Sophia Rashid had a story to tell about being visibly Muslim in outstate Minnesota. So she showed up to meet Beth McDonough, a reporter for KSTP-TV, at the Dar Al Farooq mosque in Bloomington.
A week earlier, she’d posted a description on Facebook of a scary episode that had taken place in Stillwater on June 27. Sophia, a 25-year-old Muslim who wears a hijab and a niqab covering her face, had been eating burgers and ice cream with her four-year-old daughter. Then, a white supremacist motorcycle gang approached her on the sidewalk of Main Street.
McDonough, a local news reporter, had messaged Sophia to collect her account of the alleged harassment she’d experienced from the Aryan Cowboy Brotherhood, a group characterized by law enforcement as an outlaw motorcycle gang. But the July 7 interview, instead, took one uncomfortable turn after another.
In the lead to the reported package, studio anchor Paul Folger referred to Sophia’s experience with the Aryan Cowboy Brotherhood as “a controversial conversation.” And, as Sophia later described it, the segment went downhill from there.
Instead of illuminating Sophia’s frightful experience, the segment that ultimately aired presented a strange and strained account of the incident.
“I just can’t believe that Channel 5 said it’s a controversial story,” Sophia told Sahan Journal two days later. “I’m not sure what’s controversial about it.”
McDonough and KSTP-TV news management said they were unavailable to speak to Sahan Journal on short notice.
Sophia later recounted what happened in Stillwater, with details omitted from the KSTP-TV report. And she discussed how she felt about the way her story appeared on TV news.
The KSTP-TV segment attracted notice—and criticism—from commenters on Facebook and Twitter, who described the interview as “disgraceful and ignorant.”
A man with a swastika tattoo
Sophia filed a police report after her run-in with the motorcycle gang. That document, along with Sophia’s description in an interview with Sahan Journal, presented an uncomfortable account.
Sophia said she had just finished eating at Leo’s Grill & Malt Shop with her daughter when members of a motorcycle gang, wearing vests that said “Aryan Cowboys,” passed her on the sidewalk and started staring Sophia down. They said things like “we’re watching you” to Sophia, according to the police report.
Sophia said her body tensed up and she couldn’t move.
When the group crossed the street, Sophia alerted her server, who along with a colleague offered to escort Sophia and her daughter to her car parked near Teddy Bear Park. While walking about five blocks, Sophia said she received stares from five other groups of people who wore related motorcycle jackets and insignia.
According to the police report, Sophia said the gang members walking past her “felt like a coordinated effort to intimidate her.”
But it wasn’t just “hateful” stares from gang members: One man started yelling at Sophia as he approached her and came near. Sophia describes herself as being on the autism spectrum and said she doesn’t respond well to loud noises. She shut down, she recalled, and couldn’t decipher what he was saying.
She remembered, however, seeing a swastika tattooed on his back. She told the two servers from Leo’s to run with her daughter.
“I felt like I was in immediate danger,” said Sophia, who then began to take photos, which she later posted on Facebook. “If they hurt me, if they hurt my daughter, if they hurt anyone else tonight, I have their faces.”
Sophia, her daughter and the servers from Leo’s hid in the Lora Hotel and called the police. According to a spokesperson at the Stillwater Police Department, the case remains under investigation.
Sophia posted about the incident on Facebook that night, ultimately gathering 12,000 likes. She recounted the entire experience in Stillwater—the “actual Nazis,” the teenaged servers who helped her escape and the Stillwater police officer who she said had never even heard of the Aryan Cowboy Brotherhood.
A few days later, Sophia was contacted a few times by KSTP-TV staff, including by McDonough. She hesitated to be interviewed at first. But community members told her this would be a way for Sophia to tell her story clearly, free from the ugly circus of comments on Facebook. Sophia herself recalled that she had low expectations.
“I’m a Muslim; they’re a violent white supremacist gang.”
The TV team met Sophia at the Dar Al Farooq mosque in Bloomington, in an office with things scattered across the floor, missing ceiling panels and wires sticking out of the wall. It wasn’t the most attractive room in the mosque, and Sophia said she didn’t want the mosque to be depicted badly.
The cameraman said he would crop out the stuff on the floor; in the segment that aired, he didn’t. The room, Sophia said, was better than the alternative suggested by McDonough and the cameraman: the men’s section of the mosque.
The interview lasted 45 minutes and yielded a four-minute news segment.
Sophia felt like the piece ignored the basic account of what transpired in Stillwater. McDonough asked Sophia if the gang members ever physically approached or touched her. Sophia said the segment removed her explanation that the bikers on the street “came at” her.
“I’m legitimately concerned with the way that they cut off my answer because it changes what happened,” Sophia said. “It now looks like I’m lying.”
