Bemidji burning?

How a dubious terror threat against the city never materialized, and transferred white fear to Native American residents

Part 2 in a series.

Fear is contagious and it spreads in different ways, depending on your race.

Such was the case in Bemidji in the wake of the national protests following George Floyd’s May 25 murder by Minneapolis police. Bemidji law enforcement received what it believed were credible threats of violence: Busloads of violent extremists were said to be heading their way to torch the city, infiltrating local protests.

The source of those credible threats has not been named. No busloads of extremists showed up. But the curfew and heavy police presence triggered a different set of fears and stresses among the city’s Native American residents.

Here’s a brief sequence of events:

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht

Concerned outside agitators would set dumpsters on fires, the city asked Waste Management to empty all downtown dumpsters. “Many of those dumpsters were found to have already been laid with accelerants (gas) and flammables (bags of leaves and broken up pallets),” according to Mayor Rita Albrecht’s June 1 statement.

These reports came from Waste Management staff and reinforced the narrative that extremists were targeting Bemidji.

Albrecht imposed evening curfews on Saturday and Sunday, May 30 and 31 at Police Chief Michael Mastin’s request, she said.  She didn’t ask to see evidence of the pending threats. “I trust my chief of police,” she said in an email. “I recognize that others may not have the same level of trust in law enforcement as I have.”

Waste Management workers emptied dumpsters as they went. Law enforcement never independently examined any evidence, and none exists today.

As reported in Part 1, the arson threats likely came from white supremacist groups, such as Identity Europa. The group made fake social media posts, masquerading as ANTIFA (an anti-fascist group). Identity Eurpopa was trying to stoke fear and resentment in small town America towards those seeking police reforms.

City residents such as Audrey Thayer still have questions about the curfew’s justification. Thayer is enrolled in White Earth, teaches at the Leech Lake tribal college, and is running for Bemidji’s first ward city council seat. To often, the city isn’t transparent, creating doubt, she said.

Minnesota’s Native Nations

“I still would like to see the pictures of the trash items, to validate the story,” she said.”

Mastin hasn’t returned Healing Minnesota Stories’ phone calls.

The Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office called on other area law enforcement agencies to help patrol city streets and enforce the curfew, according to a media release. Elected sheriffs and chiefs of police from neighboring jurisdictions responded.

The heavy police presence served to ratcheted up fears for Native American residents.

Bemidji sits amid three Native Nations: Leech Lake, Red Lake, and White Earth. Native Americans make up more than 10 percent of the city’s population and 16 percent of the school district’s enrollment.

Bemidji resident and City Council candidate Audrey Thayer.

When Thayer learned about the curfew, she and her daughter started moving Native kids they knew out of the downtown area. “We didn’t want them to be in a situation that might not be healthy,” she said. “There is a lot of fear and non trust in the Indian community, and rightfully so. We are dealing with generational fear that we always have to be careful.”

Resident Petra Neadeau and her children were having dinner with her parents on the curfew’s first night. Nedeau cut their visit short fearing what could happen if she were caught violating curfew.

Neadeau is enrolled at Red Lake and an Ojibwe educator. Her fear was based on experience. She recalled how a year ago an officer pulled her over for a broken headlight. She was the sober driver for her friends. When the officer smelled alcohol in the car, he ordered her to do a field sobriety test. It was cold. She asked to take a breathalyzer instead.

In fact, she asked to use the breathalyzer three times. The officer made her take the field test anyway. “It got heated,” she said. “He did what he wanted to do. He used his power. He spoke harshly. He pointed his finger in my face. It was really aggressive and really scary.”

Neadeau only got cited for the broken headlight, she said.

Bemidji resident Dan Gannon said called “ludicrous” the idea that Twin Cities “extremists” would get buses and drive to their city.

Others in Bemidji’s Native American community shared her curfew fears, Neadeau said. “We felt vulnerable. We felt scared. We didn’t feel protected. It was really unnecessary.”

Bemidji resident Dan Gannon and his partner were sitting in their back yard on the curfew’s first night. They live near downtown and police were whizzing around all night, he said. It was chilly and they had a fire.

Gannon, who is white, said between 11 p.m. and midnight, he saw two people running hectically through his neighbor’s backyard. One ran up to his chain-link fence.

Gannon approach and found it was a teenage Native American girl. “The cops are after us!” the girl said.

Gannon invited her to hop the fence into their yard where she would be safe. “As soon as she did, she sort of collapsed to the ground,” he said. “She was scared, really, really scared.”

A few seconds later, the girl’s friend showed up. She said “Oh my God. That cop pulled a gun on me!” Gannon said.

Gannon and his partner walked the girls home. On their way back, they had their own interaction with an unmarked, dark SUV that shown its spotlight on them.

The next morning, Nedeau and Gannon woke up to messages saying that people from outside the county — people who were not law enforcement — showed up to offer to help police protect the city.

What they read only made them more worried and raised more questions.

Next: Part 3: Patriots or vigilantes? The Bemidji community presses for answers.

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