Six reasons Bemidji’s police-community relationships remain strained following George Floyd protests

Part 4 and last in a series on Bemidji’s May 30-31 evening curfews and the community fallout

Here are six reasons Bemidji’s police-community relations took a hit and remain unresolved following the May 30-31 evening curfews.

  1. Police treated a peaceful protest as an imminent threat, with no explanation why.

On Saturday, May, 30, around 400 people attended a Bemidji rally to express their outrage at George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. It was a large turnout for the small city. They met at the Paul and Babe statues by Lake Bemidji and marched five blocks to the law enforcement center.

“Our goal was just to stand outside, have a speech, do a few chants, and then go back to the starting point,” said Salena Beasley, a Bemidji resident, member of the Red Lake Nation, and protest participant.

Organizers told participants that law enforcement wouldn’t be engaging with the crowd, she said.

May 30 rally in front of the Bemidji Law Enforcement Center. Photo: Aili Kultala

According to Dan Gannon, one of the participants, the marchers were met by two squad cars in the street and a handful of cops leaning against them, arms folded. “I don’t know if they were trying to be intimidating, but that’s how it came off,” he said.

Unbeknownst to march participants, law enforcement was on high alert. According to a statement by Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beital, they had received a credible threat that extremist organizations were going to “infiltrate the peaceful protest. They intended to burn down Bemidji, targeting the law enforcement center in particular.

When the marchers arrived, the law enforcement center’s first floor windows already were boarded.

According to participant interviews, the presence of Officer Bidal Duran also heightened tensions. Duran had shot and killed Vernon May, a Native American man, following a 2018 traffic stop that turned violent. While Duran and a Sheriff’s deputy involved in the shooting were cleared, Duran’s presence at the rally seemed provocative. Roughly 50 percent of the marchers were Native American. Some of May’s family members attended.

Gannon said younger members in the crowd focused on the police and started yelling at them.

Some people approached the squad cars and walked around them. Molandas Johnson said he was hit by a squad car. “I don’t know if he got scared or what, but he backed in to me,” Johnson said. “I had pain for three days. I couldn’t sleep, to be honest with you.”

[Update: Here are protest videos showing squad cars hitting two participants, one for a woman named Gina and the other for Johnson.]

Beital’s statement said the protest turned “non-peaceful. … Rocks and debris were being thrown at law enforcement center and a police squad car.” One person was arrested.

Gannon recalled some people throwing water bottles. “Organizers squashed it quickly,” he said, and the group marched back to the lake.

Bottom line: Those involved in the protest had no way of knowing why police were treating them as a threat. Being treated as a threat further erodes police-community relations.

Bemidji Police Chief Michael Mastin didn’t return phone calls for this story.

  1. Chief Mastin was a no-show at BSU racial equity event.
Students at BSU rally

The following weekend, Bemidji State University (BSU) students organized a racial equity rally. They, too, assembled at the Paul and Babe statues. It was low-key compared to the previous event. They didn’t march.

Mark Morrissey, a BSU employee, attended to support students and hear what they had to say. “This was a beautifully run event,” he said, with students, athletes, and coaches.

Council candidate Audrey Thayer

Police watched from about a block away, he said. Some were on an apartment building roof, others looked in dumpsters.

“It was a little strange,” Morrissey said. “They seemed to keep an eye on the thing without coming to see what it was about.”

Police watch BSU rally.

Audrey Thayer, who is enrolled in Red Lake and running for Bemidji City Council, said the police presence didn’t help change community perceptions of law enforcement. “To put officers up on the second floor and stare down, what was the purpose of that?” she asked.

Thayer said she had expected Chief Mastin to attend.

“I had agreed, and another individual agreed to stand with him and he never showed,” she said.

  1. Community members are still looking for answers about the extremist threats while city leaders want the issue to go away.
Beltrami County Commissioner Reed Olson

The “credible threat” — that buses of extremists were coming to Bemidji — didn’t materialize. But it set off a chain of traumatic events for a number of residents. Some still want to know the source of the threats and if they were legitimate. (Some wonder why the police took them seriously. The idea of bus loads of extremists driving to Bemidji seemed ludicrous to several people interviewed.)

Based on these initial threats, law enforcement asked Waste Management to empty downtown dumpsters. (Dumpsters would be an easy targets for vandals, they thought.)

Sheriff Beital wrote: “Unfortunately, our fears were justified after it was reported to Law enforcement the finding of multiple dumpsters filled with gas accelerants and caches of tools hidden around downtown buildings.”

