For the last four years, Esther Agbaje has watched as the ugly rhetoric from conservatives across the country grew more extreme and threatening. Last week at the U.S. Capitol, the rhetoric turned into violence as neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists mounted an insurrection that left five people dead and led the U.S. House of Representatives to impeach President Donald Trump for encouraging the violence.
Still, the violence may continue. The FBI has warned of the possibility of violence at all 50 state capitols in the days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office next week. That warning includes St. Paul, where six GOP state legislators stood last Wednesday with armed extremists who demanded that Biden’s election be overturned.
Agbaje is a newly sworn-in state representative from Minneapolis whose parents immigrated to Minnesota from Nigeria. She and other legislators of color and from immigrant backgrounds feel especially compromised by the threats. They may be personally targeted by white nationalists, and do not fully trust a local law enforcement system marred by institutional racism. At the same time, they need to work in Minnesota’s legislature alongside some colleagues who openly support the right-wing extremists.
Sahan Journal spoke to several of them about the threats.
Lawmakers react to threats
Agbaje, a DFL legislator, said the violence at the U.S. Capitol was the result of “the threats and rhetoric and incendiary comments that we’ve been seeing for the past four years.”
Even before it happened, though, the FBI field office in Minneapolis warned of potential violence in St. Paul on January 17, in a report distributed to law enforcement. The report, obtained by Yahoo News, warned that Minnesota-based extremists were scouting the state Capitol grounds. The report noted that there was no evidence of a specific plot, but detailed how extremists discussed blowing up a building, invading federal buildings, and impersonating law enforcement to cause confusion.
A similar report obtained by ABC News warned that “Armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols from 16 January through at least 20 January.”
“The reporting we’ve received from the FBI on anticipated threats to our state Capitol is unacceptable,” said Representative Jay Xiong (DFL–St. Paul) in a text message to Sahan Journal. “We need to send a clear message in the strongest terms that threats of violence and intimidation are not acceptable. This is not a partisan issue; this is a matter of law, and a matter of life and death.”
The 92nd legislative session, which started last Tuesday, brought a record number of people of color and immigrants into the Minnesota Legislature. Representative Kaohly Her (DFL–St. Paul) said the 15-member POCI (People of Color and Indigenous) Caucus has been discussing the recent threats: “I wouldn’t say people are fearful, but they are aware of the dangers.”
These dangers include a post Her said is circulating on Twitter which lists the names and home addresses of legislators who reject unfounded conspiracy theories of election fraud. The post encourages protesters to go to legislators’ homes.
This is a common tactic for protesters across the political spectrum. What sets it apart in this instance is the potential for violence. “The fact that these people have guns adds another level of concern,” said Representative Hodan Hassan (DFL-Minneapolis), who was first elected to the State House in 2018.
At least two of Hodan’s colleagues have been visited by mobs of armed protestors, she said. She declined to name them, but one, Representative Carlos Mariani (DFL—St. Paul), tweeted about the incident:
Mariani could not be reached for comment, but Representative Her, who also described the incidents, called the mobs “white supremacist.”
Hodan called the current atmosphere “scary and disappointing,” though she is concerned more for her husband and two children than for herself. “I chose this career,” Hodan said, “Every time I go to the Capitol, every time I stand on the House floor, every time I speak, there could be retaliations. There are people who don’t like what I stand for, that don’t like that I’m a Black woman who wears a scarf.”
While Her acknowledges the danger, she said she is not afraid. “I always tell people I’m a refugee of war,” she said. “If bullets aren’t flying over our heads, and I’m not trying to escape in the middle of the night—you know, eating whatever is out in the jungle to survive—I kind of feel like I’m going to get through this. I’m going to be OK.”
A mistrust of law enforcement
Legislators have been told to contact their local law enforcement if they have safety concerns. But the strained relationship between law enforcement and communities of color complicates the situation for caucus members.
“It’s very clear to us that, even though we’re legislators, our relationship with police is very different than our white colleagues,” said Her.
“I’m not relying on my local law enforcement to show up and protect me,” Hodan said. “They have never given me a reason to trust them.”
In this instance, the concern goes beyond a general mistrust of police to a very specific possibility that members of local law enforcement may support the insurrection movement. Agbaje cited the documented infiltration of law enforcement by white supremacists. “We would be naive to assume it’s not happening here,” she said.
Last month, the St. Paul Police Department reprimanded an officer for having a “3 Percenters” sticker on his truck. Members of the anti-government militia movement have been linked to extremist violence across the country. One extremist affiliated with the 3 Percenters movement, Michael Hari, was recently convicted of bombing the Dar Al-Farooq mosque in Bloomington in 2016. The local chapter has been active in “Stop the Steal” protests at the Minnesota Capitol.
“We have seen Trump come to Minnesota and many of our law enforcement show up to his rallies. We’re the capital of ‘Cops for Trump,’ ” Hodan said, citing the political activism of outgoing Minneapolis Police Union President Bob Kroll.
Not fully trusting local law enforcement, the POCI legislators are instead relying on the state Department of Public Safety and the House sergeant-at-arms for protection.
“We are aware of the national reports of potential insurrection, and are tracking possible protest activity as we stand ready to guard the Capitol and protect state employees from harm,” Bruce Gordon, a Department of Public Safety spokesperson, wrote in an email to Sahan Journal. “We will continue to enhance our response and change tactics as needed.”
Representative Her praised the response of the Capitol police: “Their presence is ever so strong, and they are on constant watch. They are sending regular updates to let us know. I feel very safe. I know others might not feel the same way, but I feel safe.”
Where do we go from here?
It’s time to have a serious, uncomfortable conversation about white supremacy, the legislators said.
“Everyone has come out and condemned the violence in D.C., which, you know, is what we should all be doing,” Agbaje said, though she doubts some legislators’ sincerity.
“It’s disturbing when you hear that some of your colleagues on the other side of the aisle participated in events like that and were present for calls for incitement and cheers that the Capitol had been breached,” Agbaje said, referring to the six legislators who attended a “Storm the Capitol” protest in St. Paul last Wednesday.
According to the Minnesota Reformer, the legislators present were Representatives Susan Ackland of St. Peter; Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa; Mary Franson of Alexandria; Glenn Gruenhagen of Glencoe; Eric Lucero of Dayton; and Jeremy Munson of Lake Crystal. No violence occurred at the event.
“I would ask my colleagues on the other side to begin telling the truth to your constituents,” Agbaje said. “There’s no fraudulent election. Nothing was stolen.”
Hodan agreed that there needs to be a stronger response from conservative leaders. “I’m disappointed that the conservative community has not accepted responsibility to say, ‘This is a wakeup call.’ This is what happens when you spend four years dividing people.”
Despite the anger, fear, and confusion of the current moment, Hodan expressed hope that the turmoil may spark a process of reconciliation in America, and a renewed condemnation of white supremacy from across the political spectrum.
“I just want the general public to open their eyes, especially our white allies, to understand that the threat of white supremacy that we have been talking about for so many years has come to the surface. It’s endangering our democracy, it’s endangering our lives, it’s endangering our country,” Hodan said.
“We need to have a way to talk about that without people pointing the finger at each other and saying. ‘You’re racist,’” she added. “White supremacy is a real problem in this country. We have got to deal with it. We have got to find a way to talk about it.”