Filed under: Anti-fascist, Immigration, Labor, Midwest, White Supremacy
Submitted to It’s Going Down
The following essay is from a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the General Defense Committee involved in anti-racist organizing in both the Twin Cities metro area and in central Minnesota. At the time of publishing this article, anti-fascist patrols have been set up in St. Cloud to monitor organized racists and also the more unpredictable loose cannons of self-organized racists and Islamophobes in the area and prevent any retaliatory attacks against Muslims in Stearns county. The politics in St. Cloud are centrist and far left/anarchist organizing has a small presence but is building relationships with an anti-racist organization called Unite Cloud. It is this context that the article should be read.
On Saturday night, September 16th, Dirhan Adan stabbed ten people in St Cloud at the Crossroads Center mall. Dirhan, a Somali immigrant, graduated Apollo High School and attended SCSU. He seemed a model student: with no history of violence or extremisthe attacked people that evening, he wore his uniform identifying him as a security guard at the Electrolux factory. He left for the mall that night, telling his family he was going to buy the new iPhone. We still have no testimony regarding what, if anything, happened between leaving home that evening, and the moment he drew a knife and attacked shoppers at the mall . Witnesses report that he mentioned Allah, and asked victims if they were Muslim. During his attack, an off duty cop from Albany named Jason Falconer confronted Dirhan. According to witnesses and mall video, Falconer informed Dirhan he was a law enforcement officer. Dirhan stopped for a moment, then advanced on Falconer, who shot Dirhan once. Dirhan continued his advance and Falconer shot two more times, killing Dirhan. The police then secured the mall, searching every store and evacuating those whom they had previously gathered in the food court. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack through social media.
The national level media had begun descending on Saint Cloud before the mall was even secured, following their logic that “If it bleeds, it leads.” They swooped in and got their headlines proclaiming that ISIS had attacked the Midwest, and left us to pick up the pieces. The Saint Cloud Times has pointed out that police have found no evidence that Dirhan was involved in ISIS. Despite the group’s boast of responsibility for the attack, it was most likely a lone-wolf attack– a tactic pioneered by white supremacists and right-wing extremists. These white power extremists rarely appear in the media but since 9/11 have launched 18 attacks nationwide, killing 48 people. In that same period, Muslim extremists carried out 9 attacks, with a death toll of 26, according to a February 2016 report by Washington research institute New America. As the Times also reports, the local Somali refugee community continues to condemn the attack, and is searching for an answer as well. Local faith leaders have united in mourning the violence, and called for the entire community to move forward together. The national media, however, came to Saint Cloud the night of the attack, got the headlines they wanted, and left. Perhaps St Cloud Police Chief Anderson disappointed them in his refusal to rise to their bait, to connect the attack to the anti-Muslim frenzy portrayed on Fox News.
Where Chief Anderson showed restraint, other parties are only too happy to fill the gap, stoking fear and hatred while our city is still reeling from the attack and unclear on the facts. “Peace in Saint Cloud”, the group that has invited a slate of anti-Muslim speakers to town over the years, hosted hate preacher Usama Dakdok on September 30th. Dakdok’s rhetoric includes profanity-laced rants filled statements like, “every Muslim is a demon,” “there is no good Muslim,” “If you are a Muslim, you are a terrorist,” and conspiracy theories that Muslims plan to behead American children for not eating Halal. Inviting a speaker so disconnected from reality shows that “Peace in Saint Cloud” is far from interested in “peace” in a city that already is noted for having the highest hate crime rate in the state and being named by the CityPages, “The Worst Place to Be Somali in Minnesota.” But, with the attack on the mall, the far right has been given the exact tool they need to peddle the agenda of hate they’ve been pushing on this town for over a decade, by exploiting the grief of our community.
Death threats have been made against figures in the Somali community, including aspiring city councilman Abdi Daisane, who would be the first person of color elected to the city council. Reports have been made of “flag cruises” harassing Somali residents. Reports have come in from Tech and Apollo high school of students staying at home, afraid of retaliation from classmates. Those in our community who seek a destructive “clash of cultures” are ready to press the attack. However, those who seek unity and peace are just as ready to stand up against them.
