Vigil, protest calls for community action

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The same day Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were laid to rest, a crowd of more than 50 gathered in Superior to light candles for them. The vigil and protest included music, speeches, tears and a chance for members of the community to express themselves.

"I think it’s very important," said Dorothy Wolden of Superior, a member of Grandmothers for Peace. "This is important for the community to mourn, be together and figure out what’s going to change."

Friday’s event at the Douglas County Government Center came in the wake of the fatal police shootings of Castile in St. Paul, Minn., and Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., who were both black men, as well as a deadly sniper attack in Dallas, Texas, that left five police officers dead.

"We’re here for a purpose," said organizer Kym Young. "That purpose is to unite and to eradicate racism, to end hate and to ask — no demand — that the killing and abuse and brutality to black, brown and native bodies end."

Ernesto Chon Soto told the crowd it’s time to acknowledge racism and injustice toward people of color and stand together.

"As I look into the crowd, what I truly see is unity," said Sota, a University of Wisconsin-Superior student. "I see a family with everyone coming from different paths of life … We are una familia, a family."

The event, one of 37 nationwide, was more than a time to mourn. It was a call to action.

"We need to actively turn our fierce objection and anger into action," said Shawnu Albertus-Ksincinski of Superior, a YWCA board member.

That could include standing up to someone telling an off-color joke or speaking out if you see another person being treated unfairly, Young said. It could mean supporting certain legislation or sharing personal stories. For Chon Soto, education for all is key.

Don’t automatically lock your car door or grab your purse close when a person of color walks by, said Stephan Witherspoon, president of the Superior Police and Fire Commission.

"We don’t need to be scared of each other," he said. "You and I are the same … We are in this together."

Sowing trust can start with a handshake and "hello."

"Once we don’t know each other we fill in the spaces with prejudice and bias," said University of Wisconsin-Superior associate professor Ephraim Nikoi. "We need to get to know each other."

Witherspoon spoke with Superior Police Chief Nicholas Alexander, who was out of town, prior to the event. He told the crowd Alexander expressed a desire to build trust through training and community policing, including a focus on getting out and interacting with kids.

"Get out and talk with kids, dance with kids, throw footballs with kids … if you do that, and people know who you are in your community, that’s a happier community, that’s a safer community, and everybody feels validated," Witherspoon said.

Young pointed out positive steps the Duluth and Superior police departments are taking, including increased training and exploration of non-lethal tactics.

She also expressed frustration that Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen chose not to speak at the event. He was listed as a speaker, but did not attend.

Hagen said that he had initially been told it was a vigil to honor the slain police officers. When he arrived, he didn’t see a single sign supporting police officers. Young told him it was a vigil and a protest, so he left.

"I’ll go to any legitimately organized vigil that has a positive message, but I’m not going to be part of a protest," Hagen said. "We need to bring our country together, not tear it apart."

Wolden is an early childhood educator.

"Some of the kids I cared for are now the age of Alton Sterling," she said. "Other children are the age of Philando Castile."

Wolden tries to teach all her students to care for themselves and one another, help when they can, stop others if you see them doing harm and to be safe.

"We want them to be safe; they must be safe," Wolden said. "We want them to feel respected … All children are our children."

Sunday, a Missouri gunman killed three officers and wounded three others in a Baton Rouge, La., ambush. Reuters reported that the officers were specifically targeted by the man, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.

The crowd outside the government center Friday included people of all ages. Carol Jones of Superior attended the rally with her daughter and three grandsons.

"I was hoping more people would show up," Jones said. "I guess this is a start. We’ve got to start somewhere."