ST. CLOUD – Haji Yusuf was shopping at a grocery store here when he saw a white woman accuse the East African immigrants in the checkout lane of belonging to an Islamic terrorist group.
“Get out of our country! I don’t want you here!” he recalled her saying.
Members of the surging African population in the St. Cloud area have reported some disturbing encounters with longtime locals, from classmates trying to pull off their hijabs to shouts that they should return to their homeland. Four Minnesota legislators were among about 100 people who met last week to discuss what they believe is the threat of sharia law to U.S. law and culture.
Amid growing racial tensions, Gov. Mark Dayton is seeking $180,000 in legislative funding to improve a satellite office of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights at St. Cloud’s City Hall. The state now sends an enforcement officer from St. Paul one day a month to hold office hours.
“That’s really inadequate,” said Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud. “We’re a good-sized regional center; we’ve got a sizable minority population. … There’s more work to do than what can be done in one day a month.”
In 2010, St. Cloud became the only town in Minnesota to have a local office of the state Department of Human Rights. The department assigned a state enforcement officer to work out of City Hall, investigating discrimination complaints and educating the community.
The officer left last fall. But even before that, records show that the office had limited success in addressing possible discrimination against African immigrants in St. Cloud. The rights department received 80 discrimination complaints from the city of 66,000 people in the past six years. Of those, just 15 were on the basis of race, religion, color or national origin (the rest were for age, disability or other reasons), and nearly all of the 15 were dismissed for lacking probable cause. Only two complaints from those categories were filed in the past two years, according to agency records.
Yusuf and other advocates said that boosting the human rights office in St. Cloud would go a long way toward resolving tensions.
“Even if it was open, enough was not being done,” said Yusuf, who owns an advertising firm and co-founded St. Cloud Somali Public Radio.
“Some of the people in our community are very proud,” he added. “They don’t want to be seen as bothering people that much. … They just don’t have time to go about complaining, and even if they did, they wouldn’t know where to start.”
Dayton committed to funding the human rights office last fall during a forum in St. Cloud that occasionally grew tense during a discussion on economic and academic disparities between black and white Minnesotans. The governor said he would not tolerate racial discrimination and told the audience, “If you can’t accept that, find another state.”
He wrote a letter in January to Knoblach and Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, who lead a working group on racial disparities, seeking the St. Cloud funding as part of a $15 million proposal to boost economic opportunities for minorities in Minnesota. The requests include $630,000 to accelerate the processing of discrimination cases at the main office of the Department of Human Rights.
Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said discrimination doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in a way that leads to the filing of a complaint. He wants the agency of 38 employees to go beyond just investigating charges.
“The real value of having someone there at the office is to really get at some of the underlying tensions and issues within St. Cloud, and that’s not always going to be the processing of a charge,” Lindsey said.
St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson said that there have been some racial incidents, including a case in which someone wrapped bacon around the doorknob of a Somali-owned business. But he said in other cases, East Africans weren’t targeted because of their cultural background. A drunk man vandalized seven vehicles outside an apartment building with Somali residents, he said, but the cops later learned that the perpetrator didn’t know the cars belonged to immigrants.
Several hundred people crowded into a room at the St. Cloud Public Library last week for a forum hosted by Minnesota Public Radio. It featured four people of East African descent, including Yusuf, speaking about their experience as Muslims.
Lul Hersi said there were two things about herself she could not change: the way she dresses, and her religion. She said that over her 14 years in St. Cloud, she had tried hard to educate anyone who asked about her culture.
“Most of us have assimilated or have tried to get into the community, but when somebody you want to talk to doesn’t want to smile back at you, how are you going to talk to that person?” Hersi asked. “We feel like we sometimes isolate ourselves from the larger community because we don’t feel welcome.”
She urged people not to be silent bystanders when they see harassment.
“I have been spit on by young boys; I have been called a terrorist,” Hersi said.
There are fresh signs that tensions are still simmering.
Last week, a crowd attended a chicken dinner and talk titled “Shariah 101” by Jeffrey Baumann, a Coon Rapids man who said he believes Muslims and sharia law will take over the country. Standing at the front of a ballroom at Michael’s Restaurant in St. Cloud, Baumann said Muslims will eventually outnumber Christians in the United States.
The evening was organized by Kathleen Virnig, the former owner of a Catholic bookstore in St. Cloud. She said she was “dragged through the mud” by critics on social media in the days before the event. “They aren’t even willing to hear what the other person is saying and they condemn them,” she said.
Virnig said refugees have overwhelmed St. Cloud’s ability to care for them, costing the taxpayers too much and bringing changes to the city that aren’t supported by local Christians.
Baumann encouraged people to go to interfaith dialogues and public talks on Islam in Mankato, Brooklyn Park and, next week, at St. Cloud State University. Baumann said that people should go to the foot-washing station at the SCSU student union and use it to “make a scene.” The station was installed in 2001 after a Muslim student slipped and hit her head while washing her feet at a bathroom sink.
“If they’re challenged, ask ‘Is this Muslim-only or is this a public facility?’ ” said Baumann, adding that someone should bring a video camera to make sure that it has an effect.
The four legislators who attended Baumann’s speech were Sens. David M. Brown, R-Becker, and Bruce D. Anderson, R-Buffalo, and Reps. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, and Cindy Pugh, R-Chanhassen. None returned calls and e-mails last week seeking comment, though Brown told MPR that Baumann’s talk was not an “Islam-is-terrible type of thing.”
Staff writer Matt McKinney contributed to this report.