Fargo Police Chief David Todd wants the community to learn a lesson from the meeting he facilitated between Amber Hensley and two Somali-American women who were involved in a nasty confrontation last week in a Fargo Walmart parking.
"I wanted the community to see that if you take something horrible and work your way through it-if there's genuine interest on both sides of doing that-you can turn it into something good," Todd said. "I'm hoping the community can look at that as an example and say, 'Maybe I can stretch myself a little bit and get to know my neighbor or that person I work with, not have those suspicious feelings because I don't know them.' That's the way we're going to make ourselves a stronger community."
Todd and the Fargo Police Department deserve the praise they are getting because of their actions that appear to have turned adversaries into friends, or at least respectful acquaintances. Hensley was caught on video threatening three female Somali immigrants after she said they parked too close to her car at the 13th Avenue South Walmart. The three women insulted Hensley, who then launched into a tirade that included the now-infamous line, "We're going to kill every one of you (expletive) Muslims."
The video went viral, became an international story and Hensley lost her job at a Fargo accounting firm.
After seeing Hensley's regretful Facebook posts following the incident, and reading The Forum's story on the women, Todd took the advice of Deputy Chief Todd Osmundson and invited the women to meet in his office and talk things over. Hensley and sisters Sarah and Leyla Hassan met Thursday afternoon.
Todd posted information about the meeting on Facebook that evening, including a picture of the three women with their arms around one another. He fleshed out the story on my 970 WDAY radio show Friday morning.
"I was standing between them and I just about got knocked over by the three of them coming together to hug," Todd said. "And they cried for about three minutes. Nobody could say anything."
Todd described the three as genuinely "regretful, remorseful and full of forgiveness."
One of his goals, he said, was for the three women to make amends. That was accomplished, because the women are going to get together for birthdays and Sarah and Leyla Hassan pledged to help Hensley get her job back. But in the bigger picture, Todd said he wanted to set an example for Fargo-Moorhead and the region.
"It's always been my belief that it's harder to dislike somebody if you get to know them a little bit. Who are they? What are they thinking. What are the circumstances they come from?" Todd said.
Hensley revealed that her father was killed in Iraq and that has colored the way she's viewed Muslims, Todd said. The Hassans said they've endured inappropriate comments about the way they dress and their home country, something they haven't responded to.
"Amber's story is that she lost her father in Iraq. When you don't know other people and you equate losing your father in Iraq to Islamic terrorists, she apparently misplaced that anger," Todd said. "It was some misplaced anger that was boiling just below the surface that just came out, to her horror."
The Hassans' "frustration built up in them, too, and I think these two things came together in a kind of perfect storm," he said.
The message, Todd said, is to talk and be understanding of others. He acknowledges there is an "underbelly" of racism and xenophobia in Fargo-Moorhead, something he called "evil." His hope is that people will try to turn these situations into positives instead of dwelling on the negative. He put much of that onus on the local media.
"We're not going to change it by dwelling on it," he said. "We're going to change that by putting forth positive stories about people overcoming that and coming together and how that's accomplished."