APPLETON, MINN. – Rachel Rigenhagen arrives first and plants 29 small American flags along the curb, matching each one to a seam in the sidewalk outside the town hall. By the time she's finished, other masked members of her Appleton Community Diversity Coalition are showing up, carrying hand-painted signs reading "End Racism," "End White Silence" and "Racism Is Real."

At the other end of the block, Chuck Nielsen and Deanna Morrow unfurl large "Trump 2020" flags as unmasked supporters wearing red Trump hats cluster around them.

It's Thursday afternoon at 4:30. And that means it's time for the dueling demonstrations that have become a weekly fixture in this town of 1,400 residents about 150 miles west of the Twin Cities. Each week, social justice warriors gather to advocate for their vision of peace, diversity and equity.

And each week, supporters of President Donald Trump are on hand to protest what they believe are the destructive actions of some demonstrators for social justice. It's a microcosm of what's happening in America, with both sides passionately proclaiming their views and neither side appearing to make much headway in convincing the other.

"It's a bunch of bullcrap," Stan Munstermann, a white Trump supporter from nearby Dawson, Minn., said heatedly. "Black Lives Matter is racist as hell."

"These Black Lives Matter people, if you hid a paycheck under their work boots, they'd never find it. Or a job application," said Nielsen, a white retired trucker from the neighboring village of Holloway, Minn. Without offering proof, Nielsen and others insisted that the coalition demonstrators were being paid $15 an hour for their protest, a charge coalition members said wasn't true.

Rigenhagen, a white science teacher at Lac qui Parle Valley High School in Madison, Minn., started the diversity coalition after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May sparked a worldwide wave of protests for justice. The group began its weekly demonstration in June; shortly after, counterdemonstrators started showing up.

"The resistance is discouraging," Rigenhagen said. "But at least on Thursdays, I feel good that I'm among other people who feel the same."

"There's strength in numbers," said Jeremy Langford, a Black resident of Appleton who said he's personally experienced a lot of racism.

"I've been called the N-word," Langford said. "Or people will say, 'I don't have any problem with you — it's the rest of them.' "

Since George Floyd's death, activists along Minnesota's western edge have found a new energy, several organizers said. In cities such as Marshall and Montevideo, demonstrators have been emboldened to speak up in a conservative part of the state.

This region near the South Dakota border voted solidly for Trump; the four counties including and closest to Appleton all supported the president with between 59% and 61% of the vote in 2016. But social justice organizers said they're becoming more assertive about speaking their minds.

Before Floyd's death, people on the left may have been inclined to keep their views to themselves, said Celeste Suter, a leader of the Montevideo Area Peace Seekers.

"It's kind of that whole Minnesota Nice thing," said Suter, who is white. "These are my friends; they may not believe what I believe, but we're just going to kind of skirt that subject."

Now she's less likely to feel she can't voice an opinion that may be unpopular with her neighbors.

"We live in a wonderful country. We love America," Suter said. "It just has some quirks that need to be ironed out so we have true liberty and justice for all."

The Trump demonstrators in Appleton condemned the social unrest and property damage that followed Floyd's death.

"They're stealing [stuff], burning stuff up," Nielsen said, adding that he's demonstrating "for my children and grandchildren. I'm like Martin Luther King."

King was mentioned frequently by the Trump supporters, who cited the civil rights leader's dream to have his children judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

"Martin Luther King was a great man. So were other Black people," said Morrow, who is white and doesn't work because of a disability. "But these thugs who steal and burn things and kill people execution-style. …" Morrow said she's upset that the media don't give more coverage to Black-on-white crime, citing the recent death of a 5-year-old white boy in North Carolina who was allegedly shot in the head by a Black man as he rode his bike.

Several of the Trump supporters refused to give their names, saying they feared violent reprisals from Black Lives Matter supporters.

"I don't want a drive-by shooting," said one white man, who brought a bullhorn to the protest and sat in a lawn chair.

Said another white man, "With the things going on in the big city, we're afraid to say anything, because they might burn our house down."

Derek Sachs, a 25-year-old Walmart employee and Trump supporter, said such protests are a healthy expression of First Amendment rights.

"Everyone has a right to their own opinion," said Sachs, who is white. "When you start telling people they're wrong, I draw the line."

The coalition demonstrators, numbering about 45, and the dozen or so Trump supporters kept to their own ends of the block. One of the few people to start a dialogue with the other camp was Cynthia Huse, a white retired United Church of Christ pastor from Madison. She's had a lot of practice — her husband is a Trump voter.

Her message to the other side, she said, is that "we're all guilty people. We're just trying to live together as a country."

The demonstrators waved as cars and trucks drove by, honking to show support for one side or the other. At one point, a green pickup flying two large Trump flags drove slowly by, then turned and drove by again.

Living as a minority in rural Minnesota can be hard, said Reena Petrich, a 16-year-old Anishinaabe student at Yellow Medicine East High School in Granite Falls.

"I think we get looked at differently and treated differently," she said. "I think some people don't understand, and they think it's all about politics."

At 5:30, the dueling demonstrations ended, right on schedule. People packed up their signs and flags and water bottles and drifted off. A few remained to chat in small clusters. By 5:45, the sidewalk was empty.

Until next Thursday.

John Reinan • 612-673-7402