St. Cloud MN: My Take

Here’s the headline: 

NYTimes article sets off firestorm, puts St. Cloud MN under the microscope of refugee resettlement controversy. 

I’m thinking the main characters in this tragedy are all bound to the wall of the cave, only able to see the shadows from the fire burning brightly in the background. Only seeing the shadows and not the substance. I cannot claim to have been released from bondage myself but I have seen these shadows often and for many years.

I have shot from the hip regarding controversial public issues for a very long time. These days I’m more inclined to reflect before I say anything. And I believe in this instance my hesitation has served me. The shadows are familiar and clear enough.

This latest hot button item is local but made the front page of the NYTimes and subsequently plenty of local and regional media outlets. We are on the map now, an example of a national phenomenon that while always bubbling underneath the surface has recently surfaced in all its ugly glory.

Not inclined to reveal too much about myself personally, probably out of some form of cowardice, I nevertheless have a need to say something about these events, numerous opinions, and rants circulating about my hometown, St. Cloud MN. My commentary about this narrative is pouring out of my consciousness only. It should not be construed as any sort of absolute truth. But it is my truth and I stand by it.

The controversy: St. Cloud and surrounding area has a long history of white supremacy, racism, religious discord. And recently, islamophobia, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment. It has been called White Cloud and it has often been assumed this demeaning kind of people were in the majority.

I’ll start with what might be seen as unrelated background noise. I think it speaks volumes. I haven’t heard it brought up in relation to the solid foundation of this problem, a should be condemned building, whose cornerstone is more than mere white supremacy.

St. Cloud and most of its metro area rest in Stearns County, a place that has been the subject of plenty of rumors, conjecture, myth, and controversy over the years. It’s residents have been accused of enough socially unacceptable behaviors to blanch the skin of any god fearing soul. But I need to deal with facts, and the fact is the area was settled in the mid 19th century, primarily by German Catholics.

Across the street from the church that was the central nervous system of the hamlet was a single building, a combination bar and grill, city hall, police station, and a jail that mostly served as a reckless driving overnight hotel and drunk tank. Young boys were said to buy beer pretty much as soon as they could reach the bar top with their money. As the sheriff was normally a favorite son his head was turned the other way from many of these ‘minor’ transgressions. 

Were I to use one word to describe these settlers it would be parochial. They kept to themselves and lived much as they had in Germany, preserving their culture and rituals. The unusual thing about these settlers is they preserved their cultural norms and traditions much longer than most other immigrant cultures. Very few ever ventured beyond their township. They married from trusted, neighboring farm families, with eventually all in the enclave related somehow. They maintained their language and spoke it at home and in the community, rarely needing to use English unless they nervously ventured to the ‘metropolis’ of St. Cloud for some needed item. For many that was as far from home as they ever ventured.

Their mistrust of any except their own meant a fierce protection of their ‘turf’. Outsiders were quickly shown they were not welcome. Granted, this was more out of fear of the unknown rather than true malice aforethought. Seen from some on the outside there was a perceived innocence there that led them to find the folks of these communities ‘unique’ and ‘folksy’, as long as you left them alone.

So this micro environs stayed pretty much the same for the better part of a century. Assimilation was not really on the menu. To whit, here is a personal example. At a St. Cloud high school in the mid 1960’s I fancied a beautiful young woman and asked her for a date. She had soft blonde hair and warm eyes and spoke in an interesting clipped consonant style. 

When I picked her up it confirmed my suspicion that she lived on a farm in Stearns County. Her whole family spoke with that clearly German accent. They all looked at me warily. I later learned her parents were reticent to let their daughter to go out with that ’St. Cloud city boy’. I also learned that she had spoken only German in her home until she went to elementary school and basically had to learn English on her own, at five years old.

Slowly, over the years, the youth of the area began to venture out into the world, mostly to St. Cloud. Some wild risk takers settled all the way to the wicked Minneapolis. As St. Cloud began to grow its base population was largely these German and other Catholics, mostly Poles. St. Cloud at this time was @70% Catholic. These are the people who now have been here for several generations. Their turf is now St. Cloud. They protect their turf. They still fear and don’t trust outsiders.

I must admit that my assessment of these things is purely opinion and there is a real chance I am wrong about some things. But the essence is true. For decades these German settlers and their descendents remained isolated, holding dear their old world cultural traditions, language, their mistrust of strangers, and fear of the unknown. 

The irony in all of this is that many of those who oppose refugee resettlement and secondary immigration accuse the Somali Muslims of the same things their relatives and friends did for so many years just miles away. Somalis are said to refuse to assimilate, won’t learn our language, insist on maintaining their culture, and stay isolated from mainstream society, mostly out of fear of discrimination. Where have we heard this before?

So what does this all have to do with St. Cloud’s once and present fractured community. I believe this history provides some backstory that has value in helping us see more of these issues more clearly. I’m not certain why, but I have yet to see anyone address the St Cloud area’s past. Having been born and raised in St. Cloud I have experienced examples of this insulated worldview. It is quite real

Now, while tangible and not insignificant these problems are not as prevalent as some would want you to think. Click bait headlines and superficial journalistic works that depended on sources with agendas have shone a brighter light on our bad behavior than good. The majority of St. Cloud’s predominantly Christian citizens have, as admonished by Jesus, welcomed and accepted the immigrant as children of god. Besides, unbeknownst to many, as is shown by people’s comments, it is said that Muslims worship a different god than Christians, which is patently untrue. This only one of the sad misunderstandings we suffer. 

