RED WING -- A 7-year-old girl, a school teacher and a police chief were among the voices heard in Central Park during a demonstration Saturday afternoon, June 6.
Organizers said the event was intended to promote racial unity in the river town of 16,500 people located about 50 miles southeast of the Twin Cities, where protests continued into the 12th day over the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.
Janae Vonch and her daughter, Sadie, 7, spoke during an open-mic period.
“I lived here about 10 years ago, and I know that the racism was really bad amongst cops,” Vonch said, sharing about being pulled over multiple times including one instance, she said police told her, because a black person in her vehicle matched the description of someone with a warrant.
Vonch recently moved back to town and said she doesn’t want her daughter to have a similar experience.
A short time later, Julie Martin, Twin Bluff Middle School teacher and chair of the city’s Human Rights Commission, said there are systemic problems affecting Red Wing students of color — including her own children.
“I have children that are brown skinned, and this week my daughter said to me, ‘Mom, I don’t want to get my driver’s license. I’m afraid to get my driver’s license. I don’t want to be pulled over,’” said Martin, who is white.
She went on to say the school district needs to take a different approach to increasing staff diversity, which elicited applause from the crowd.
“In 10 years they’ve never had a person of color as a teacher,” she said of her children. “They need to see people in a leadership position that look like them. It’s super important.”
Several dozen people attended the protest, including families with young children. It was a larger crowd than a May 30 protest in Central Park, but organizers said they would like to see more of the community participate. They plan to continue holding similar demonstrations every Saturday.
The protest opened with most of the crowd taking a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while chanting “I can’t breathe,” a reference to the length of time former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is accused of kneeling on Floyd’s neck.
Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman knelt along with the crowd before fielding occasionally heated questions about the department for around 30 minutes.
Pohlman said Red Wing police officers are not allowed to restrain someone by kneeling on their neck, and the policy is for officers to respond to complaints of distress, such as difficulty breathing, and to make adjustments.
If someone experiences or witnesses police misconduct, Pohlman encouraged them to call him directly to report it.
Asked if Red Wing police have access to pepper balls and other less-lethal equipment seen on video being used against protesters in cities around the country, Pohlman said they do.
“We have them and they are there for defense and protection,” he said, but added it is “completely unacceptable” to use such tools against citizens exercising their constitutional rights.
Saturday’s event also featured a march through downtown and a candlelight vigil.