Story published: December 8, 2020
Brian and Sharita Flick walked to the corner in Pine Island, Minn., where a Black Lives Matter demonstration took place this year.
“We were all over here and across the street here, and that building there is where they all kind of gathered,” Brian Flick motioned to where a counter demonstration had also taken place. “And then [they] walked this way, were right here and wondering what’s happening here, and they started charging from here,” Flick said, referring to the counter demonstrators, about a few dozen men, who marched up and down Main Street, right past the Black Lives Matter group.
“It was flags, it was signs, it was slurs, just a little bit of everything,” Sharita Flick said. She is Black, and her husband, Brian, is white. He had just opened a psychotherapy business downtown (population 3,400) that had been open for less than a month. At the time of the demonstration, Sharita had been visiting with the couple’s two young daughters.
“When they saw us, they started to march, they marched down Main Street and walked directly at us, [at his] seven-year old [daughter] that day, and my wife were out there, 25 to 30 men walking towards them with confederate flags,” he said.
“She felt scared, and said, ‘Mom, can we go? I don’t feel safe here,'” Sharita Flick recounted what daughter Jada, also Black, had said. Flick said the move felt hostile.
“I’m not sure what the message is, I don’t understand what the message is. I felt attacked, I felt concerned, I felt hurt,” she said.
The Flicks had originally been drawn to Pine Island’s small-town feel, affordability and proximity to Rochester. But ultimately, they decided not to reside in Pine Island because of a subtle message that people of color and their family were not welcome. And they know of other Black families that have decided to leave because of racism.
Flick, who still has a lease in Pine Island and has a full clientele list, said that people are reluctant to discuss the topic of racism.
“When I bring it up to people, they say, ‘No, I’m not racist,’ then it ends. But if it hurts other people to wave a confederate flag and you play racist songs with yelling and cheering, how is that not racist?” Flick asked.
In all, there were three Black Lives Matter demonstrations. More than 97% of the residents in Pine Island are white; less than 1% are Black. Anti-racism activists say there is a history of racism and racial intimidation that has been going on for years. Only a few weeks after George Floyd’s killing, a “thin blue line” flag in support of police went up at the Pine Island Fire Department. Activists say that sparked the need to demonstrate for Black lives.
“Black Lives do matter,” said Pastor Karen Larson, of nearby Zwingli United Church of Christ. “I was surprised at the ferocity of the response to that, that people felt so defensive, that you must be saying that police lives don’t matter, or Pine Island is a bad place to live, when none of [these] things follow by simply asserting that Black lives matter,” she said.
Pastor Larson said the counter demonstration troubled her. So did the numerous vehicles that drove by, taunting the Black Lives Matter group.
“They weren’t making just a positive message that police lives matter. They were allowing people with confederate flags to join that group, and that is a pretty racist and anti-Black Lives Matter statement, and it was a painful moment for everyone in our sweet little town.”
City officials in Pine Island did not cooperate with this story, nor did they respond to a request for a statement. City council members also declined comment, including firefighter David Friese, who cancelled an interview after a conversation with City Administrator Elizabeth Howard. Almanac did obtain a copy of a welcoming resolution passed by the city this year, which activists say does not go far enough.
“The city passed a welcome statement. It was pretty general, and it did not say Black lives matter,” said Pastor Larson. “It kind of was a panacea: We did that, now we’re good and we don’t have to talk about it anymore,” she said.
But complaints about racism in Pine Island have made it to the NAACP in Rochester. W. C. Jordan represents the Minnesota and Dakotas state conference of the NAACP, and is president of the Rochester chapter. Too often in small communities, he said, local and elected officials are reluctant to join in Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
“If you were to go to a small town and ask about racism and white nationalists located in that area, [city officials] are reluctant to talk about it. And if they don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. It’s something we’ve seen an uptick in [over] the last three or four years, that more white nationalists are organizing and that’s what is causing fear of people [of color] moving to small towns or to the Midwest,” he said.
And racism can be harder to detect. But Jordan said it’s visible in the lack of job and educational opportunities, housing availability and affordability for people of color.
When asked about whether there is racial intimidation or racism in Pine Island, Goodhue County Sheriff Marty Kelly said he wasn’t aware of any recently or even within the last decade.
“We don’t know anyone who left Pine Island who was afraid due to racism. Could that have happened? Yes. It’s all over this country. But if it’s something as far as harassment and things we can deal with and they report it, I haven’t heard of anything in Pine Island.”
Kelly said police “thin blue line” flags are to show solidarity with law enforcement, not a symbol of racial intimidation of Black folks.
“I agree that Black lives matter. I believe that blue and all lives matter. But how can I help? It’s one thing to say Black lives matter, but no one has offered any solution how law enforcement can help,” he said.
In 2014. Dr. Ayaz Virji gave up a lucrative career in Pennsylvania and moved his family to rural Dawson, Minn., to run the local hospital. But once the 2016 election was decided, he noticed a different tone coming from his neighbors: As the only Muslim family in town, Dr. Virji, his wife and their children found themselves constantly defending Islam and Muslim Americans. One Greater Minnesota Reporter Kaomi Goetz has chronicled Dr. Virji’s story since 2018, starting with Muslim Doctor Finds Purpose and Pushback in Rural Town.
Continue reading about Dr. Virji’s journey in What’s It Like for a Muslim Doctor Living in Rural Minnesota? and Why This Muslim Doctor Is Taking a Break from Rural America.
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