A History of Tension and Resistance
Tension with immigrant populations is nothing new for Saint Cloud, and in many ways the current tension is a tragic and ironic echo of earlier conflicts. Saint Cloud is historically a strongly German Catholic community, settled in a wave of German immigration to the Midwest, including refugees fleeing state repression after the failed Revolution of 1848. By the First World War, central Minnesotans mostly spoke German; in the home, at school, in newspapers and businesses. As the US went to war with the German Reich in 1917, the state of Minnesota formed a “Committee of Public Safety” to target “un-American” immigrant communities suspected of loyalty to their home countries, as well as pacifists, anti-war activists, and labor organizers who, the Committee claimed, were sabotaging the war effort.
German-born men (and later, women) over the age of 14 were forced to register and carry identification cards at all times, and to report any change of address to the government. Around 6,300 were arrested, many interrogated by federal agents, and over 2,000 German-born immigrants were kept in internment camps until the end of the war. The Committee forced hundreds of German language schools across the state to close. It accused elected officials with German heritage of disloyalty and suspended them from office. German language newspapers were censored by government agents to ensure they remained on a “Patriotic” message. Given free license by public sentiment against Germans to enforce “Americanness”, the Committee for Public Safety also went after small farmer’s movements and labor unions, under the logic that possible strikes would disrupt the war effort. Besides, they claimed, the “IWW outside agitators” of the labor movement were largely immigrants themselves, further “proof” that fighting for higher pay or shorter hours was un-American. The anti-German scare became a Red Scare as Committee for Public Safety forces tarred and feathered and even lynched union organizers, attacked political rallies of the farmer advocacy group the Non-Partisan League, and raided union offices and meeting places.
After the anti-immigrant scare of the First World War had subsided, the area again came under attack through Prohibition, which was driven by largely anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiment in much the same way that the drug war of the 1980s was launched with racial anxieties about African Americans. Stearns County resisted Prohibition, making so much illegal liquor that the county came under near total occupation by federal agents, who engaged in a town-to-town, farm-to-farm campaign of search and seizure to suppress the underground economy. Just years after Prohibition ended, the Second World War began, bringing with it another wave of scrutiny against German people. This time, 300,000 German-Americans had to register with the government, and 11,000 were interned.
As anti-German suspicion endured and was stoked through these decades, the idea was popularized that Stearns County’s people were backwards, hickish, and even inbred, as the popular myth about “Stearns County Syndrome” claims. Today, even though anti-German hate is long gone, these stereotypes about Stearns County remain. The result of these repeated attacks created a close-knit community around the family ties, the Church, and work relationships.
This community has been capable both of hostility to “outsiders”, but also of incredible solidarity and resistance. In the 1970s, Saint Cloud saw marches against the Vietnam War that drew thousands of young people into the streets. Later in that same decade, Stearns County farmers took part in the CU Powerline Conflict, an environmental and farmer’s rights protest against unwanted powerline development that mobilized thousands of farmers across the state in courageous acts of civil disobedience and even reached a peak in the “Battle of Stearns County,” a militant confrontation between farm defenders and deputies. During the Farm Crisis in the 1980s, many of these same farmers came out in defense of hard hit families facing foreclosure, organizing eviction defense actions, “penny auctions,” aid for families thrown off the land, and advocacy for debt relief and aid to farmers.
It was the Farm Crisis, along with so many other changes in the rural economy, that has battered our city for decades. As the economic outlook for rural Americans has gotten worse, and our once strong labor and farmer movements suffered defeats, communities like ours have become an attractive target for far right hate-mongers.
Hard Times in Granite City
Like most of rural America, the greater St Cloud area has seen a decline of jobs in farming, manufacturing, and the ‘extractive industries’ – in our case, quarrying. These have been combined with a shift towards lower paid jobs, and the result is a growing problem of poverty in our city, which drives resentment and racial tension.
