Spurred by deadly shootings, Black Lives Matter group forms in Fargo-Moorhead
By Rick Abbott
Published July 16, 2016 - The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead
FARGO—As blood continues to spill from fatal shootings around the country—the killing of a black man by police in the Twin Cities, and three officers gunned down in Baton Rouge, La., the latest examples—a group in Fargo-Moorhead hopes to raise their voices while keeping the peace.
Spurred by the shooting of Philando Castile, the 32-year-old killed during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn., a group of young people here started a chapter last week of Black Lives Matter and staged more than a week of protests downtown.
As they huddled under a tree, shielding themselves from a steady rain on the U.S. Bank Plaza in downtown Fargo last week, Derrick Williams and Kilo Owen clutched signs and waved to passersby and honking cars.
They were early, expecting a couple dozen other people to show up as the night progressed.
Williams, 20, a junior at North Dakota State University and originally from Fort Hood, Texas, was one of the organizers of the local Black Lives Matter chapter. With under a week since he started the group's Facebook group, it had grown to more than 300 members.
Williams said Castile's shooting was "too close to home," a sentiment echoed by other young black people assembled downtown. It was "the tipping point in getting us here," he said.
"We want to have a more knowledgeable background for our community for justice, equality and peace," Williams said.
Owen, an 18-year-old NDSU freshman originally from Minneapolis, said the group started with just three people but has grown to around 40 at its downtown protests that started Thursday, July 7.
As the abnormally chilly, rainy July night last week darkened, Owen said one of their goals is to show the group members' commitment to their cause.
"If we're out here standing in the rain, it'll show the community how much we really mean what we're doing," he said. "We just want equal rights as much as anyone else wants equal rights."
Unlike their counterparts in the Twin Cities Black Lives Matter group, who staged large protests taking over major interstates, resulting in nearly two dozen officers being injured, members of the Fargo-Moorhead group have made peaceful protesting one of their major tenets.
"We're looking to help our community find equal ground," Williams said.
"We want to do it the peaceful way," Owen said.
Their nightly presence hasn't gone unnoticed by Fargo police. There has been a continuing dialogue between officers and organizers to make sure the peaceful gatherings stay that way.
Deputy Police Chief Joe Anderson talked with leaders of the group, pledging the department's support "in any way we could," and to ensure the protests were legal and safe.
"I'm all for what they stand for and obviously it's a bigger issue than just law enforcement and the Black Lives Matter movement. It goes beyond that," Anderson said, noting more "deep-seated issues" around the country like thinly veiled racism and a historically tenuous relationship between black people and police.
But those tensions aren't apparent here, both Anderson and Williams said.
"It's important for the police department to be trusted by the community," Anderson said. "Our goal is to be as transparent as possible."
Local Black Lives Matter members have largely seen support from people downtown, honking their horns or giving an enthusiastic thumbs up to sign-holders.
But there have been a couple of less-than-friendly interactions, said Lexi Byler, a 22-year-old senior at Minnesota State University Moorhead and president of the Black Student Union there.
One of those instances was when two white men driving by in a pickup chanted "build that wall," apparently referencing presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's stated plans for a border wall between Mexico and the U.S.
It's mostly been a "lot of people showing support," Byler said.
Still, living as a black person in a mostly white community can have its challenges, she said.
"We feel that we're treated differently because of our race," said Byler, a native of Hudson, Wis.
The deaths of Castile and Alton Sterling, who was shot and killed by officers outside a Baton Rouge, La., convenience store, happened within just a day of each other.
"Emotions had overflowed by that time and we were like, 'We need to do something,' " Byler said of the group's inception. "There's enough of us here that are passionate, care about it and are hurt by racism to make us want to organize and speak out in our own community."
Living as a black woman in a mostly white city, having to continuously combat stereotypes, is "really difficult and it can really wear you down," she said. "It's a lot to carry with you every day."
While there isn't much outright vocal racism on show here, Williams said, most of the problem is ignorance, with some not knowing any black people well or understanding their experience.
Williams and other organizers said their group's name doesn't mean they're anti-cop or against white people.
"We don't think that black lives only matter or black lives matter more, just that they matter as well," Williams said, a sentiment many of the protesters' placards carried.
When their run of rallies ends this weekend Black Lives Matter members in Fargo and Moorhead aim to continue their vocal advocacy.
In the planning stages is an equality run for sometime in August. Williams said its goal is to raise donations that would be sent back to local communities.
"We want everything to level out so we all can hold hands," Owen said.