Part 3 in a series on Bemidji’s May 30-31 evening curfews and the community fallout
In late May, Bemidji law enforcement had what it believed were credible threats that violent left-wing extremists were coming to burn the city. While that threat never materialized, the city had to contend with people associated with an area gun shop volunteering to help law enforcement “protect” the town.
When citizens learned the next day about the gun shop group’s presence, it made some feel less safe.
The turmoil came in the wake of the national unrest following George Floyd’s May 25 murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. In response to threats, Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht imposed a two-night curfew on the weekend of May 30 and 31.
Word of these “volunteers” added tension to an already difficult situation. Some people saw them as patriots, others as vigilantes.
Petra Neadeau, a life-long Bemidji resident and an enrolled member of the Red Lake Nation, was disturbed by the messages she received from friends that Sunday morning. “Armed vigilantes with neo-Nazi ties took it upon themselves to patrol our town to enforce the curfew,” she said.
Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beital criticized what he said were false rumors about vigilante street patrols. He issued a statement, saying: “At no time did the Beltrami County Sheriff‘s Office or Bemidji Police Department call for private security or citizens to assist our law enforcement response as it has been stated on several social media platforms and statements made by government officials.”
Beital said the people who showed up to volunteer were directed outside the city limits so as not to violate the curfew. They were law enforcement’s eyes and ears for approaching threats.
The group of volunteers included state Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, a retired Sheriff’s Deputy from Clearwater County and someone with past scrapes with the law. It included a contingent associated with Off Grid Armory, a gun shop in Shevlin, a town 20 miles west of Bemidji in a neighboring county. Off Grid Armory co-owner Samuel Smith arrived with Grossell.
For more on Off Grid Armory, check out its Facebook posts, including this Sept. 1 video where Smith fires his 1919 Browning automatic machine gun into a junked car, with a dummy named Oscar in the front seat.
It was this Facebook page that drew residents’ attention to Off Grid Armory’s presence in the Bemidji area — and sounded an alarm. Off Grid Armory friends were posting messages during the curfew and some Bemidji residents read them and took screen captures. The posts made it sound like the group was operating inside the city of Bemidji. Further, the messages sounded like group members were itching for a fight.
One post, apparently from Smith, read:
I’m sitting in a Blacked Out SUV here in Bemidji with a bunch of Patriots to make sure this town doesn’t get burned down or looted like Minneapolis… We started off At the Police Station where we met protesters… Now we are posted up in 5 locations in town, making sure none of the Minneapolis shenanigans take place here!
Nolan Janikowski commented:
I’m currently posted up in the neighborhood over the bridge, past the post office. So far it’s been quiet.
Michael S Weems commented:
Locked and loaded. Thanks off grid armory and Sam. If needed we’ll also be there to support our police. Chicago can keep their own trash! It ain’t happening here.
Jerry O Agre commented:
Looters will find out country people are different than city people. We will protect our own.
Jerry O Agre Amen! And we will even protect businesses and homes of people we don’t know.
John Marlon posted to Smith:
You’re aware you’re violating the authoritarian curfew, right?
John Morton I don’t think you understand the scope of this… Law-enforcement gave us a post to guard. … All law enforcement we interacted with tonight (border patrol, BCA, local PD, among others) were appreciative and thankful for us being there.
And this closing comment from Smith:
Just got home… No Party tonight thankfully. Quiet is good….
Smith’s use of the word “Party” is odd. Would he have considered a violent confrontation a “Party”?
Smith declined to be interviewed for this story.
Smith bought Braun’s tea set and two of her hair brushes. He calls these items “very cool” and “crazy, crazy nice.” He reminded viewers that he also had bought “the Hermann Goring rifle and the Goring broach.” (Goering was a Nazi Party leader and a convicted war criminal.)
Neadeau filed an official complaint with the city police against Smith and others for curfew violations.
Resident Mark Morrissey said officials got their threat assessment wrong. The city was worried about a “phantom” attack from the George Floyd protests. “Meanwhile, you have locals saying, … ‘Lock and Load, we’re ready for them!’ Really overheated rhetoric.”
Bemidji resident and Beltrami County Commissioner Reed Olson criticized the Off Grid Armory crew’s presence. “I think they were here to terrorize people and exert, I don’t know, their machismo” on Bemidji, he said.
“[Smith] and his Off Grid boys decided they were going to come here and protect property from Black Lives Matter protesters, or whatever the hell their reasoning was,” he said. “It was racist … I don’t care what they say.”
Resident Dan Gannon said he reviewed Off Grid Armory’s website and Facebook page. “Some of it is politically sketchy,” he said. The fact Smith collects Nazi memorabilia “doesn’t necessarily make him a neo-Nazi, but it raises eyebrows.”
“To me … the politics of the Off Grid Armory and their world view does not make me think that they would come into this town and protect brown-skinned and white-skinned people equally. I don’t think that for a second.”
Next, Part 4: Bemidji leaders respond, an investigation follows, police-community relations strained