But neither law enforcement nor Waste Management saved evidence of gas, combustibles or tools. They don’t even have photos. Law enforcement’s fears were not justified. Assuming the accelerants and combustibles were planted, which isn’t clear, there is nothing linking them to any violent left-wing extremists, other than a rumor that turned out to be false.

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht.

Beltrami County Commissioner and Bemidji resident Reed Olson said such threats aren’t new. “We are perennially plagued by the fear that these black-clad anarchists from Oregon and Seattle are going to come to Bemidji and throw pipe bombs at public spaces,” he said. “We’ve heard that they’re coming several times over the years.”

Olson gave Chief Mastin and Sheriff Beital more latitude than some in town, because they were reacting in real time. “I trust their decision making skills,” he said.

Mayor Rita Albrecht said she had not asked for, or seen, any direct evidence of the threat. She trusted law enforcement’s judgment. Chief Mastin hasn’t returned phone calls. Sheriff Beital didn’t want to discuss the events around the curfew or the threat. “I’m looking to move forward with things,” he said, “not to go backward.”

Said Gannon: “A lot of people would rather sweep this under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen.”

  1. An outside investigation cleared Bemidji law enforcement. Some Bemidji residents don’t trust it, and it didn’t address a key question.
State Rep. Matt Grossell

People from outside Beltrami County arrived in Bemidji the evening of the curfew, volunteering to help law enforcement. They included Samuel Smith, co-owner of Off Grid Armory, and others associated with his gun shop. (Residents would later learn that Smith buys Nazi artifacts, including memorabilia from Hitler’s companion Eva Braun, which alarmed them.) Smith declined an interview for this story.

Smith arrived with state Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, a retired Sheriff’s Deputy from Clearwater County and someone with past scrapes with the law.

Bemidji resident Petra Neadeau, a Red Lake member, filed a complaint with Bemidji police saying Smith and others had violated the curfew.

The Brainerd Police Department was asked to do an independent investigation. Based on its report, the Crow Wing County District Attorney declined prosecution. The citizen volunteers were sent outside city limits to watch for potential threats heading to Bemidji, it said. Therefore, the curfew didn’t apply. Further, Bemidji’s curfew order exempted “any person needed for logistical purposes authorized by the city.”

Bemidji law enforcement would like that to be the end of the story. It isn’t.

Bemidji Council member and mayoral candidate Michael Meehlhause

Beasley said many in the Native community wouldn’t trust the report. Brainerd is near the Mille Lacs reservation. “They experience the same kind of discrimination in the Brainerd area,” she said. “You are getting a similar community investigating.”

Further, community tension isn’t just about whether law enforcement had the authority to use citizen volunteers. The question is: Why did law enforcement allow these particular volunteers to help?

City Council member and mayoral candidate Michael Meehlhause offered to help Chief Mastin that afternoon, according to a Facebook video interview. He said Mastin directed him to go home, obey the curfew, and spread the word on social media, which he did.

So why say “no” to Meehlhause and “yes” to Smith and Grossell?

It appears that Chief Mastin and Sheriff Beital handled the situation differently and that has caused confusion.

Sheriff Beital appears to be the one who initially approved Grossell’s participation. In a statement, Beital said:

I intentionally directed him [Grossell] outside of the city limits to watch for buses that might be coming into Bemidji and report his observations to law enforcement. Unfortunately, miscommunication resulted in some of the “citizens” placed in fringe locations around the city of Bemidji. These citizens did not actively patrol city streets …

Gannon said while Smith, Grossell and others were told to go outside city limits, they weren’t escorted or followed. “It was this good-old-boy agreement, wink-wink-nod-nod trust,” he said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions. For all we know, they patrolled the town.”

  1. The presence of citizen volunteers/vigilantes who had what seemed to be extreme right-wing views rattled some Bemidji residents. They wonder why law enforcement allowed it.
Group assembles near the law enforcement center on the night of May 30 curfew. Photo credit: Unknown

Olson speculated that the decision to deploy Smith, Grossell and others  outside of town happened in the chaos of the moment. They wanted to get them out of the city before they hurt somebody.

Still, Olson thinks involving them was a mistake. “If you are going to have community policing, it should be the community and not people who are self-declared gun nuts,” he said.

Olson works and volunteers downtown, across from the law enforcement center. He watched as the people rolled into town just prior to curfew. “To see a bunch of white dudes in Punisher shirts standing by the courthouse did not make me feel safe,” he said.

Facebook message posted by Samuel Smith the night of the curfew.

(Punisher is comic book character, “a Sicilian-American vigilante who employs murder, kidnapping, extortion, coercion, threats of violence, and torture in his campaign against crime,” Wikipedia says.)

