Sometimes, the messages come in e-mails. Sometimes they are handwritten, in neat script.
More often than not, they come in the form of a phone call, where the voice on the other end of the line demands answers about terrorism and Islam, or commands this council member — and his staff — to go back to their (expletive) country.
After more than two years serving as the Minneapolis City Council’s first Somali-American — and only Muslim — member, Abdi Warsame has grown accustomed to a regular pattern of calls, e-mails and social media messages that run the gamut from thinly veiled bigotry to full-blown hate mail. But over the past few months, the comments have been coming more frequently, even at ward meetings where the big agenda topics are usually parks or road projects.
In a volatile summer dominated by a fiery presidential campaign, global terrorist attacks and police-community tensions at home, Warsame said it seems more people are feeling emboldened to lash out at anyone they can find to blame. In the past year, he’s led successful efforts to fund a new job-training center, redevelop local parks and ban plastic bags, among other municipal issues. He’s helped young Somali-Americans secure jobs as police officers and staffers at City Hall. But to some of the people on the phone and in his inbox, all of that is irrelevant. He is Muslim, and they are angry.
“That is the environment we find ourselves in,” Warsame said. “How much work do you have to do to prove yourself? What do you have to do to prove your patriotism?”
The issue flared again nationally last week when GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump told a Maine audience that Minnesota’s resettlement of Somali immigrants “is creating a rich pool of Islamist terror groups.”
Warsame, who was born in Somalia, grew up in England and moved to Minneapolis a decade ago, was elected to the council in 2013. He acknowledges that he’s certainly not the only elected official to receive harsh criticism, or even hate mail and threats. But particularly in the months after some presidential candidates began talking about patrolling Muslim neighborhoods, or banning Muslims from entering the country altogether, the notes he receives stand out.
“I want you people out of my state,” said one recent e-mail, in which the writer also said that “many” people are interested in forming a militia to patrol Somali neighborhoods.
Others have repeated similar lines or suggested that Warsame won’t do anything except help fellow Somalis. There are enough messages that Warsame’s council staff members eventually started a file for them. In ward meetings, Warsame has been fielding questions from constituents who want to know if his religion is misogynistic, about what he is going to do to fix the broad problem of young people ending up joining terrorist groups overseas.
“Everything seeps with this whole notion of: ‘You are others, we can ask you questions that we can’t ask other people,’ ” Warsame said. “I think it’s quite dangerous. It’s frustrating.”
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the country’s most high-profile Muslim elected official, said his office has also seen an uptick in hate mail in recent weeks. He is accustomed to criticism and threats about his religion — each time his staff sets out his mail, there’s a folder full of it — but he expects that recent political events are prompting more of it.
“If I were to venture a guess, I would say the conventions have given attention to people who are conveying anti-Muslim messages and it sort of greenlights people who have hate and fear within them,” he said. “They want to blame the Muslim community for the people who are really terrorists and hate Muslims as much as they do anyone else.”
In Minneapolis, Warsame said he’s more concerned about another trend: more East African residents coming into his office and worrying about what all of the political talk means for their futures. He’s heard from a woman with a master’s degree who worries that wearing a hijab is preventing her from getting hired. He’s met with young people who have asked if he’ll lose his job if Muslims were to be banned from entering the country. He’s counseled the parents of two young men who were shot near a Dinkytown mosque in what investigators described as a hate crime.
Alondra Cano, the first Mexican-American to serve on the Minneapolis City Council, has been vocal about comments and attacks that target her background. She said those kinds of messages tend to go up in number when she speaks out on hot-button political issues or is involved in a particular vote or campaign, more than around election season. But she said she believes the current election — and mentions by GOP candidate Trump about keeping immigrants and Muslims out of the country — is highlighting the kinds of thoughts and feelings that typically don’t get as much airtime.
“He is embracing that sentiment that has always been there,” she said.
Both Warsame and Cano, along with Ellison, are vocal supporters of Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Council Member Jacob Frey, who has worked with Warsame on several city issues, including a ride-sharing ordinance and last-minute legal tweaks on this year’s sick-leave vote, said Warsame isn’t prone to public complaining. But he said sometimes he can see Warsame’s weariness, as he fields comments about his religion.
“He’s a leader in a large and growing community of Somalis where struggles go way beyond potholes and development,” Frey said. “We all go home and take calls at night on constituent concerns, but the concerns that he gets, they are on a totally different level. You see it in his face.”