There were two vigils for Philando Castile in Saint Paul yesterday. One started hours after he was killed. It began with veteran Black Lives Matter organizers and Castile’s friends and family in the streets of Falcon Heights and migrated to the front lawn of the governor’s mansion. At its largest, a loose knot of a couple hundred people milled along a manicured slice of tony Summit Avenue.
Organizers suggested a pause around five o'clock Thursday afternoon for people to walk from the governor's mansion to a more formal observance called by the parents and teachers of J.J. Hill Montessori School, where Castile supervised the cafeteria and students knew him as "Mr. Phil."
At J.J. Hill, over 1,000 people stood under dark and close clouds. People spread across a city block’s worth of parking lot and playground. Children and adults alike perched on the swing sets and monkey bars to see. The American flag hung limply at half-staff, competing for air against news-truck antennae and satellites.
The faces at the front were mostly black. They were activists and family members, community leaders and politicians. Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, spoke, anger and exhaustion finally roughing the edges of her self-possession. "They shot him when he still had his seatbelt on," she said with the finality of someone who realizes this is no longer news.
Sprinkled at the front among the veterans of Black Lives Matter protests were the white staff, teachers, and parents of the school. A blonde mother spoke, her face twisted in grief: "My kids asked me today what kind of people are out there," she sobbed. "I can’t wrap my head around it."
Some around her on the riser visibly flinched a bit at the newness of her heartache; she seemed to be surprised by the summary execution of a black man by police.
The color ratio of the crowd paled as it spread back to the street. "We expected 30 or 40 families," Tony Fragnito, one of the members of the school’s parent-teacher organization said later. "We thought it would just be people who knew him."
Earlier on, at the governor's mansion, the crowd was smaller and more intimate in every way. A round-robin of speakers kept the mic live through the morning and into the afternoon. A small but growing pyre of empty water bottles under the microphone stand attested to shared exertions.
Though there were leaders doing some basic herding — keeping people in line, unobtrusively tapping a forearm if someone went very long — the atmosphere was loose enough to encompass hymns, sobs, chants, and even a dance. The speakers kept coming, and no one stopped or vetted them. "A young woman in the crowd had said she wanted to speak? Where are you? You can come up now," said Nekima Levy-Pounds, Minneapolis NAACP president, when things started to lull.
The line between participant and audience blurred. People picked freely from a pile of donated food, including gluten-free pastries. A woman stumbled into me. "I feel a little faint," she said, so I got her a banana and a Trader Joe’s cookie. Strangers — black and white — passed a basket of strawberries along the line, eating them with their fingers and wiping juice away from their chins.
A white woman wearing a Libertarian Party t-shirt stood behind a card table piled with Papa John's boxes and foil trays filled with a meaty and somewhat suspicious-looking dish she called "a scramble." She helpfully pointed out which dishes didn’t contain pork. Soon, two members of Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli, a native peoples’ dancing group, helped themselves to pizza.
The floor was open to anyone who wanted to share their grief. Ideas, prayers, and outbursts tumbled out. A Somali refugee wondered if black men would be safer in that country’s civil war than in the streets of America. Someone said they should organize a boycott — it was unclear of what or whom. An hour later, someone else remembered that the Super Bowl would be coming to town next year and led a cheer: "Hell no, Super Bowl!"
A therapist reminded everyone to practice self-care: "Black people become crazy from this," she said. "Historical trauma is real." Two black veterans spoke, unrelated to one another. The first wondered how it could be that "If our country can send people over to liberate other people, why can't we liberate black people?" The second simply warned, "If they want a race war, they’ll get one."
A white pastor from the local Unitarian Universalist church asked for quiet. "Can you hear them? The stones are crying out: 'There are no other people’s children.'"
A volunteer from Black Votes Matter MN reminded everyone that their presence in the voting booth would be as valuable as, or more valuable than, it was in the streets. "And felons have rights in this state," he said. "If you are a black man who’s been incarcerated, get with me!"
A heavy-set black man introduced himself as being "from the street." He stood and pointed north, where Saint Paul’s black neighborhoods begin. "I'm here to represent Phil. This ain't political. This is unpolitical. This is the real."
Speakers kept circling around the question of what to do next. The only real point of agreement was that whatever had been done was not enough. "I’m done praying about this," a man said. "I’m done getting on my knees."
That money could move mountains came up again and again: "Our dollars matter."
Yes, everyone agreed.
"When we disrupt dollars, that's when they pay attention," the speaker continued. "We can't do this just off bottled water and strawberries."