Faced with racist threats, residents band together

Neighbors were targeted with letters threatening to burn down their homes if they didn't take down their Black Lives Matter signs

A threatening note
Laura Knobel of St. Paul received a threatening note stuffed in a window frame on Monday.
Courtesy of Laura Knobel

The first death threat that Ashley Weller and her family received was rolled up in the handles of their front door at 8:30 a.m. Monday. 

“When our son opened the front door, the note fell out,” said Ashley. “It was incredibly threatening.”

A threatening note.
Ashley Weller of St. Paul and her wife received a note on Monday from someone threatening to burn their house and cars if they didn’t remove a Black Lives Matter sign from their yard. The profanity has been digitally blurred out of the photograph.
Courtesy of Ashley Weller

The note was about the Black Lives Matter signs in their yard: “Your neighbors have grown sick of your [expletive] riots and [expletive] matters signs. Remove them or we torch your home and cars real quiet with lighter fluid while you sleep.”

An hour later, they found another note: “You [expletive] want a war you will get them.” 

As law enforcement officials drew back from neighborhoods or focused on protests, fires and looting, some neighbors feel like they’ve been left on their own to fight hate and racist attacks. But they’re refusing to be cowed. 

Weller’s family lives on a busy street corner in St. Paul, and they have three black kids. They haven’t attended any of the protests so far, but in their front yard they have signs supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Wellers weren’t the only ones to get threats. Three of their neighbors received similar notes this week as well, including Laura Knobel, who found one stuffed in a window frame at the front of their house that said “your home burns next.” Another neighbor’s said that “pay back is coming.” 

A threatening note.
An hour after receiving a first threatening note, Ashley Weller and her family received another one on Monday from someone threatening a “war.” The profanity has been digitally blurred out of the photograph.
Courtesy of Ashley Weller

“I usually feel safer knowing that we live in a generally like liberal, open-minded community,” Knobel said.

“And so to have this happen feel so out of character for the Twin Cities that I know and love. That’s why it feels like some sort of outside entity.”

Weller called the police and someone from the police department and an FBI agent took a statement from her, but says that she didn’t trust law enforcement to protect them. 

“There hasn't been any added police presence or squad, or any kind of ‘what do we do next?’ So, we're organizing as a community,” she said.

She took to social media and asked neighbors for help and protection. Within hours they’d received water, fire extinguishers, security cameras, and many offers to help guard their house. Some of their neighbors organized a meeting and handed out Black Lives Matter signs for others to hang up in solidarity. Other community members said they would arm themselves and protect the family. 

‘Agents fanning across the Twin Cities’

Kevin Smith, a spokesperson for the FBI’s Minneapolis division, said he couldn’t comment on specific incidents. But he encouraged people to report anything that could be suspicious. 

“We have multiple teams of FBI agents fanning across the Twin Cities that have been out from the morning up until this moment about things of this nature,” Smith said Tuesday.

“It’s all the stuff that I’m sure you’ve seen on social media, which we’ve seen, too,” he added. “People throwing things, strangers in the neighborhood. Any unusual things that people might have taken videos of that might be relevant. Or even if they’re not, send it to us. There’s no piece of evidence too small for us to take in and analyze.”

St. Paul police spokesperson Steve Linders said he was aware of at least one death threat that the department was investigating. He said it’s unfortunate that some residents have given up hope on the police, but officers remain committed to protecting people and property, as well as their right to lawfully protest.

“We will protect people’s right to have their voices heard, but what we can’t do is coddle people who want to burn our city to the ground,” he said. “We’re aware that the majority of people out there are peaceful, but we also know there are a small number of people who want to hide behind the cloak of protest and create destruction in our city. So, it makes it very challenging to balance those two things.”

In Weller’s mind, the threats are serious. Some neighbors did take their Black Lives Matter signs down after receiving the notes. Weller even sent all three kids to stay somewhere else for a while. But to her, removing their signs isn’t an option.

“Our kids can't remove their blackness, right? They can't take it off. And so we can't take these signs down because someone's threatening us. We have to stand up for our kids,” she said. 

‘A whole lot of angst and nerves’

St. Paul isn’t the only area where residents fear they’re being targeted and are organizing to protect themselves. 

Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents parts of the city’s north side, has been going on patrols with neighbors every night, responding to small fires or suspicious vehicles with no license plates. 

“There’s a whole lot of angst and nerves all across the ward, all across the north side, and I’m sure the city,” Ellison said. 

Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said last week that they’re aware of vehicles without license plates roaming the city. In some cases, he said, officers have stopped the vehicles, and the people inside the car began to run away.

Ellison said nerves are jangled across his ward. 

“As somebody that’s been elected to support and keep my neighbors safe, it can be pretty overwhelming to see my neighbors so stressed out,” Ellison said. 

Arsons taking place far from protest sites have worried people. State officials have expressed fears that some extremists or other people have been drawn to the Twin Cities with the aim of using the protests as cover. 

Minneapolis City Council member Philippe Cunningham, who also represents north Minneapolis, said residents are concerned about reports coming from some state officials and community leaders on the north side that white supremacists may target the area. But he said no one who’s been arrested has admitted being part of those groups. 

“There were some suspicious vehicles without license plates, makeshift plates,” Cunningham said. “Folks were terrified, they called in when they were supposed to but didn’t get any kind of concrete response.”

After four storefronts burned in what the fire department is investigating as arson, Cunningham said residents realized that the police and National Guard weren’t likely to provide much assistance. He said residents started to organize to protect their own neighborhoods. Cunningham said they kept an eye on storefronts, tried to put out fires, checked on people and patrolled the sidewalks.  

“I really want folks to understand that community members are banding together to do amazing community safety work,” Cunningham said. 

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