Signs with white nationalist messages appeared on power poles around St. Joseph this week, upsetting some residents of this quiet central Minnesota college town.
The posters featured messages including "Unapologetically white," "'Hate speech' is free speech" and "We have a right to exist," with a drawing of two Caucasian-looking people.
"There are 2 genders, it's okay to be white, and mass migration from the 3rd world is destroying our country," one read.
St. Joseph Police Chief Joel Klein said a resident reported the posters to his department on Wednesday. Klein told his officers to remove any they saw because they violated city rules.
"Obviously, we can't take them down because of what they said," Klein said. "We took them down because it's against city ordinance to have postings in the road right of way."
Klein said most of the signs were posted along Minnesota Street in downtown St. Joseph, which is home to about 6,700 people and the College of St. Benedict. It's about 8 miles west of St. Cloud.
Klein said he's not overly concerned about the possibility of violence related with the posters or the group behind them.
"My take is anybody has the right to free speech, and if this group or any other group want to hold a peaceful protest out on any of the public sidewalks in St. Joe, feel free," he said. "We don't take away anybody's free speech."
Some of the posters were labeled "The St. Cloud State White Student Union." However, Adam Hammer, spokesman for St. Cloud State University, said the group is not a registered student organization. He said the group has removed St. Cloud State from its name at the university's request.
"It remains unclear if this group includes actual students or is just claiming to be students," Hammer wrote.
Reached via its Facebook page, the group said it's not responsible for the posters.
"We officially do not do the postering but they are independent actions by individuals," read the group's statement. "We do not support illegal actions by our members or really anybody in the community as a whole."
Natalie Ringsmuth, founder of the nonprofit #UniteCloud, said the signs are similar to others that have appeared recently in St. Cloud.
"It's not surprising," Ringsmuth said. "We know there are people in this area and throughout the nation that feel this way. What is surprising I think is to see the escalation of how often these are now being posted."
Ringsmuth said while the messages on the signs themselves aren't threatening, the group's Facebook page has more ominous postings.
"They are claiming that all they are about is protecting white interests, whatever that means, and promoting white culture," she said. "But what you see on their Facebook page is they're demeaning Somalis, they're demeaning Muslims."
St. Joseph resident Ray Sjogren saw the signs after picking up his mail from the post office on Wednesday. He said he removed several of them before deciding to report them to police.
"There was this sign that said, 'Unapologetically white,' and I couldn't believe it. And I looked down the street and I saw another one," Sjogren said. "I started to look around and I saw them everywhere."
Sjogren said the white nationalist sentiment doesn't fit with the close-knit St. Joseph community he's lived in for the past three years.
"It was so antithetical to what I experienced in this neighborhood I have come to know as home," he said.
Sjogren said he doesn't want to impose on anyone's right to free speech, but believes it's important for citizens to respond.
"What I'm hoping is these people come out from under a rock and engage in legitimate debate, and that we can educate people," he said.
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