BAXTER — The Black Lives Matter movement arrived Friday, July 10, at the workplace of Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, to demand more police accountability from the state’s most powerful Republican.
The protest presented an intense contest of wills, typified by heated face-to-face arguments and shouted chants, with a number of people in both camps working to facilitate calm and understanding during flashpoints of disagreement. Protesters and counter-protesters gathered on Fairview Road in front of Gazelka’s insurance office, where he works as an agent.
Protesters characterized Gazelka as a roadblock to common sense, evidence-based legislation intended to curb police brutality and protect vulnerable communities. On the other side, counter-protesters defended Gazelka and denounced Black Lives Matter as dangerous and disingenuous. At various points, arguments reached a fever pitch but did not escalate into violence.
The protest was a conglomeration of activists, both from local communities and the Twin Cities metro, with affiliated organizations like Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Communities United Against Police Brutality, and the Minnesota Disability Justice Network, among others.
Roughly two-thirds of those present stood on the Black Lives Matter side, while a third accounted for a counter-protest gathering. In addition, protest organizers expressed concerns a right-leaning militia group was present on the south side of Highway 210.
Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted confirmed a group contacted him Thursday and he requested they remain on the highway’s south side, but noted they did not identify themselves and he could not confirm if they were a militia. He noted he would have made the same request of Black Lives Matter protesters if they contacted him in the same manner. Individuals equipped with firearms could be seen throughout the counter-protest gathering.
Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Minnesota, described Gazelka as a barrier to legislative efforts to protect people of color from state violence. Furthermore, he said the Nisswa-based lawmaker not only hampered these bills, but promoted a status quo of white supremacy during his tenure in St. Paul.
“Senator Gazelka has played defense in a time when the entire country saw how we really need to move on policies that do not criminalize poverty and black people in this country,” Hussein said. “Senator Gazelka is well known for doing this and standing to support state violence. … Senator Gazelka is someone who stands with police, even if they kill people of color. He has never made any effort in the past, or any time, to show that he actually understands what is happening in this country — the racism, the slavery, what led us to this moment.”
“We’re here to show that all lives are precious,” said Ben Ramir, a Minneapolis resident on the Black Lives Matter side. “Everyone’s life is significant and we just came here because Gazelka has blocked every kind of legislation that is intended to help the undocumented, the brown poeple, the black people — the people who want to break their chains.”
On the counter-protest side, organizer Doug Kern said Black Lives Matter was off-base in its criticism and its efforts to, in his words, dismantle or disband police departments were tantamount to insanity while hundreds of people are being murdered in urban centers like Chicago.
“I don’t care what their color are, these people’s lives mattered,” said Kern, who proceeded to read the names of more than 400 murder victims in Chicago throughout Friday’s protest. “The point of the microphone is to say their names. Remember, these are murder victims and police protect us from these idiots and criminal activity.”
Paul Edwards, a resident of Brainerd, said the Black Lives Matter movement lost all credibility the moment the first stone shattered a shop window amid riots that broke out during peaceful protests in Minneapolis.
“I subscribe to what Martin Luther King said to judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin,” Edwards said. “But then raises the question — how do you determine the content of their character? By their actions. When someone picks up a brick and throws it through the storefront, that’s the content of their character. When the police officer killed George Floyd, the contents of his character were definitely revealed by the same token.”
Organizers noted while Black Lives Matter is often portrayed as a left-leaning movement, protesters were expressing dissatisfaction with leadership from both major parties, in the city, state and federal levels. On Wednesday, protesters gathered at the home of House Speaker Melissa Hortman, a DFLer, while they directed their ire at Gazelka in much the same spirit.
“We’re not saying, ‘Bad Republican, good Democrat,’ or anything like that. We’re a pox on both houses,” said Michelle Gross of Communities United Against Police Brutality, who criticized Hortman as complicit with Gazelka in hamstringing efforts to reform law enforcement. “We didn’t just come up with this. These are sound, evidence-based recommendations to improve the police.”
Gross said lawmakers were presented with 44 recommendations for improvement in areas as wide-ranging as civil protections, civilian oversight, funding for mental health agencies to address nonviolent domestic issues, among others — all of which, she said, Gazelka has stonewalled and refused to engage in good faith, while Hortman has made backroom deals to circumvent these efforts.
In turn, it’s been nearly impossible to reach lawmakers behind concrete walls, barbed wire fences and armed security down in St. Paul, she noted, while politicians like Gazelka and Hortman refuse to answer emails, phone calls or meeting requests. While, as an activist, Gross said she’s usually opposed to imposing on people’s homes and places of work, current circumstances forced protesters to take their message to the recipients directly.
While Gazelka didn’t make an appearance during the protests in front of his business Friday, during an interview Thursday he stated the GOP offered 11 different forms of police reform to his counterparts on the DFL side, but he would not capitulate to a movement that looks to disband law enforcement across the state. DFL lawmakers in the House and Senate have previously released statements disbanding the police is not a goal they intend to pursue. Gazelka noted this assessment was based on the decisions of the Minneapolis City Council.
“We are not blocking police accountability measures,” Gazelka said. “We refuse to defund or dismantle the police.”
Later Friday night, protests continued along Washington Street in Brainerd, with those in support of Black Lives Matter on the north side and people displaying Trump signs and American flags on the other side. The windows of Advanced Auto Parts, which is located near the site of the protests, were preemptively covered with plywood ahead of the expected demonstrations.