ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has a theory about white supremacists.

“The white supremacist is no friend to white people,” he told an audience of more than 120 at the First Universalist Unitarian Church in Rochester the night of Tuesday, Dec. 3.

Ellison was on his seventh Minnesota listening session about bias motivated crimes, also known as hate crimes. Regina Mustafa, founder of Community Interfaith Dialogue on Islam, Dee Sabol, executive director of the Rochester Diversity Council and Ashalul Aden, Rochester resident and Luther College student, joined him on a panel to talk about their experiences with hate crimes.

Ellison noted that white supremacist groups don’t address the actual problems facing white men without college degrees -- a group of people who face a relatively higher suicide rate, opioid addiction and a higher overall death rate. White supremacy leaders prefer instead to incite hatred and division than to help uplift their own target demographic, Ellison said. White supremacy leaders foment hate and push for policies that hurt everyone.

“(White supremacists) would rather suffer, they would rather do poorly themselves than help others,” he said.

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Ellison announced last month that he plans to issue a report before the Legislature convenes in February with recommended changes to how hate crimes are investigated and counted in Minnesota. First, he is holding listening sessions throughout the state.

'You don't feel safe anywhere'

Aden, whose family is from Somalia, recalled repeated vandalism to her home in 2010 and 2011.

“We didn’t feel safe in our own home,” she recalled. “If you don’t feel safe in your own home, you don’t feel safe anywhere.”

Aden said smelling raw egg reminds her of cleaning egg off her family’s home after each incident. She also recalled how community faith leaders rallied in support of her family after news of the vandalism spread.

Mustafa recalled death threats and accusations of trying to push a religious agenda when she ran for mayor of Rochester in 2018. Letters and threats came from around the U.S., she said. One letter writer told her to “go back to Africa.” Mustafa is from Philadelphia.

She said Muslims face a no-win scenario when getting involved in public life. Muslims who don’t vote or get involved are criticized for not assimilating. Those who do are accused of trying to push a religious agenda.

Even confronting hate crimes prompts accusations of being anti-free speech, Mustafa said.

She said hate crimes are likely under-reported. She recalled last year when someone put bacon at the Masjid AbuBakr Al-Seddiq Islamic Center in downtown Rochester. She said many of the mosque members were reluctant to come forward about the incident.

No middle ground

Mustafa also criticized political leaders who are reluctant to condemn white supremacy.

“We have people representing us who love straddling that middle,” she said.

Ellison said the listening sessions aren’t just to pave way for policy, but to spark community engagement.

“It’s hard to hate and be suspicious of people you know,” he said in a brief interview after the event.

He said that’s where prevention of bias-based crimes begins. Law enforcement comes in after someone has already been targeted.

Last year in Minnesota, 126 hate crime incidents were reported -- an almost 15 percent decrease from the year before. That’s after three years of increased incidents. Nationally, hate crimes have been rising since 2015, according to FBI statistics.

Who isn't surprised

Dee Sabol said a rise in white supremacist rhetoric and acts have come as a surprise to most people except one group.

“You know who isn’t surprised,” she said. “White supremacists.”

Ellison pointed to the rally in Charlottesville, N.C. where white supremacists rallied chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

“If all of us in this room stand up and say this will not be tolerated, they will slide back into the shadows,” he said. “If we don’t, they will be emboldened.”

White supremacist groups have more plans than marching with tiki torches, he added.

At the beginning of the session, Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer spoke and encouraged people to break outside their demographics and meet different people.

“This world is better because we’re not all the same,” he said, adding that people’s stories are “living Scripture.”

The session followed sessions at St. Cloud, St. Paul, Fergus Falls and two in Minneapolis. Ellison said he hopes to hold at least three more before February.