BEMIDJI, Minn. – As a movement for racial justice spread across America, residents protested in Paul Bunyan Park. Community leaders pushed for the police department to have a citizen advisory commission, questioning why the majority of jail detainees are Native American.
The small Black community here found a greater voice in a region where American Indians are the largest racial minority group and the Leech Lake, White Earth and Red Lake reservations surround this mostly white city of 15,000.
But some worry that the rhetoric of the presidential campaign is dealing a blow to race relations in Beltrami County. President Donald Trump at his rally here last week denounced refugees and praised his nearly all-white crowd’s “good genes” and the state’s pioneers, with no acknowledgment of the county’s 22% Native population.
Backers of Democratic nominee Joe Biden accuse Trump and his supporters of racist rhetoric while Trump voters say they are supporting him due to concerns about the economy and abortion, and that the media and liberals are the ones sowing discord.
Discussions on race are happening against a backdrop of political divisions in a swing county that voted for Barack Obama twice before 50.6% supported Trump. A January vote by county commissioners against refugee resettlement set off a furor that drew national attention.
“I’ve sat on every race relations committee and board in this city but one in [the past] 30 years and we have not been able to break that cycle of misunderstanding. … We live in very different cultures,” said Audrey Thayer, a member of White Earth and an arts and humanities instructor at Leech Lake Tribal College.
Hours before the rally, Myiesha Beasley joined dozens of others north of the Westridge Shopping Center in protest. As she held a Black Lives Matter sign along Paul Bunyan Drive, Beasley heard trucks flying Trump flags revving their engines, the drivers sneering. Amid the honks of support, some motorists flashed a middle finger.
“All lives matter!” someone yelled.
“Black lives suck!” another called out.
“Four more years!” a man chanted into a megaphone.
“Our jails are all people of color; a big percentage end up incarcerated and we’re targeted because of the color of our skin,” said Beasley, a 22-year-old personal care assistant whose mother is a member of the Red Lake Nation and whose father is Black. “Black lives matter, Native lives matter, and people need to know that.”
She and other protesters suggested that Trump chose Bemidji because he would have an audience for racially inflammatory remarks.
“Trump came here because he knows Bemidji is so racist and he’s stirring the pot for trouble,” said Karen White.
She lives on the Red Lake reservation but dropped her tribal license plates in favor of Minnesota tags to avoid racial profiling. Other Natives report being harassed when they come to Bemidji with tribal tags. White Earth resident Bob Shimek, who calls Bemidji the “racist armpit” of northern Minnesota, said recently a man at a gas station saw his tribal plates and said, “Get the [expletive] out of here!”
“There are white people who aren’t prejudiced, but they don’t know what we live through every time we come to Bemidji,” said White.
Jo Merschman was troubled by Snapchat posts showing some white residents making exaggerated war cries as they drove by Native protesters. She remembers yearly skirmishes between white and Indian students in high school, and how managers at a retail job implicitly urged her to profile some Native American shoppers.
“This is a conservative area and all I hear is, ‘I don’t see it, I don’t see it,’ ” said Merschman, a 20-year-old college student, of racism. “Well, this isn’t a very diverse area, either. They aren’t seeing the injustices happening firsthand so they don’t see it as a problem.”
Amber Stegman, who is white, said she was out with friends at a bar when a Native American patron demanded that she remove her Trump hat and called her a racist. Stegman, whose own group included Natives, said she replied that she was not a racist and offered to buy the woman a drink.
“I love Bemidji, I love all Natives, I love all people, I am an American and I don’t hate on anybody,” Stegman recalled saying. “She continued to tell me I’m a racist and that she would beat me up if I didn’t take my hat off.”
Stegman said that low taxes are her top political issue and that the media are trying falsely to portray Trump and Republicans as racist. Stegman said that “Black people have had it hard,” but she’s tired of the divisiveness on social media and TV.
“I can’t watch the news anymore,” said Stegman. “It makes me sick just listening to how much hate is in the world. I don’t want to hear about riots. I don’t want to hear about racism. I don’t want to hear about Black Lives Matter. I think all lives matter.”
The idea that Trump came to Bemidji to appeal to racists is an “unfair characterization,” according to Bill Batchelder, owner of Bemidji Woolen Mills. He acknowledged that racism exists, but said there’s tremendous opportunity in this country, and the local Native American community has many success stories. He supports the president because he’s pro-industry.
“I truly believe the solution is strength through education, strength through personal responsibility. … I think Trump has given incredible opportunities for those that have felt they were a victim of racism,” said Batchelder, who stood behind the president at the rally holding a “Make America Great” sign. “He’s providing industry for jobs so you can have a beautiful home, so you can raise a beautiful family and you can live the American dream.”
Thayer wants to see more mutual education and interactions between whites and Natives in the region. She also supports the idea of a citizen advisory commission for the police department, in addition to opening a human rights office.
“You can see that audience at [the Trump protest] was fairly brown and they’re the ones that feel not heard in this city,” said Thayer, who is running for the Bemidji City Council. “And my message to them is that we’ve got to vote and we’ve got to do some healing and we’ve got to help … We can continue to say they don’t like us, but what are we doing to help them understand who we are?”
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, several hundred people gathered for a protest downtown. The area saw no violence as riots broke out in the Twin Cities, though some feared vigilante patrols, and authorities found accelerants, leaves and broken-up pallets in trash cans.
The mayor of Blackduck stepped down after sharing a Facebook meme showing a blood-soaked vehicle with the caption: “I don’t know what you mean by protesters on the freeway. I came through no problem.” And Republican Rep. Matt Grossell, a former sheriff’s deputy from neighboring Clearwater County, drew controversy when he posted on Facebook that Floyd’s death has been used to destroy the republic and that “this is not about race, though it is being used in an attempt to divide us as Americans.”
Sixty-year-old Bemidji resident Donna Liend said she went back and forth on Facebook with the friend of a friend who argued that Black people want to take over the country. “I told him there are outsiders infiltrating peaceful protests and you can’t put that on the movement,” said Liend, who is white. “He said, ‘You’re such a fool to believe that — you’re such a sheep.’ ”
In recent months, a racially mixed group started meeting at Jacob Wiley’s house to talk about their frustration with racial bias in the local schools and criminal justice system. They formed the organization Project for Change to push for shifts in public policy and recently staged a protest at Paul Bunyan Park.
“There’s a lot of interest but there’s also a lot of pushback,” said Wiley, who is co-president and among the 0.9% of Black Beltrami County residents. “There’s a lot of people that yell at us and they say change doesn’t need to come.”