Prominent among the complaints is that Somali Muslims are ‘stealing’ our hard earned tax dollars by getting ‘free’ stuff while our unfortunate veterans are homeless and poor white people get nothing from government. While these things have been proven by professional investigation to be untrue the narrative refuses to die. Unbeknownst to many, as is shown by people’s comments, it is said that Muslims worship a different god than Christians, which is patently untrue. These are only several of the sad misunderstandings from which we suffer. 

The fact that the Muslim community spends most of their money locally, helping many of our small businesses thrive, and contributing to the tax base is lost on many. The Somali entrepreneurial spirit thrives. These positive contributions of the Somali community to St. Cloud far outweigh their perceived harm.

It is these misconceptions that non-profit organization such as Unitecloud and the many other white, Christian friends of the mostly Somali Muslims look to clear up. There is a conscious and concerted effort to bring the leaders of the not so thinly veiled anti-immigrant groups such as C-Cubed together with Muslim leaders and white allies for open, honest and respectful conversation.

This dialogue between people who are equal in the eyes of god can only lead to a better understanding of each other and bring St. Cloud closer together, perhaps only modestly but in a meaningful way, and point us toward the kind of equity needed not only here, but nationwide.

I find it sad looking back on what I have said here. I find myself angry about spending most of my time talking about both real and alleged damage done to St. Cloud. Damage wreaked by any number of people, many of whom could still be considered to be without rancor.

Sometimes I am overtaken by grief and despair by all of this, unable to see an exit from the anguish felt by so many in this city. But on other days I see the light of hope peaking in. St. Cloud is filled with talented artists and musicians, aspiring students, dedicated professionals in many fields, skilled artisans and accomplished hard working essential workers. It is truly a good place to live.

These are all good people and I love them, as do a large majority of us love each other. I work very hard at loving even those frightened souls who disparage those they do not know or understand. I work very hard to discover and change the biases and privileges inside me, living just underneath consciousness, that keep me apart from others and sadly rear their darkness, diminishing me.

I intend to keep fighting for joy and justice.

Isn’t the Rio (Grand)e?

I have an issue with Democrats and their acceptance of the frame “border security”. Security implies and supports the conservative concept: “Americans good, Latinx bad”. Used as it is most often, security is a military term, as in: send troops there, establish and secure a perimeter. i.e. don’t let anyone in besides us and use force if necessary. Used as a social term security can mean someone who arbitrarily decides who can enter a nightclub or concert and who to remove from those venues, often by violence.

I prefer the term border protection. I hear it used as a descriptive or supportive phrase from all sides but only ancillary to the metaphor “Border Security”. As a primary metaphor “border protection” implies and supports the progressive idea that the border should be safe, protected from bad people who want to get in and hurt us but also safe for people whose home country was unsafe. Morally they deserve protection too.

It is known that advances in technology continue to make the border safer and the billions of dollars required for a wall is a waste of taxpayers money. That money can be better used for the numerous personnel needed to expeditiously process refugee claims and the modern technology used to interdict people and contraband coming in through our seaports and airports.

One might say that people aren’t consciously aware of any difference between those words but unconsciously they do and decisions about what words mean are made unconsciously, informed by experience and repetition. Just as in the difference between regulation and protection when used regarding government monitoring of business, protection is the word that speaks more to those without power while security and regulation are words about the use of power by those who have it. The difference is subtle but significant. How those words are defined by society can easily be influenced.

We have all heard that words have power. But what is it exactly that bestows them with this power? Words are like icons on a computer desktop. The icon contains no information of it’s own. It only points to and connects us to a file or folder in storage that contains the information the user associates with that icon. Words are icons that connect us to where the real information is stored in the brain.

Our brains have to process billions of bits of information daily. Because of this the brain needs to take shortcuts. One word can connect us to entire concepts. Consider the word baseball. Not only does it connect you to a small round object but to a stadium and bats and uniforms and umpires and balls and strikes and beer vendors etc.

But an icon will only connect us to one file or folder and a word will only connect us to one definition or one collection of related things. It cannot connect us to two unrelated files at the same time. When you hear the word baseball you will not see a hockey puck. When we want to use the information found on a particular file we recall the icon associated with the info, click it, and the information appears. No matter how many times you click the icon for rock and roll it will not take you to jazz.

Persuading folks that a word means something different than you think it means is as easy as getting your definition to the top of the Google search results. You repeat it over and over again. Eventually the Google brain decides that the other definition is correct and yours is wrong. Google doesn’t know right from wrong nor does it care. So the wrong answer easily becomes the answer you find when you ask..

This is why using words like security and regulation over and over again to describe refugees claiming asylum will connect people to using our power to keep everyone out with a wall and assault rifles instead of using our power to determine who can enter and who cannot. It won’t matter which idea is right. It only matters which one people say is right. In this scenario getting society to accept that our real job is to protect those involved will not be easy. It will be very difficult. Getting your information to the top of the Google search isn’t easy.

Words do have power and we must use that power to help all peoples, as our American moral values dictate.