In tiny Pine Island, demonstrators plan third anti-racism protest

Anti-racism protests divide small southeast Minnesota town

A group of demonstrators in Pine Island
Alice Is Kopp, center, was among a group of demonstrators in Pine Island on June 25, who had gathered to protest racial violence. While most of the protests are centered in large metro areas, the emotions are carrying over across the state.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

On a stifling July afternoon, Pine Island City Council member Kelly Leibold camped out in a lawn chair across from City Hall with a few dozen others. 

“The issue of racism and supporting black people in this community is a city-wide issue,” she said, as she waved a massive Black Lives Matter poster. 

It was the second time protesters gathered in downtown Pine Island to demonstrate against George Floyd’s killing and draw attention to racism they say is subtle but pervasive in this community of 3,400 in southeast Minnesota, about 20 minutes north of Rochester. 

Leibold says city officials are typically discouraged from speaking out on divisive or political issues, but Floyd’s death changed things for her.

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"I think my words are empty if I don't do anything further at this point,” she said. 

Person sits in a parking lot holding a sign that says "Black Lives Matter"
City Council Member Kelly Leibold, has lived in Pine Island her entire life. She says racism in this community of 3,400 is subtle, and always simmering just below the surface.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

Demonstrations like this one are playing out across the state, as communities large and small reckon with racial justice and police brutality. Pine Island officials — aside from Leibold — have declined to comment on the protests, saying it’s not their place to get involved. 

This weekend, protesters have organized another gathering, where they’ll be joined by Black Lives Matters supporters from Red Wing and Hastings. They say they hope the demonstrations will prompt city officials to take a clearer position on racial justice in coming weeks. 

But some community members have made it clear the Pine Island protests are not welcome. In heated discussions on social media, they say the protesters are creating divisions that don’t exist and that Pine Island doesn't have a racism issue. 

The protesters say a failure to see the community's faults is exactly the problem, pointing out that most of the discussion playing out online has at times become vitriolic and personal. 

Leibold said racism in her hometown isn't overt, but it's always been there, just under the surface. And now, she said, it's showing up in the fact that some people refuse to acknowledge that everyone may not feel welcome in Pine Island. 

"I think the unfortunate thing in Pine Island is that we're very discreet and passive-aggressive with our racism,” she said. “It's sort of been a don't touch it, don't talk about it issue."

Two people stand in a parking lot. One holds a poster.
Lawrence Conley (left) and Devale Taylor (right) joined Pine Island protesters on July 2, 2020.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

Fellow protester Devale Taylor said a lot of the criticism he's heard about the protests stems from confusion around what Black Lives Matter really means.

“When I say Black Lives Matter, we're not just speaking about our lives as the only lives that matter,” he said. “It's just right now, Black lives are in danger and we're getting killed at an alarming rate by the hands of police. Just have some sympathy and sympathize with us. That's all we are asking for."

Taylor, who has lived in Pine Island for seven years, said that as a Black man in a mostly white town, he hasn't experienced blatant racism. 

But a week earlier, at the first protest, Taylor said his views shifted a bit. A counter-protester across the street waved a flag that combined an American flag and a Confederate flag

"If you don't know what that Confederate flag stands for — as an African American, what that means to me — you're invoking slavery,” he said. “They understand it's 2020. 1865 was when the last slaves were freed. From what I understand, that's 155 years ago. We're not slaves anymore."

Chris Stout drove up from Rochester to join Leibold and Taylor at the demonstration. He added a Black Lives Matter placard to his American flag. 

“Black Lives Matter is very American,” he said. 

He was about to say what he thinks the counter-protesters from the week before would think about his homespun combo when a man in an SUV drove by, honked  loudly and gave  protesters the finger. 

“Well, I think they would have said that thing right there,” he said. 

Down the street, just outside the Hardware Hank store, Lisa Cramer, who has lived in Pine Island for a decade, said she’s not sure what the protests are about. 

“It's a wonderful small town. The police are wonderful, firefighters are wonderful,” she said. “There are bad apples every place. And you should just get rid of the bad apples."

Inside the store, Cindy Murch, a Pine Island resident for more than three decades, said she's fine with people protesting whatever's important to them, as long as things stay calm and respectful.

Murch raised her daughter, adopted from El Salvador, here. She said her child was always welcome and accepted. 

"I love this town. It's a great town, and it was a great town for raising kids,” she said.

But Murch doesn't deny that others may struggle to feel the same. She said she would welcome the opportunity to hear from people who don’t feel like they’re included in her community. 

“That's not a Pine Island problem. That's a Minnesota problem,” she said. “We're really good at being Minnesota nice to the face.”