‘Shock’ and ‘anger’ in Grand Forks after racist graffiti targets Somalians

Shock' and 'anger' in Grand Forks after racist graffiti targets Somalians

Shock’ and ‘anger’ in Grand Forks after racist graffiti targets Somalians

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Residents said they were shocked and disgusted Monday over racist graffiti that prompted a police investigation and calls for more discussion of race relations.

The words Somalia and a racist slur were spray-painted in large letters on the north side of the building at 1020 S. Washington St. By 5 p.m., the building’s owner had painted over the words.

Reaction to the graffiti was strong after the group North Dakotans Against Brutality posted the image on its Facebook page that morning. Members of some area organizations, including North Dakotans Against Brutality, said they’re planning educational events to help foster education and religious and racial tolerance in the community.

Residents from all corners of the community voiced embarrassment and called for a greater push for understanding. It also triggered memories for some of a 2010 incident when a swastika was painted on a Grand Forks elementary school.

Natasha Thomas, a diversity advocate who is calling for a Diversity and Inclusion Commission in Grand Forks, said the offensive act hits hard.

“There’s a lot of shock, there’s some anger, there’s some hurt — some definite hurt,” she said. “But what I think is important now is that we realize it presents an opportunity for us to be better. There’s a need for a diversity commission or a broader conversation on diversity.”

Property damage

An image of the graffiti spread after it was posted Sunday by a Facebook user. The Grand Forks Police Department heard about the incident Monday through word of mouth and began an investigation, said spokesman Lt. Derik Zimmel.

Police are not classifying it as a hate crime yet, though it was clearly motivated by bias, he said. Officers have to approach the case with a neutral perspective, he said.

“The language is societally intolerable but especially with this department,” he said. “We’re going to leave no stone unturned in finding out who was responsible for that.”

Building owner Bob Caulfield said he was shocked at the graffiti. He’d recently been negotiating with two Somali women who wanted to start a coffee shop and store in the building, which houses a Verizon store and a vacant space formerly occupied by a Quiznos sandwich shop.

Caulfield wanted to help the women achieve their dream of opening a business, he said.

“I’ve spent a lot of time doing research and working with the women,” he said. “I feel comfortable with it, and I’m prepared to sign the lease.”

He had no idea who might have defaced the building because “a very, very small group” of people were aware of the negotiation, he said.

The city of Grand Forks has been talking to several organizations today and reached out to Caulfield to help, said Pete Haga, community and government relations officer.

“This underscores the need for more discussion, more dialogue,” he said. “It’s also part of (the city’s) role to make sure people know we’re here to support them and to stand up against acts like this.”

Mayor Mike Brown issued a statement saying he was “sickened and saddened” at the news.

“All of this should go without saying, but it can’t go without saying,” he said. “It is hateful, ignorant and hurtful. It is not who we are.”

Alex Azenkeng, president of the United African Community, said his group will get in touch with Somalis in the community and city officials to develop a potential response. The timing of the act is especially harmful as a growing number of Somalis live in the community, he said.

“This is totally unacceptable,” he said.

Speech a trigger?

Several linked the graffiti to a protest last week over Usama Dakdok, a Christian public speaker who has referred to Islam as a “cult” and “disease.”

Dakdok gave a seminar titled “Revealing the Jihad and Terrorism of Islam” at the Empire Arts Center last Tuesday before a crowd of nearly 200.

Members of the Grand Forks Islamic Center — who are also members of the group North Dakotans for Interfaith Acceptance — were among several who participated in a silent protest before Dakdok’s talk.

Phil Ehlke, general manager of radio station Q-FM, which organized the Dakdok event, said those who attended the speech felt it was informative because he made “a very concerted effort” to talk about loving Muslims in the area. Dakdok feels people don’t understand everything they should know about Islam and they’re “kind of deceived” to a certain extent, he said.

He blamed media for “stirring people up” and said the protest wouldn’t have happened without it.

“We haven’t had one person — not one — who attended the seminar by Dakdok that agreed it was hate speech,” he said. “In fact, we’ve had just the opposite.”

He said the graffiti was unfortunate, but suggested someone who was already prepared to deface a building found good timing in light of the media attention on Dakdok.

“We don’t agree with it at all,” he said. “Nothing like that is good.”

Nabil Suleiman, president of the Islamic Center, said the appearance of the graffiti so soon after the speech — which he said targeted Muslims and spread false information — concerned him.

“Unfortunately, a small number of people can create a lot of havoc,” he said. “It’s not like a majority of Grand Forks believes this, and I don’t think it will ever go that way. Two or three people can create havoc for 50,000 to 60,000.”

The graffiti hit home as the majority of center’s congregation is Somali, he said.

“I have been here for almost 15 years and I’ve never seen something like this,” he said. “So, to see something like this all of a sudden, and right after that speech — that was the concern.”

Katherine Dachtler, site supervisor for resettlement services at Lutheran Social Services, works closely with the Somali community. While communities can always work more at welcoming and accepting foreigners, this was a sign that “unfortunately, we aren’t as far as we’d hope to be and we have work to do,” she said.


Leave a comment

No comments yet.

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s