Sophia said she otherwise felt composed during the interview with KSTP-TV and felt confident in her responses. That is, until what became the most awkward moment in the exchange.
McDonough started: “You and your daughter were there exercising your right and freedom of speech, and you’re wearing particular clothing. And that these bikers were there blocking the streets exercising their right, wearing various insignia.” While the reporter spoke, she raised her hands as if balancing the sides of an old-fashioned scale.
Sophia responded: “I guess I see that as a really strange thing to equate with each other. I’m a Muslim; they’re a violent white supremacist gang.”
The Aryan Cowboy Brotherhood, according to the Anti-Defamation League, are a small white supremacist gang primarily based in Minnesota. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the group “the nation’s oldest major white supremacist prison gang and a national crime syndicate.”
McDonough acknowledged this status in the outro to the segment, standing in a parking lot outside the mosque. (She also mispronounced Sophia’s last name, calling her “Rashad.”)
Sophia said she expected the news outlet wouldn’t be able cover the whole story in a short interview. But she didn’t expect that she’d need to explain how her religious clothing differed from a white supremicist biker gang’s vest. Sophia’s photos, which aired in the news segment, show a biker wearing a vest with the words “Aryan Cowboys” on the back, along with a logo of a winged skull wearing a helmet.
Scott Libin is a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota and former news director at KSTP-TV. Libin said it wasn’t a coincidence that the producers included the question with the shot of McDonough’s hand motions. For the TV reporter, Libin said, it was an act of transparency.
“A reasonable person might infer that she was suggesting some sort of two-sided balance,” Libin said. “I don’t think just any reporter would have asked it that way.”
Libin added that the question could have been phrased differently and without hand gestures. He said he does not endorse the question, but because the question was ultimately asked in the interview, the decision to include it in the final story allows viewers to see Sophia object in response.
“I liked the fact that the question was included in the story, because I think that gives viewers an opportunity to form their own judgments on whether it was appropriate,” Libin said.
Sophia said she didn’t see the exchange this way. “The willingness to even ask that question, in my mind, implies a legitimacy to that question,” Sophia said.
Errol Salamon, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in diversity and inclusion in the media, believes the question itself was harmful. And he rejects the appeal to “objectivity.”
“It seemed like there was this inbuilt nature to try to create and foster division—to create two sides and to play up those two sides for the sake of journalism,” Salamon said. “Free speech does not equal hate speech.”
“It’s four minutes for them, but it’s my life.”
Salamon said media outlets have a responsibility to build relationships with communities.
“Even if there was no harm intended to Sophia Rashid, there’s a possibility that Sophia Rashid or other members of historically marginalized groups may not want to speak to KSTP,” Salamon said.
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-MN, described the risks people take in publicizing their accounts of discrimination. “For victims,” Jaylani said, “you should always be sensitive to the fact that talking about the case itself is retraumatizing.” Victims who put their name and story in the media, he added, make themselves vulnerable to continued online harassment from white supremacists.
CAIR-MN is calling for the FBI to look into of white supremacist biker gangs in Minnesota, Jaylani added.
Sophia said she continues to receive threats online from members of the Aryan Cowboy Brotherhood and its sympathizers. Some of the Facebook messages say that people are looking for her address. Other messages have posted photos of women’s faces claiming they are Sophia.
Sophia said both the police report and news stories wrongly emphasized that she was approached by “outlaw motorcycle gang members.” They were white supremacists who were deliberately intimidating her, Sophia said.
But now, she’s receiving threats from various motorcycle clubs who are doxxing her on the internet. She said she alerted KSTP-TV about the threats before the interview.
At the end of her meeting, McDonough and Sophia each thanked the other for their time. Sophia recalled that she felt uneasy about how the interview went. So she asked McDonough: Between the two of them, how did it go? McDonough responded that it went really well.
After the backlash she received on social media, which seemed to double after the KSTP-TV segment aired, Sophia wondered if she was just being dramatic. At times, she regretted going public with the story altogether, blaming herself for putting her daughter in harm’s way again.
“When you’re telling these types of stories it has major implications for the people involved,” Sophia said. “That should be taken more seriously. It’s four minutes for them, but it’s my life.”
Sophia is white, but she began wearing a hijab and niqab after converting to Islam seven years ago. She said that there are towns in Minnesota she once had the privilege of visiting. Those towns, she said, are just not accessible to Muslims. Stillwater, a place she used to visit freely and easily as a kid, had turned into one of these restricted places.
Since the incident and the KSTP-TV story, Sophia said she has received numerous messages from Black and Jewish Minnesotans, as well as other people of color who have experienced similar incidents with the Aryan Cowboy Brotherhood.
Despite moments of doubt, Sophia said she’s glad she didn’t stay quiet.
Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.