ST. CLOUD, Minn. — More than 100 people packed a St. Cloud State University ballroom Tuesday, Oct. 22, to join a conversation about hate, racism and inequity in the community as well as efforts to combat those experiences.
Attorney General Keith Ellison, state Rep. Dan Wolgamott, D-St. Cloud, and Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero held the listening session on hate crimes as part of a series of visits around the state to better understand Minnesotans' concerns, especially in rural parts of the state.
And about a dozen stood to share their stories of facing discrimination or hate in their community and asked questions about how St. Cloud could counter racism and white supremacist groups.
The meeting comes weeks after a similar St. Cloud forum on hate crimes that was set to be put on by the Minnesota Department of Human Resources was postponed due to safety concerns. The New York Times in June ran a story highlighting tensions between anti-immigration activists in the St. Cloud community and members of the Somali American community, many of whom had been resettled as refugees.
But Ellison made a point of telling attendees that the meeting was one of several being held around the state, not an effort to single out the community.
"We're not here because you guys made the news; we're here because all of us need to focus on this issue," Ellison said. "We're working on this all over the state."
As part of the discussion, former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini spoke about his experience advocating for white supremacist ideas and his path to deradicalization. He has since formed the Free Radicals Project, which aims to intervene and disengage people involved in violence- and hate-based movements.
"None of us are born to hate," Picciolini said, "it's something that we learn and it's something we can unlearn."
Kayla Okonu, a high school sophomore, said she confronted an instance of hate in her middle school when she found white supremacist posters. When Okonu, one of the only students of color in her school, asked teachers to address the posters, they told her they couldn't do anything.
"For the past years I've been so stuck and there's no one I've been able to turn to," Okonu said.
Her comments generated cheers of support from the audience and a chastising of those teachers by Ellison. Picciolini told her that she had done the right thing and her teachers likely weren't confident enough to confront the hateful posters.
Okonu after the listening session teared up as she counted five business cards of professors and others hoping to work with her. She said she was hopeful there could be a change in her school.
But not all of those in attendance found what they were looking for as part of the conversation. Paul Brandmire, a St. Cloud city councilor, said he attended the conversation to better understand the issue and to try to come away with more specific details about instances of hate or bias-related crimes going on. He said some constituents were skeptical about the frequency with which cases were coming up and didn't believe others who said they were common in St. Cloud.
"Unfortunately, as a result of tonight, I don't know if they are (common) or not," he said. "I'm just looking for answers like everyone else. I don't have the solutions."
Ellison and lawmakers in attendance said they would pursue hate- and bias-related crime during the 2020 legislative session.