A Muslim woman who said she felt threatened by men wearing white supremacist garb this weekend in downtown Stillwater led Monday to a police investigation and a social media storm.
According to a viral Facebook post by Sophia Rashid, she was enjoying hamburgers and root beer with her 4-year-old daughter at a popular malt shop Saturday evening when she spotted several men wearing "Aryan Cowboys" leather vests.
Rashid said some of the men were yelling at her or seemed to be talking about her, and three teenage servers from Leo's Grill and Malt Shop volunteered to escort her and her child to safety.
Rashid posted about the encounter on her Facebook page and included photos she said she took of the men and one of herself wearing a headscarf. By Monday afternoon her post had drawn more than 12,000 comments and had been shared at least 17,000 times. Many expressed sympathy for her, while others accused her of exaggerating.
Rashid, of Minneapolis, did not respond Monday to requests for comment.
Stillwater police issued a statement Monday saying an investigation was underway and noting that the St. Croix Valley city is a popular stop for motorcyclists and sometimes motorcycle gangs.
Mayor Ted Kozlowski said that while it's not illegal to wear offensive clothing, making a threat is a crime. He said he was proud of the teenagers who helped Rashid.
"The community stepped up to make this woman feel safe and to protect her," he said. "The people wearing the offensive garbage are not from our town."
Kozlowski said he's waiting to hear the results of the investigation. For now, he said, he may request that police increase foot patrols in the area.
"The visual of these people roaming our streets absolutely gives people concern," the mayor said. "I seriously hope and doubt that we're going to see it in the future."
Rashid, who referred to herself as a "very visible Muslim woman," said she and her daughter were dining outside Leo's when she first noticed some men walking up to a patio fence nearby. The men gestured at her and were talking among themselves, she wrote.
"I've been in not-all-that-safe situations around racists/islamophobes before, but this one was just different, and I knew it almost immediately," she wrote.
As she paid her bill, Rashid said she told her server about the "actual Nazis." The teenage waitress insisted that Rashid allow her and two other waitresses to walk the mother and daughter safely to their car, Rashid said.
Along the way, they encountered more groups of men wearing Aryan Cowboy Brotherhood vests, some of whom approached Rashid or yelled at her, she said. About 20 men in similar jackets were moving down Stillwater's Main Street, she said.
"It seemed like they were walking around simply to flex their power and 'control' over Stillwater, demanding both recognition and fear," said Rashid. A few wearing Hells Angels vests also were there, she said, but they weren't intimidating her.
Fearing she wouldn't make it three more blocks to her car, Rashid said the waitresses took her to Hotel Lora on the south end of Main, where one of them had a friend working. There she called police.
Officers drove her to her car and she filed a report about the incident. One officer said the city hadn't seen Hells Angels for a long time and that he wasn't familiar with the Aryan Cowboys.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Aryan Cowboy Brotherhood is a small white supremacist prison and street gang based primarily in Minnesota and Kentucky.
Officials with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) on Monday urged Stillwater officials to act.
"We thank the restaurant staff and the police officer who sought to protect the Muslim mother and her child, but public officials must take concrete steps to ensure that this type of harassment and intimidation targeting members of minority communities does not occur in the future," said CAIR-MN Executive Director Jaylani Hussein.