Open Letter to St. Paul's Mayor and Police Chief After Arrests on Interstate 94

July 12, 2016
Mayor Chris Coleman
Police Chief Todd Axtell
City of St. Paul
St. Paul, MN 55406-1322

Dear Mayor Coleman and Chief Axtell,

I wish I was able to have been in the streets on Saturday night with some of my friends, standing in solidarity as a white ally to Black Lives Matter – alas, I couldn’t risk arrest because of a recent blood clot requires medicine twice a day for the next three months and I couldn’t take the risk of being unable to take that medicine. I, like many of those friends, have taken training in “militant nonviolence” as a way of working for social change which I think you also must recognize must happen quickly  - especially in the wake of the killing of Philando Castille – if we are to avoid even greater social disorder and disruption.

I think you’ve made a terrible mistake in judgment in “overcharging” most of those arrested on Interstate 94 with Third-degree Riot. Did you notice that most of those who were so-charged were white, middle-class activist-types who have been the bedrock of our communities for years? [Please note: the “overcharging” refers to a peaceful, nonviolent gathering –with the notable exception of some outsiders not affiliated with Black Lives Matter and/or Standing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) activists – rather than the fact that most were “white” or middle-class.]

Many of those arrested went there precisely for that purpose: to commit public civil disobedience as an act of solidarity with people of color to stay to them: as a white ally, I feel your pain, hurt, and suffering. I, too, want to end the silence in our state about the system of white silence which allows the continuation of policies of white supremacy to infect our police departments. [I say this with a deep sadness as someone who deeply loves and cares for my brother-in-law in western Pennsylvania who is both a retired Chief of Police and a retired Mayor of his hometown, the small city of New Kensington. While he an I have our friendly disagreements about the use and tactic of civil disobedience, I know he, like you, is fair-minded and full of distress at the racial chasm we have allowed to fester in our nation.]

I am one of the 25 white allies arrested for blocking the Light Rail tracks on the afternoon of the Twins Opener this April and will be in court to face those charges next week. I am ready and willing to go to jail as an act of solidarity with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis for it. I‘m grateful to hear that you, Chief Axtell, publicly stated yesterday that you will continue to work with the Black Lives Matter movement as Chief. I was present and grateful to first encounter you several weeks ago before your appointment as Chief of Police when you came to the event at a mosque/Islamic Center in Frogtown on Islamaphobia and stood side-by-side with the Imam and said how necessary it is to work together to better our community. I was there as a white Christian ally to show my Muslim brothers and sisters that they are a valued part of our community.

If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion to both of you for the next time such a confrontation occurs: give the mandated 3 warnings and then make the requisite arrests without the smoke bombs and pepper spray. Yes, keep your officers safe – I, too, like most of my friends absolutely denounce the handful of self-proclaimed “anarchists” who hide in the crowd and throw stones and invectives while covering their faces and their shameful acts. Just arrest those who are there who want to be arrested as an act of solidarity and want to be able to stand in Court to denounce our white supremist system which so devalues the lives of others – both Black Lives as well as Blue Lives. Those self-proclaimed “anarchists” want nothing more than a police over-reaction and the chaos it produces and gives many of my true anarchist friends who are committed to a thoroughgoing nonviolence a bad name.

I can say with certain assurance that my friend and neighbor, Linda Clare Breitag, along with her daughter Sophia Breitag, who were charged with “third-degree riot” and held in your jail for two nights acted with the best of intentions as white allies and their treatment and jailing brings disgrace and shame to your great city. Yes, I expect both of you to take a stand defending your police – especially when they are under physical attack – while not falling into the trap of those who seek more chaos into our seething racial cauldron.

I, too, question some of the tactics of some of the young leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement – especially in blocking interstate highways – but it is obvious (at least to me) that our previous nonviolent tactics have so far not brought about the justice and brotherhood (and sisterhood) that Dr. King died for almost 50 years ago. I am willing to suspend my own preferences of tactical style to allow this new generation of leadership to emerge as long as they continue to embrace nonviolence. We need to find a way to separate out those few actors (in both the ranks of the police as well as “protesters”) who seek violent confrontation rather than threat de-escalation.

I don’t covet your difficult jobs – but surely both of you could do better. Please, at the very least, drop the scurrilous charge of “riot” while leaving at appropriate change of “failure to obey a lawful order” or “impeding traffic on a highway” and recognize the important role that civil disobedience has always played in social change in our nation.


Steve Clemens
2912 E. 24th Street
Minneapolis, MN 55406-1322