It's hard to believe that this would happen in 2012. It's hard for Minnesotans to believe that it would happen in northern Minnesota. Sadly, it's true. There was an 8 foot cross set ablaze in a woman's front yard just north of Bemidji, MN.
On May 25, a woman called the Beltrami County Sheriff's department in northern Minnesota to report that a large cross had been leaned against a tree in her yard and set on fire. The flames were shooting five feet into the air.
The woman who lives there is white, but her two grown children are multi-racial. The incident is under investigation by the county sheriff's department, the FBI, and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and two arrests have been made.
The two men arrested are 19 and 20 years old. Apparently the 20-year-old built the cross and enlisted the help of his friend. They then drew swastikas and wrote racial epithets and threats on the cross before taking it to the house and setting it on fire.
Those are the facts of the case.
The emotions of the case go much deeper, however.
Bemidji is a small city with a population of 13,400. It is home to one of Minnesota's state universities, and is the largest city in a radius of approximately 100 miles. Like many small towns and cities across America, Bemidji has had its share of shameful racist incidents. However, this blatant display of overt racism has shaken the community. It seems to be forcing the community to take a long, hard look at itself. A long overdue look.
Shared Vision, a community group dedicated to addressing racial diversity and disparity in the greater Bemidji area is working with the ACLU-MN to coordinate a community round table discussion of historical contexts of cross burnings and their lingering effects on a community.
Because Bemidji is home to a state university, there are people of many cultures and races who live in town. There is also a large Native American population, both in town and in the surrounding area.
I know from my own observations about the racism that our Native American brothers and sisters are so often subjected to here. Indians seem to be pulled over in traffic stops much more often than non-Indian folks. It feels as if all eyes are on them when they're walking through stores. When you read the police and court reports in the newspaper, Indians seem to be over-represented. These are the everyday, soul-crushing incidents that local Native Americans are forced to live with.
The recent cross burning brings years of covert and quiet racism out into the open. Perhaps it will serve to start an honest and open conversation about racial attitudes here in the Northland.