For rural communities, one of our biggest changes in decades has been the Farm Crisis in the 1980s and its aftermath. Farming in the Midwest has always been a struggle for small farmers to weather the boom and bust cycles of crop prices. Farmers struggle with low prices when good harvests met with low demand, and save up during times when higher demands allow higher prices, while always keeping an eye on the price of seed, fuel, fertilizers, pesticides, and every other cost farmers face. Under pressure from farmer movements and groups like the Farmer-Labor Party, the federal government tried to stabilize the farming sector after the Great Depression with a program of crop insurance, conservation programs, and credit. This changed in the 1970s, with the “Get Big or Get Out Policies” that took over agriculture. These policies cut price supports and switched to a system of direct subsidy of chosen crops, like corn and soybeans. The idea was to produce as much as possible and let the international market soak up the excess supply. The policies seemed to work, until foreign demand began drying up, and prices dropped, leaving farmers unable to pay back loans. By the mid-1980s, tens of thousands of farms went under, while others held on only when farmers took jobs off the farm. In 2009, according the US Census Bureau, 72.5% of all farm income went to the top 5.3% of farms. For the lower 84% of farm households, the farm itself brings in a statistically negligible income as many survive off another job. Sadly, around Saint Cloud, the situation for the workforce is not golden.
Saint Cloud’s economy was built on the hard rock quarries which gave the city its nickname, “Granite City”, and on a base of manufacturing jobs. Employment in both has declined in recent decades due to mechanization and outsourcing, during a transition to more jobs in the less stable service economy.
Quarrying employment around St Cloud has fallen by a third since 1990, even while production has expanded. This is because the industry has shifted, from using large groups of workers, to using smaller groups of skilled workers operating heavy equipment. This same mechanization process has been the main cause in mining and quarrying job losses nationwide since the 1970s. Nationwide, this longer, slow decline was hurried by the Great Recession. From 2006 to 2010, nationwide, the nonmetallic mineral mining workforce fell from around 500,000 to only around 350,000, mostly from falling demand for construction materials such as gravel and granite as well as coal mining job losses caused by the fracking boom out-competing coal; job declines which the frack sand mining boom only partially replaced.
At the same time, a globalized economy saw outsourcing of manufacturing whittle away at blue collar work throughout the Midwest. Here, again, mechanization had some impact with new machines, each manufacturing worker in the US is more productive than ever. The main cause, though, was that manufacturers have moved factories to the developing world to take advantage the low wages of workers in the poorest countries, as well as to prisons in the US where prisoners can be made to work for pennies an hour. Manufacturing employment nationwide has gone down from around 19.6 million jobs in 1979 to around 12.6 million today, with 5 million jobs lost since NAFTA made it easier for factories to move across the border to Latin America and reopen as maquiladoras, where low wages are enforced by violence against union organizers. Companies have relocated 3.2 million jobs to China since 2001, three quarters of them manufacturing jobs, where labor organizers independent of the state-sanctioned unions face repression. This poverty and repression of labor oversees continues to drive outsourcing in America.
The Great Recession hit rural Minnesota hard. Saint Cloud saw a net decline of 42 businesses between 2010 and 2014 as the construction industry collapsed. Manufacturing in rural Minnesota declined 13% in 2009, an even harder drop than the 4.5% drop in rural jobs overall. The recovery has been long, slow, and incomplete. Manufacturing jobs have continued to decline, declining another 2% last year, bringing them down to around 15,000 jobs in the workforce locally, the largest employers being ElectroLux and New Flyer.
Job numbers are not enough to understand our situation however, the question is not only how many jobs are being created, but what kind of jobs, at what replaced with lower-paid jobs. While low wage jobs were just 22% of the jobs lost during the recession, they were 44% of jobs recovered by 2014. Both middle and higher wage industries gained fewer jobs in the recovery than they lost in the recession, so that by 2014 were 2 million less mid and high paid jobs than in 2008, and 1.85 million more low waged jobs. Retail, food service, and support services led the recovery while construction, manufacturing, and other traditionally unionized and high paid fields had sluggish growth. As more jobs shift to low-wage industries, this helps drives down wages in the those once high paid fields like manufacturing, as well. As part of the longer term trend away from manufacturing, wages for production workers declined 4.4% between 2003 and 2013, with a growing portion of manufacturing workers working in low wage production in 2013, a fourth of all manufacturing workers made $16/hr or less.recovery has seen higher-paid jobs
It’s not that workers, either in the service jobs or in manufacturing, aren’t producing profits. The productivity of the average American worker has risen by 1.5-2% during each year of the recovery, while wages have remained almost flat – in line with the longer trend that worker productivity has doubled since 1980, and profits for investors have risen steadily, while wages have barely risen and median income has declined.