Olson recalled a “thug” in a beat-up pick-up truck driving by him slowly that night, “sizing me up and deciding whether or not I’m supposed to be there.”

Mayor Albrecht described the volunteers as “vigilantes” and said their presence was scary. “It was upsetting to most people in our community,” she said.

Beasley said she taught her Native/African American children from a young age how to interact with police – how to talk to them and be respectful. After the curfew, she thought to herself: “I’ve never taught my son how to interact with a white guy with a gun who thinks he has authority over him, when he doesn’t.”

Samuel Smith with target practice car and dummy. A screen grab of Off Grid Armory video.

Grossell would later rant on Facebook, denouncing the George Floyd uprising in apocalyptic terms. It’s disturbing because of what it says about his state of mind during Bemidji’s curfew.

Floyd’s death was part of an agenda “to destroy this republic,” Grossell wrote. “We must not let the lies and deceit of evil divide us and we must stand ready to defend this nation,” he wrote. “…I call on my brothers and sisters … to stand ready to face this evil … and stop it dead in its tracks.”

How might Grossell or Smith have reacted had there been a real emergency? What kind of liability would Bemidji or Beltrami County have faced if they acted rashly?

During the curfew, Smith posted on Off Grid Armory’s Facebook page: “All law enforcement we interacted with tonight (border patrol, BCA, local PD, among others) were appreciative and thankful for us being there.”

The questions are: What is law enforcement’s relationship with Smith and Grossell, and does law enforcement share their worldview?

In Beital’s statement, he wrote: “we do not share their [volunteer’s] personal views as they have expressed on social media.”

Still, at a minimum, law enforcement’s decision to give them a task during curfew seems to reflect a certain level of trust and approval, one not shared by everyone in the community, such as Gannon.

“The politics of the Off Grid Armory and their worldview does not make me think that they would come into this town and protect brown-skinned and white-skinned people equally,” he said. “I don’t think that for a second.”

  1. Law enforcement and the community at large have difficult conversations ahead
Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beital

Nedeau said people of color in the area have dealt with a long history of racism, discrimination and prejudice. With the Trump administration, things have gotten worse. “It’s less microaggressions and more open hostility,” she said.

So the curfew situation was scary for her and her community, she said.

Some people don’t appear to understand that fear or where it comes from.

Healing Minnesota Stories asked Sheriff Beital if he could empathize with citizens who were afraid of outsiders coming into the community with guns.

He responded: “Do you know how many gun permits are issued every year in Minnesota? Do you know that over 20 percent of Beltrami County residents have a permit to carry and they do so every day? … You can walk up and down the streets and if you know what you are looking for, people are armed all the time,” as the Second Amendment allows them, he said.

To his credit, Chief Mastin issued an apology following the Brainerd investigation.

I’m not afraid to admit when I made a poor decision, and this was one of those times. On this evening the situation was fluid and rapidly evolving … Although my intentions were good I now recognize that this decision has left some members of our community feeling unsafe and further marginalized, for that I apologize. Moving forward, I assure you that I will consider how my decisions affect everyone.

These issues aren’t unique to Bemidji. Like most communities around the country, it’s struggling to have difficult conversations around race and policing.

Moving forward

The Bemidji community needs to continue to wrestle with this event. What will happen if street violence erupts following the November presidential election? That’s not out of the range of possibility, Will the city and county respond the same or differently?

Healing Minnesota Stories asked if any policy changes had taken place since the curfew?

Mayor Albrecht said: “I can’t answer how they would do it differently. You’d have to talk to the police.”

Chief Mastin didn’t return calls.

Sheriff Beital responded by restating the Sheriff’s legal authority to “call upon citizens to help at any time for any kind of emergency.”

One idea moving ahead is a proposal to create a Community Advisory Commission for the Police Department, where these issues could be aired.

Thayer said she would like more transparency in city government. She’s optimistic about working with Chief Mastin and his newly formed Advisory Committee.

“I want to see that the committee has some teeth,” she said, and a “cross section of class and race and cultures within this community. … They just started the hearings.”

4 thoughts on “Six reasons Bemidji’s police-community relationships remain strained following George Floyd protests

  1. I was also hit by the Bemidji police the same time Molandas Johnson was hit in the same incident on May 30, 2020. I was thrown to the ground when the officer struck me with his squad car which resulted in painful injuries. I didn’t even know the squad car was moving. I then got up after being hit and put myself between the officers and upset attendees. I have the video. I am still in pain today and I am still going to physical therapy for it. The officer who hit me with his squad car that day really messed up my body and has caused serious damage in my life.

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