When George Floyd was killed in May of 2020, it was 200 miles away from Bemidji. But for Black and Indigenous folks here, it could have been down the street.
“This was such a blatant display of aggression, it really surprised me, and I don’t think I’d expect it here in Minnesota,” said Alyson Allen, a Black woman who moved to the area from New York City with her white husband nine years ago.
Allen is helping to lead a local group for racial and social justice called Project For Change. The group’s members are diverse, and they share a common ground of stories – whether their own or someone they know – where race seemed to be a factor in how they were treated.
“Sometimes it’s hard to unravel what’s going on. I’m willing to give people the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “It’s not something super overt, cross burnings, the really overt blatant things, and that’s what makes it so hard. It’s kind of below the surface.”
She and others gathered recently on the lawn of a friend’s wooded plot of land a few miles from the city’s downtown. Project For Change was formed after Floyd’s murder to fight for racial and social justice. On this day, members were spread out on the grass, making signs on poster board to prepare for a memorial to Floyd and the one year mark of his death.
Co-President Jacob Wiley, wearing glasses and his hair in dreadlocks, knows all too well how bias and racial injustice work. Born and raised in Bemidji, he recalled once being stopped by a state trooper who forced him to do Breathalyzer and sobriety tests. He was even jailed – despite negative test results.
“I did have a busted taillight I was stopped for that. A lot of people just assume because I am Black that I do drugs or I smoke weed or I’m drunk, but that’s not who I am. I haven’t done drugs in my life,” he said.
Does he believe the act was prompted by racism?
“I honestly think so,” he said.
CHANGE IS SLOW
Black and Indigenous folks in Bemidji interviewed for this story spoke about the long-standing tension with law enforcement and of feeling left out of city leadership. Some of those inequities may have to do with demographics. Nearly 80% of the city’s population is white, 11 % Native American and less than 3% are Black.
Many residents were critical of the handling of the protests by local law enforcement after Floyd’s killing. Police Chief Mike Mastin did not return several calls for comment, nor did a staffer who handled media calls. The inmates at Beltrami County jail, by comparison, are disproportionately people of color. Local activists are still calling for justice for one Black man, Hardel Sherrell, who died as a result of his treatment while held at the jail.
There are some new voices on the city council. Audrey Thayer is one of two Native Americans elected last fall, and the first Indigenous woman to hold a position of city leadership. She said Beltrami County has authority over the jail, not the city, and she has been pushing for reform of the city’s police advisory committee. Critics are skeptical of the efficacy of an oversight panel if the police chief is a member.
“We can’t hire and fire on a committee, but we can create policy change and we can educate on a community and we can work on changing the narrative,” Thayer said. “I wouldn’t say the Bemidji Police Department is a failure. Do we have officers our chief needs to monitor more? Yes,” she said.
Dr. Gabriel Warren, a Black professor at Bemidji State University, was elected to the Bemidji Public Schools board last fall. One Indigenous mother of a Black high school student recently addressed the board, imploring them to do more to fight racism within the schools. She announced her son would be leaving the district for good.
“I pray no other student has to walk into that school and be called the N-word and another derogatory term. I hope what happened to my son never happens to another student, and you are the leaders in the school district… take a stand and say no racism, please,” the woman said.
At Bemidji State University, a Black Student Union has formed. Another Black professor, David Frison, who teaches business administration, said he enjoys his job and found the campus a welcoming community. He and his wife, who is mixed-race Black and Indigenous, moved to the area from Detroit four years ago.
“I love my job here. I have 175 students every semester, most of them white,” Frison said while interviewed on campus.
But off-campus, his experiences have not all been positive. And he said he’s yet to be invited to the home of someone he is not connected to through work. Frison also said he doesn’t feel comfortable walking in his own neighborhood for fear of being reported. He said it all makes him wonder.
“As a Black man, I can’t change from being Black, no matter how much education I obtain, or social status, I’m still viewed as a Black man, I still get followed around the stores,” he said.
Frison helped found Project For Change. He said George Floyd’s murder helped more people speak up and find their voice. He said he hopes that will continue.
“I’m a believer you have to change your environment, no matter where you are, you have to make it somewhat better,” he said.
In One Greater Minnesota Reporter Kaomi Lee’s first installment about racism issues in Pine Island, she learned about the opposition that Black Lives Matters demonstrators faced in the small town. And in her second installment, she checked in with some residents in the small community who have experienced an awakening on racial justice issues since the police killing of George Floyd.
Reporter Kaomi Lee traveled to St. Peter, Minn., to learn more about the community’s calls for change when it comes to racial equity. While the voices of students and residents have grown louder in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the city council has yet to cement any firm policy changes, leaving many to wonder how to continue the push for change.
In 2018, Kaomi Lee looked into how Bemidji Truth and Reconciliation and others are trying to reconcile a historically tense relationship between Native American and white residents in the area. Advocates say it will take courage, conversation and healing to set a new course.