Central Minnesota has felt the impact. Across the whole state, median household income has decreased by about $10,000 since 2002 when adjusted for inflation, because of the stagnation of wages that has hit working people across America. Some areas have been hit harder than others. The median household income in St Cloud Metro area hung around $57,916 in 2014, just below the state level of $58,476, but in St Cloud itself, it was only $43,238. This hints at the growing pocket of deep poverty in the St Cloud metro. The 2013 St Cloud Community Housing Study found that 23.9% of the population of St Cloud is living in poverty, up from 13% in 2000, not counting those living close to the poverty line. This is not simply from unemployment, about half of those living in poverty in the St Cloud metro are working. While the poverty in Saint Cloud falls heaviest on people of color, white St Cloud residents are not untouched. Half to three fourths of African Americans living in Saint Cloud live in poverty, but all African-Americans make up only around 7.8% of the metro population according to the 2010 census, and cannot possibly account for a majority of the nearly fourth of the city that fall below the poverty line. Battered by economic transition, a growing and interracial part of our city is scraping to get by.
For the poorest of our city, one of the tightest squeezes is housing. The Wilder Foundation study in 2014 estimated there are 609 homeless people in Saint Cloud, with a pronounced shortage in low-income housing, emergency housing, and homeless shelters. As of April 2015, there are 6,000 households in the area on the waiting list for public housing and 1,800 waiting for affordable housing. Saint John’s Episcopal Church, which has tried to use ‘tiny houses’ to start addressing the housing problem, has been stopped from doing so by city residential codes.
Wherever people are facing hard times, there’s a choice to be made, either banding together to build something better, or turning on a scapegoat for our problems. The far right has a long track record of trying to exploit hard times to stir up hate. The Nazis in Germany did it in the 1930s. Posse Comitatus, the militia movement formed by veterans of the fascist Silver Legion of America, organized during the Farm Crisis by blaming the crisis on an imagined Jewish conspiracy. The militia movement in the 1990s organized after NAFTA with fears of a “New World Order,” and re-emerged later as the modern “Patriot” militias, which are riddled with white supremacists. In the long, slow recovery from the Great Recession, a new far right movement targets towns like Saint Cloud. They don’t seem interested in addressing the real causes of our hard economic times; such as outsourcing, mechanization, and the decline of unions. Instead, peddle a narrative that rising poverty, homelessness, and all the social problems that come with them, is really caused by “globalists” trying to “settle” rural America with the right’s newest boogieman: Muslim refugees.
The Echo of Tragedy
Since the early 2000s, approximately 6,000 refugees and immigrants, mostly Somali, have come to the city fleeing the civil war in the Horn of Africa. Many of these refugees have fled ethnic cleansing, rival warlords. As the conflict has dragged on, the newest refugees are coming mostly from southern Somalia, fleeing fundamentalist militias like Al-Shabaab who claim, like ISIS, to act in the name of Islam. Al-Shabaab’s fundamentalist interpretation of Wahhabist Islam is hostile to the religious practice of most Somali Muslims, especially those who follow the Sufi tradition.
In the view of a small but vocal fringe in central Minnesota, Somalis represents a program of “settlement” by the state, “bringing in” the refugees without the consent of local residents. In reality, there is no such grand conspiracy, refugees started moving to the Midwest in the mid 1990s attracted by low rents and jobs in meatpacking, manufacturing, and other industries that immigrants in America have always worked in. Like German, Polish, Irish, and Hispanic immigrants before them, Somalis who came to the Midwest were later joined by friends and family members and became part of our community.
The right’s conspiracy suspicions have only been stoked higher by vastly exaggerated or outright false rumors of supposedly generous government welfare that refugees are entitled to. Somalis are not being given to endless support by the government. Like any refugee, they are entitled only to a federal grant of $1,125 for resettlement, and a loan for travel expenses that must be paid back in three years. An additional $800 per refugee is granted to Lutheran Social Services to aid their work in settling the new arrivals, but refugee services make up less than 1% of LSS’s total budget. Immigrants also have the option to apply for Refugee Cash Assistance, which cuts off after living in America for eight months. There are no other special benefits given to refugees. They are not given priority on housing lists, no subsidies are given to employers for hiring refugees, and Somalis are not given free cell phones. Meanwhile, immigrants pay an estimated $793 million in state and local taxes every year.
