Sign of the times: Politics roil Bemidji

A woman wearing a mask fixes a hand-made yard sign.
Martha Vetter straightens her political yard signs Wednesday at her cabin south of Bemidji, Minn. Five have been stolen so far this year, and she keeps making more.
John Enger | MPR News

President Donald Trump is headed to Bemidji Friday evening for a campaign rally at the local airport. He’s expected to draw huge crowds, and probably some protesters. 

Bemidji is Trump country, but it’s also divided and agitated. 

Look no further than Martha Vetter’s front yard. On a Wednesday afternoon, she strolled through a small forest of homemade political signs along her rural road south of Bemidji. The signs didn’t used to be so numerous. She started out with just two. One for Joe Biden. One for Black Lives Matter. 

“The first one that got stolen was the Black Lives Matter sign,” she said. “Then the Biden-Harris got stolen.” 

Vetter, 79, taught high school literature for decades. She’s not easily bullied. She got out some tagboard and a pen and went to work.  

“On one side was ‘Thou shalt not steal,’” she said. “The other said Black Lives Matter. Well that got stolen. So then I thought, I have a lot of poster paper, and I like to make signs.”

Vetter keeps making them, and they keep getting stolen.

A hand-made sign reads "Thou shalt not steal"
Martha Vetter displays a sign with "Thou shalt not steal" handwritten near her political yard signs.
John Enger | MPR News

Making off with a retired high school teacher’s political yard signs might seem petty, and small, and it is, but that’s not the point. Vetter’s politics are also not the point. For Vetter, the missing signs are a symptom of something deeper. They’re the metaphorical teenage forehead pimple that warns of angst and raging hormones just below the surface.

People are angry, she said, and it goes way past yard signs. Bemidji, and surrounding Beltrami County has been a flashpoint for cultural tension many times over the last year. 

When Trump signed an executive order back in January giving counties the right to block refugee resettlement, Beltrami County was one of the first in the nation to do it. The county board meeting was packed shoulder to shoulder with locals. That was before the pandemic.

There had been conspiracy theories online claiming hundreds of Somali refugees were coming to Bemidji to settle in a defunct trailer park behind the Target store.

In reality, no one was, but the board voted “no” anyway. Vetter heard about it on the national news — saw a photo of the crowd — people she’s probably passed on the street.  

“And they were all white, and they were all men,” she said. “And they were just crabby looking and angry.”

Over the summer, Bemidji was hit with a series of protests — more than you’d expect in a town of 13,000. Hundreds marched after the death of George Floyd. The Police Department boarded up its windows and established a curfew. 

A few weeks later, a local branch of the anti-government extremist movement — the Boogaloo Boys — marched through downtown Bemidji wearing body armor over their Hawaiian shirts, and carrying AR-15s.  

A local member of the Trump campaign marched with them — led them in a Trump 2020 chant and posed for photos in front of the iconic Paul and Babe statues. 

Vetter heard about that, too. She had to look up who the Boogaloo Boys were, and when she found out, she got worried. Not so much about their beliefs, but about a ramping up of tension she’s been noticing for years. 

Look at her yard signs as a tiny case study. 

The first one she ever put up was for former President Barack Obama in 2008. 

“It was slashed,” she said. “I taped it back up, and it was slashed again, and I taped it up again, and then whoever did it must have thought it was too crummy to slash anymore.”

She lost two signs in 2012 — three more in 2016. This year she’s lost five, including one saying “thou shalt not steal,” and there’s still more than a month to go before the election.

There’s always been political tension in northern Minnesota. There are a lot of Trump supporters. There’s also a large, mostly liberal, Ojibwe population. A few artists. A sprinkling of hippies, and at least one outspoken member of the communist party. 

Beltrami County supported Obama in both elections, then shifted for Trump in 2016. 

Times of great change often cause strife.

Vetter’s sign thief seems to be getting more entrenched — less tolerant of disagreement — and she’s worried a lot of other people are too.  

This is the place Trump will visit Friday. He’ll draw a huge crowd of staunch supporters, and likely a smaller group of equally passionate protesters.  

And in her rural cabin in the woods, Vetter will wonder if she has enough tagboard. 

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