated argument.

Laszewski said he supported protesters, but many told him that he could never understand black people’s life-and-death fear of police because he is white. 

Thompson later hugged Laszewski and the two had a quiet conversation in a corner of the council chambers.

Though the discussion continued to be contentious at times, it turned to serious talk of black people’s general fears of police, while many older white people, who largely identified themselves as Falcon Heights residents, tried to explain their attempts at understanding those fears.

The council chambers cleared following a seemingly impromptu chant of “We have a duty to fight for our freedom.” 

At least five St. Anthony police officers milled about the City Hall lobby as people left.

 

 

Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.

 

 

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