The immigrant population, including Somali refugees, contributes to the economy. Immigrants in Minnesota make up 6% of the state population, but 8.6% of the state workforce in 2011, and 6% of business owners including 18% of small business owners. This is to say nothing of the businesses supported by immigrant customers. For immigrants and refugees who do rely on welfare, their time on public assistance is typically short. Somali families enrolled in the Minnesota Family Investment Program have a success rate of 76.8% of becoming self-sufficient within three years- slightly above the success rate for all people enrolled in the program.
Other popular rumors revolve around the idea that Muslims are trying to gain special religious privileges and are just as false as the welfare rumors. A Somali clerk at WalMart, or Sheels, depending on where you heard the story, did not tell a Christian boy to hide his cross necklace. Prayer rooms do exist in St Cloud schools, but are open to students of all faiths, including Christians who meet to pray. Our school district does warn students if there is pork in a lunch dish, which would be against both Jewish and Muslim religious laws, but our school district also routinely serves fish during Fridays throughout Lent, out of respect for Catholic students. Muslim workers have asked for accommodations to meet religious obligations, but religious accommodation already exists for Christian workers who enjoy religious holidays like Easter and Christmas off of work. The standard work week includes a weekend that falls on Sunday, when most Christians worship, and Saturday, when most Jewish people and Seventh Day Adventists hold the Sabbath, but not on Friday, when Muslim congregations observe the jumu’ah.
The final accusation against Somalis in Minnesota is that they are “breeding terrorists,” and in the wake of Dirhan Adan’s attack at Crossroads, this claim is brought up again. However, the real story is much more complex. It is true that fundamentalists attempt to recruit and radicalize young, frustrated Somalis towards extremist Islam, just as it is true that the far right attempts to recruit young, frustrated white people towards violent nationalism. It is true that an estimated 22 Somali men, out of over 25,000 Somalis in Minnesota, have been recruited to join Al Shabaab, the militia whose violence many of the refugees are trying to escape. It is also true that FBI attempts to locate potential extremists in the Somali community have crossed the line into entrapment, as in the recent case where an FBI informant actively organized nine young Somali men towards ISIS, even providing them with new passports when their concerned families confiscated their passports. However, prior to Dirhan Adan, no Somali refugee in Minnesota has carried out an attack of domestic terrorism.
This is contrast to the white supremacist movement in Minnesota, which in the year before the attack at Crossroads carried out two known lone wolf or small-group attacks. In November 2015, a group of masked men came to a Black Lives Matter protest in North Minneapolis, shouting racial slurs before one drew a pistol and shot five young unarmed men. In May 2016, a white man in Dinkytown said “Fuck Muslims!” and opened fire on a group of five Somali men, shooting two. We need to take all extremist violence in our communities seriously, both the attempts by fundamentalist Muslims to organize, and the attempts by white supremacists.
Rumor and misinformation has consequences. Those of us who live or grew up in St Cloud are familiar with the anti-Somali bullying that is common in our schools. At Tech High School in Spring of 2015, the bullying got so bad that high school students led a spontaneous walk-out from classes. This lead to the federal Department of Education to investigate harassment of Muslim students, which St Cloud schools had agreed to work on reducing in 2011. Outside of our schools, the harassment can get more violent. In the summer of 2015, a young man in Saint Cloud posted a picture of his friend, who he claimed had been robbed by Somalis, though when contacted by police he did not cooperate with investigation or want the alleged robbing investigated. The online reaction included calls for residents to “start fighting back,” and “get together and do something about these guys.” Commenters bragging about their “clean bloodlines” called for others to organize and “stomp right over anyone who opposes,” betting that Somalis would “sink in the river,” and that it was “time for hunting season.” Days later, 20 cars were vandalized in the parking lot of a largely Somali immigrant apartment complex. While the vandal was later identified and police did not uncover a racial motive, he seemed to specifically target cars with Somali flag stickers, prayer beads, or other indications they were owned by Somalis- 18 of the 20 cars vandalized had Somali owners. In November of 2015, Asma Ama, an African immigrant, was attacked in Applebee’s in Coon Rapids and left with cuts to her face for speaking Swahili. This last August, a Somali woman in Little Falls was confronted in her home by two men who told her to move out of town or they would burn her house down. These are acts of terroristic violence, just as much as Dirhan Adan’s attack at Crossroads.
