More than 300 St. Cloud area residents attended a town hall meeting Tuesday night, concerned city and county officials aren't doing enough to protect people against racism and discrimination in the area.
People specifically expressed frustration that prosecutors haven't been tougher with a man responsible for posting anti-Islamic images around the city in early December.
For nearly three hours, people expressed concerns about race issues, much of it focused on the posters that went up in early December in front of a Somali-owned shop, a mosque and several other places around St. Cloud.
The images depicted the prophet Mohammed defecating on a Quran, and engaging in sex with animals and a child.
"Hell it offended me," Police Chief Dennis Ballantine said. "Because regardless of who it was attacking, they were just outright obscene and in my mind and met the definition of obscenity."
The Stearns and Benton county attorneys determined the images are protected as free speech and forwarded the case to the St. Cloud city attorney's office. Prosecutors there cited Sidney Allen Elyea, who admitted to posting the images, with a city ordinance violation for posting on a utility pole.
City prosecutors acknowledged the weakness of the charges, but said they were limited to using the best tools at their disposal to charge Elyea.
"It sounds silly to some maybe, and it certainly isn't what we had hoped we could do, but it's what we're left with," said Matt Staehling, the the assistant city attorney.
Staehling said while Elyea's actions were hateful, there is no specific crime in Minnesota called hate crime. The city attorneys said they care about this case and are working hard to address this case and others like it.
This explanation did not sit well with many who attended the forum.
Luke Tripp, a professor at St. Cloud State University, said these recent public racist and anti-Islamic postings are symptoms of the underlying xenophobia and racism that permeates much of the culture of St. Cloud.
"It seems that the city government is in a state of denial about the seriousness of racial hostility against Black Americans and Somalis," Tripp said. "City officials have deluded themselves to believe that the problem is a bad individual who committed a hateful crime against people of color."
Tripp said the reality is the blatantly hateful act of a few reflects the anxieties, fears, and hostilities of many in the St. Cloud area. He said elected officials have to be held accountable and they need to change the "racially oppressive climate" in the city.
Many other residents at the meeting cited personal examples of the racism and discrimination they have experienced during their time in St. Cloud.
St. Cloud State University student Amer Laam questioned how effective the town hall will be at mobilizing change. She dismissed these events as "kumbaya" meetings.
"The community stands up and everybody gets fueled and fired, our leaders come and promise change and promise they're going to do something about it," Laam said. "But from personal experiences, as soon as the community goes quiet, nothing will happen."
Saint Cloud State University professor Tamrat Tademe said he was also concerned the meeting would be a showcase without subsequent results, given the area's history.
"And if you look at Minnesota, and this is done intelligently, it's been documented, it's not my opinion, this area of Minnesota has been the hotbed for hate," Tademe said. "Everybody knows that."
Most of the people who spoke at the town hall meeting asked Mayor Dave Kleis to hire a full time human rights director and establish a human rights commission in St. Cloud. They said that would show the city's commitment to make the city safe for all residents.
Kleis pointed out the city does have a human rights office, and that he would be putting together a more active human rights commission.
He said people need to be a part of the solution by reporting any problems to the Citizen Review Board, which also monitors the police, and encouraged people to apply to participate in the human rights commission. The police chief added that there are many avenues through which residents can work together with the police to address problems.
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