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Black protesters in Fargo face death threats, find police response to complaints inadequate

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Faith Shields-Dixon, an organizer for Black Lives Matter of Fargo-Moorhead, speaks at Island Park before marching to the Fargo Police Department during the No Justice for Breonna, No Peace for FM protest, on Saturday, Sept. 26, in Fargo. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
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FARGO — Black Lives Matter leader Faith Dixon said she has received many death threats on social media since protests began after George Floyd died in custody of Minneapolis police in May.

As an organizer and leader in many of the protests in the community, she has been visible throughout the summer in her efforts to encourage police reform and racial equity.

"It's ironic that I get these when we are trying to stop the killing," she said about the threats. "It seems the more we stand up for justice, the more evil and hatred comes out of the closet."

Dixon said what she's learned as an activist this summer "is not everything is peaches and cream in this community."

"We have some angry people out there," she said.

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Dixon is not alone among fellow Black Lives Matter organizers and those in the racial equality group OneFargo who also reported receiving such threats.

The issue of the number of death threats first arose publicly at a Fargo City Commission meeting in August when Commissioner John Strand asked how many in the audience had received a death threat.

About six people raised their hands, including Dixon, OneFargo leader Wess Philome and BLM board member Jamaal Abegaz.

The others were also people of color who regularly attended City Commission meetings for weeks in hopes of more talks on police reform.

In an interview after the May 30 George Floyd protest in Fargo that turned violent, Abegaz said as he emerged as a leader in the local BLM movement he had to move from "safe house to safe house" because of threats.

He also finds it ironic that when property was damaged during the peaceful march that turned violent the charges were quick to come. However, when it comes to an actual threat of death against a community member, like for those in the Black Lives Matter organization, nothing seems to come of it.

In a late September interview, Philome said he was still receiving death threats.

Fargo police, meanwhile, told The Forum there were 55 "threats" reported this summer from June 1 to Aug. 31, although they can't say if any or all were against "protesters."

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Fargo Police Department Public Information Officer Jessica Schindeldecker said they "can't comment specifically about the threats against specific members of the community because they are victims."

In a statement, Interim Chief Ross Renner added the police department "takes all threats seriously. Each incident that is reported is investigated thoroughly, a report is made when appropriate and forwarded to either the city or state’s attorney’s office.”

Of the 55 threat reports through Aug. 31, police said, 37 were forwarded to the state's attorney office, and 15 were closed. They didn't comment on the other three cases.

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This is a Facebook post that Black Lives Matter leader Faith Dixon received this past summer. Submitted

This summer, Dixon said she didn't think police were doing "anything" about the threats against her.

"They never got back to me," she said. "I guess we just have to protect ourselves at all costs."

In a later interview, however, Dixon said police decided to look further into one of her threats that was previously downplayed.

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She provided The Forum with a screenshot of a threat she received this summer. She said it was investigated by police but never prosecuted by the city attorney's office.

In that report, a 30-year-old Fargo man commented on a post this summer on what Dixon said was her personal Facebook page where he wrote that if protesters marched on his street and he "saw anything" he would come out with "this."

The "this" was paired with a photo of an assault weapon. "You have been warned," the man wrote.

Police investigated the case and found the man said he was using a fake account under the alias Leviticus Holt. He said he was part of a group from around the country that uses the alias, and "he and his friends troll on the internet using the fake accounts to antagonize people on various social media platforms."

The man said he had nothing against individuals in the local Black Lives Matter chapter.

Instead of being turned over to the state's attorney, where death threat cases usually land, the case was turned over to the city attorney's office for "disorderly conduct."

City prosecutor William Wischer said he declined to file charges because he saw many holes in the case stemming from the vague and hypothetical language in the Facebook post.

If the case went to trial, he said it would be hard to prove because it begged the question of if the threats were directed at Dixon.

By writing "if he saw anything" and then sending a photo of a gun but not a direct threat that he would use it, "he left some 'outs' in his post," Wischer said

Wischer said he struggled with the decision to dismiss the case, but he also pointed to a factual issue involving Dixon, who claimed the post was on her personal account. The man disputed that and said he posted it on a group page.

"I didn't just breeze past this," Wischer said.

He said he wants Fargo residents to "feel safe and not be afraid," but he pointed to First Amendment rights, although there are limits.

To the best Wischer and his staff's knowledge, his office said, they only received one case from police this summer on any type of threats against Black Lives Matter or OneFargo members.

Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick, in response to a question about the 37 cases turned over to his office, said none they received from police this summer had to do with protesters.

He reviewed all of the cases, with most being threats against family members, ex-lovers and police.

If a community member receives a death threat, Burdick said, he would certainly tell them to pick up the phone.

"I'd report it," he said. "People have the right to speak their minds and not be threatened. They can disagree with their thoughts, but it's not right to threaten them."

Strand, in a recent interview, said he asked the question at the City Commission meeting because he thinks if members of the protest groups are receiving death threats, "it should be addressed."

He agrees with Burdick that all residents "should be able to speak freely and be free of repression."

"I take this very seriously," said Strand, who said he's never had threats against his life and didn't know of any local public official who faced such threats.

In looking down the road, Mayor Tim Mahoney told members of the Black Lives Matter group and OneFargo at an early September City Commission meeting that some of their concerns would be addressed when the new police chief took over on Oct. 1.

The new chief is David Zibolski, who most recently was chief in Beloit, Wis., but also served for 27 years with the Milwaukee Police Department. He said in his interviews that he would be willing to work on racial issues within the department and city.

Related Topics: CRIME AND COURTSFARGOBLACK LIVES MATTERONEFARGOCRIME AND COURTS
An almost 50-year veteran of the newspaper business, Amundson has worked for The Forum and Forum News Service for 15 years. He started as a sport reporter in Minnesota. He is currently the city and night reporter for The Forum. bamundson@forumcomm.com 701-451-5665
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