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Bemidji cancels comedian's event amid social media outcry

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Ralphie May performing at Bonnaroo
Ralphie May performs at the 2015 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on Saturday, June 13, 2015, in Manchester, Tennessee.
John Davisson | Invision via AP

Comedian Ralphie May will not be performing in Bemidji. 

His Saturday show at the Sanford Center was canceled by the city Thursday morning, three days after a piece of racially charged audio from a 2005 appearance was uploaded to Youtube, and sparked a social media outcry. Bemidji owns the Sanford Center, which gives city officials veto power over shows.

In the 44 second clip May, who is well known for a raucous brand of comedy, calls Native Americans a "bunch of alcoholics" who should "get a job," and "get a haircut." 

That audio was uploaded Tuesday. Since then, hundreds of comments flooded the Sanford Center Facebook page and other social media platforms across the internet.

City Manager Nate Mathews said the online response demanded attention. Thursday morning he canceled the Sanford Center event, which is owned and operated in part by the city. 

"People are really upset about him coming." Mathews said. "I think canceling the show is the right call at this point."

The timing of May's Bemidji appearance puts the small northern Minnesota city at the center of a national controversy. 

In the last year many well-known comedians like Bill Burr, Louis C.K. and Joe Rogan have also come under fire for racial, or sexually charged jokes. Their controversies call into question the line between comedy and hate speech.

May took to Twitter and Youtube after the clip came out. He said it was illegally edited, uploaded and taken out of context. The routine, he said, wasn't meant to be racist, but rather to highlight the absurdity of racism. 

"They left out the punch line," he said in a Youtube video. "No one, if they heard it in its full context would think it's anything but a joke."

Local Native American philosophy instructor Audrey Thayer was one of many to lobby the Sanford Center to cancel May's event. Before she did, she made sure to look up that missing punchline. 

In the un-edited routine, May ends a long tirade against Native Americans by admitting he's only upset with the group because the film "Dances with Wolves" beat out "Good Fellas" for best picture in 1992. 

May said this ending was meant to bring attention to the illogical nature of hate in general. Even with the full context, Thayer said the joke was offensive.

"There are some things you shouldn't joke about," she said. "Race is one of them."

Bemidji is especially sensitive to racial tensions right now, according to City Councilor Reed Olson. Later this month the Sanford Center will host the Bemijigamaag Powwow, which Olson said is a vital point of communication between Bemidji and the three reservations that surround it. 

He said the city and tribes are working together more than ever before, and worries that the wrong comedian could set progress back years.

"I understand this might be May's form of satire," Olson said, "but we're dealing with a tug of war between freedom of speech and community values," Olson said.

Right now, in Bemidji, Olson said community values have won out.