Over 150 people gathered at the Band Shell in Memorial Park for a peaceful protest against the violence and injustices against African Americans and people of color on Thursday night.

The movement was organized mostly by St. James area youth and by Lee Carlson. 

Recent St. James graduate Briar Lenz and soon-to-be seniors Gabriela Trapero and Nick Brey started the ceremony by sharing their thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement and introducing guest speakers.

"We have to realize that the movement towards equality and freedom does not stop when the hashtag black lives matter stops trending," said Lenz in his speech. 

An eight-minute, forty-six second moment of silence was held in honor of George Floyd who was recently killed by Minneapolis police officers.

Rebecca Walz, coordinator of the social justice club at St. James High School, highlighted the leadership of the youth involved in organizing the event.

"I think that it's so important— so many times teachers are leading— and to be able to take a seat and follow the students that have so much potential, especially in the realm of anti-racism and social justice is huge," said Walz. "I think these kids have great futures. I'm so incredibly proud of them to see their potential as leaders in the fight against racism and anti-blackness is huge."

The event's guest speakers are current finalists for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award.

Educator and St. James resident Lee Carlson was able to get into contact with Jess Davis, the current Minnesota Teacher of the Year, who pointed him in the direction of Omar McMillan, a finalist for Teacher of the Year.

The finalists worked on a way to get the finalists to the event in St. James.

The Teacher of the Year Award is typically announced in May with a banquet, but with COVID-19, the event has been tentatively scheduled for August.

"Instead of an awards banquet, these educators opted to be part of an action event," said Carlson.

In an interesting twist, McMillan and fellow guest speaker Bukata Hayes, whom Carlson did not coordinate with, have been associated since they were kids.

"I referenced Bukata Hayes as another speaker and Omar was shocked and excited because those two have known each other since they were 10-years-old back in Milwaukee," said Carlson. "Neither knew the other guy was also going to be at the event."

In addition to McMillan (Richfield) and Hayes, Shannon Finnegan (Hopkins), Maria Villavicencio (Eden Lake), Maya Kruger (St. Anthony's Village), and Qorsho Hassan (Burnsville) were also among the guest speakers.

"As I walked up these stairs, I got chills through my body," said McMillan. "My chills had mixed emotions. The first chill, I was so excited to look out into this crowd and see the young faces, the older faces, the white faces, the Latino faces, the men, the women, the boys, the girls, and it just ran through my body and I was so excited because this is the first step of change right here. But then I had that other chill. That pissed off chill."

"If all lives mattered, then we wouldn't have to say 'black lives matter'," said McMillan. "We wouldn't have to say 'blue lives matter,' we wouldn't have to say 'white lives matter,' we wouldn't have to have BET or black colleges. We wouldn't have separated things because all lives mattered."

Hassan, Villavicencio, Kruger, Finnegan, and Hayes all expressed flaws within the education system.

"I'm frustrated that the profession that I am a part of holds back students of color," said Hassan. "We are not prepared to provide them resources. We are not prepared to have them represented in their learning, and we are not prepared to offer them more."

Hassan also shared an anecdote from conversations with her fifth-grade students following the death of Floyd.

"Right after George Floyd was murdered, I knew this wasn't as usual and that we needed to talk about it. When I met them through zoom, my students were able to articulate their pain, their frustration, and their anger. These are ten and 11-year-olds that are aware of the world that they live in. They are tired. They've had enough."

"I shouldn't have felt a little bit of fear coming out here. I shouldn't have felt like 'I'm going out to the boonies, yikes. If I step out of my car I don't know what will happen.' But I did. Change that. That's my advice to you." 

Villavicencio emigrated from Ecuador to Eden Prairie when she was 13.

"I was so immersed in the system, that I was ashamed of what I represented," said Villavicencio. "It took me as a Latina four years of solid equity work to find who I am and be proud of who I am. We have a system that perpetuates and hurts people of color. We have to change that."

Kruger, a Mankato native, has spent time in classrooms in Ghana, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. Kruger also shared a poem that she wrote to the crowd about the educational system.

"We have this system of injustice and oppression and we're well aware of it now thanks to social media," said Kruger. This system didn't just exist, it's not flawed, it didn't happen by accident, it was constructed this way. If the system can be constructed this way, it can be deconstructed."

"We teach them that the best way to earn their civil rights is through Martin Luther King Jr.'s non-violence and civil disobedience because Malcolm X's anger and Stokely Carmichael's 'black power' chants make us uncomfortable."

Hayes, who is involved in philanthropy, also mentioned the systems previously noted.

"All of us were shaken out of the gray area with that video," said Hayes, discussing the death of Floyd. "That's why we're here. What I hope is that we stay in this moment of not wanting to be in the gray area."

"Some of our institutions, some of these structures and systems metaphorically do need to burned down and started over."

Following the speeches, the group of protestors walked to First Avenue South across from the football field to continue the rally until around 9:00 p.m. A small contingent of protestors stayed at Memorial Park late into the night discussing other social issues.

"It's crazy to think that we had this much support in this community," said Trapero following the protest. "It's amazing- to me- that our three voices made that much impact on this tiny community."