The prejudice against Somali refugees mirrors the suspicions cast against German immigrants in earlier generations. A narrative is created that the refugee population is unpatriotic, resistant to “Americanization” and assimilation, and loyal to foreign powers. Today, as it was a century ago, these attacks are used to push an agenda that attacks our community.
A prime example is Donald Trump, whose campaign features heavily demands to build a wall along the border with Mexico and deporting Muslim immigrants en masse. While his platform gains support from some blue collar workers, his platform stabs them in the back by supporting nationwide “Right to Work” laws that are designed to bust unions, and supporting the outsourcing of jobs to Right-to-Work states.
AJ Kern, the St Cloud Times columnist and a key figure in “Peace in St Cloud,” is running for state representative with a campaign heavily based in anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant fear mongering. Behind her talking points, however, there are union busting and anti labor policies. Kern supports eliminating the Department of Education, which oversees public school, and “greatly reducing” the power of teachers unions. This fits into the assault on public sector union workers, which Midwesterners have already suffered in Wisconsin under Governor Walker, and in Chicago with Rahm Emmanuel’s administration’s attempts to force concessions out of the Chicago Teacher’s Union.
While both Trump and Kern criticize trade agreements like NAFTA and TPP, which promote outsourcing, they seem to have no real plan for bringing jobs back to America; or if they do, bringing them back only as low-wage, non-unionized jobs. Neither do they support building workers’ power in the new service industries. In fact, the anti-immigrant movement seems more interested in destroying jobs. In a recent example in Mason City, Iowa, residents rejected a plan to build a meat packing plant that would bring almost 2,000 jobs to their city, in part over fear that some of the jobs would go to Somalis, a repeat of Nickerson, Nebraska, where 1,100 meatpacking jobs were turned down over the same fears. Anne Corcoran, an anti-refugee activist from Maryland who has been vocal in commenting on St Cloud’s affairs, has used her blog “Refugee Resettlement Watch” to push against meatpacking jobs in towns throughout the Midwest. She certainly doesn’t have to worry about the unemployment that her anti-refugee agenda creates; it’s not her town that she’s driving jobs away from.
The push against Somalis in St Cloud, like the push against immigrants and Muslims nationwide, offers no solutions for the real problems our city faces. Instead of supporting our community with plans to bring jobs, higher wages, and housing, the far right tries to stir up a culture war to mask their attack on working people.
Saint Cloud Stands Strong
Since the attack in Saint Cloud, the response by nationalist and Islamophobic groups has been matched and challenged by a more powerful force: the people of Saint Cloud who reject the politics of racial and religious hatred, and stand united for our community.
ISIS, Al-Shabaab, and the forces of the American far right appear at first to be opposed, but really share a common goal, a cultural war between east and west, Islam and Christianity, Somali and white. As self-described jihadists take advantage of chaos in the Middle East, they displace refugees from places like Somali and Syria, and drive them into the waiting jackboots and rifles of nationalists and white supremacists. Fear of Muslim refugees drives more discrimination at home, and more calls for war against the Middle East. This in turn further destabilizes the Middle East and driving more recruitment for fundamentalists. It is the rest of us; black, white, Muslim, Christian, LGBT people, working class people on all sides who bear the cost and the scars of this cycle of violence. Saint Cloud will not be used as a chess piece in anybody’s game to divide our city. If we are going to rebuild Saint Cloud, we are going to do it together. We can build a program to address our housing problems, fight for better wages and job conditions, and stand up to religious and racial violence.
Just before the attack in Crossroads, another confrontation with religious fundamentalism happened in Saint Cloud: The St Cloud Pride celebration happening this last weekend was interrupted by a Christian fundamentalist preacher, who began harassing Pride celebrators. In response, the Pride celebrators joined hands, surrounded the preacher, and began dancing and singing until he gave up and allowed the event to continue in peace. This is the Saint Cloud that we know and love, a city that defeats hate with unity.
Patrick O’Donoghue is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and its General Defense Committee, committed to the defense of the working class from all forms of repression and bigotry. He was born and raised in rural Stearns County and is an alumni of the Saint Cloud school system.