Protestors gathered Sunday afternoon at the Holiday gas station at 36th Street East and Cedar Avenue in south Minneapolis, where police fatally shot Dolal Idd. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Four days after Minneapolis police killed Dolal Idd, a 23-year-old Somali American college student, in an apparent exchange of gunfire at a Holiday gas station, nearly a thousand protesters gathered to call for justice and demand answers. Images from the January 3 protests reverberated throughout the country. Many saw a community in mourning, rattled by the first police killing in the city since George Floyd’s death in May.

But some media commentators saw something else: a blue banner with a white star—the Somali flag—flying above the gas station.

Olson’s tweet drew swift pushback from Twitter users pointing out the many Scandinavian flags in the area, honoring an earlier group of immigrants.

In an email to Sahan Journal this afternoon, Olson, a Twin Cities-based public relations consultant and host on 830 WCCO, apologized for his comment. “I did not intend, nor do I believe, that the flying of that flag is offensive or wrong,” he wrote. 

“I am sorry if my words offended. It was a misplaced analysis. As many have pointed out since my initial post, foreign flags routinely fly throughout Minnesota, including Norwegian and Swedish flags. Respect for pluralism is a sign of our strength as a state and nation.”

But right-wing commentators across the state and the country did not back down from their criticism of the Somali flag at the gas station. 

Kyle Hooten, a Minnesota college student whose Twitter bio and LinkedIn profile say he works for the Trump administration, tweeted his observation that the Somali flag had been raised over the gas station. Posted mid-morning on Monday, the tweet has garnered more than a thousand retweets. Alpha News, a local right-wing website, reported the flag’s appearance as headline news.

Similarly, Big League Politics, a right-wing blog that has promoted conspiracy theories, according to the New York Times, said the flag “could be considered a symbol of conquest.” 

The blog post referred to the gas station flag as the “Ilhan effect,” an apparent reference to Minneapolis Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a favorite target of right-wing media. (Ilhan was not in attendance at the protest.)

The fatal police shooting of Dolal Idd, after an apparent failed gun bust, shook the Somali community and a south Minneapolis neighborhood still reeling from the police killing of George Floyd seven months earlier. Protests over Floyd’s death breathed new life into the movement to reimagine policing across the country, but also led to civil unrest, fires, and looting in Minneapolis. Much of the destruction was led by people who didn’t live in the city. 

The protests related to Dolal’s death have largely been peaceful. Five people were arrested downtown the day after his killing on charges of second-degree riot while armed with a dangerous weapon—miles from the Holiday gas station.

The replacement of the American flag at the Holiday gas station was gradual over several days of protest. First, protesters removed the American flag the day after Dolal was killed, filling in one of its white stripes with black spray paint. Three days later, protesters hoisted a pan-African flag with red, black, and green stripes, often used as a Black liberation flag. Minutes later, they replaced it with the Somali flag: blue with a five-pointed white star in the center. 

Protesters first raised the pan-African flag, which represents Black liberation, at the Holiday station before replacing it with the Somali flag. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Haji Yussuf, a community organizer who lives in south Minneapolis and spoke at the protest last weekend, said the flag is a symbol of unity for Somali communities in Minnesota and across the globe. 

“It has a special place,” he said. “It has special symbols on it, and that’s why it’s there.” 

The Somali nation first adopted the blue flag in the 1950s, as areas in East Africa populated by Somalis were gaining independence from colonization. Each point on the star represents a region in East Africa where ethnic Somalis reside. 

Haji said Somalis fly their national flag with pride, as other immigrant communities do. 

“People have a right to have a symbolic connection to where they come from,” he said. “Like the Irish do on St. Patrick’s Day, like the Germans do, like the Swedes do—everybody else does it, so what’s the big deal?” 

Olson’s tweet suggested the flag at the gas station was a symbol of “‘taking’ land.” Sahan Journal photojournalist Jaida Grey Eagle, who took the photo that ended up in the tweet, pointed out that Minnesota has a long history of “taking land” from the Anishinaabe, Winnebago, and Dakota people. Olson, in his email, did not address a question on that topic. 

War rhetoric on both sides?

On Wednesday morning, Olson started by posting his concerns about public debate: In his view, war rhetoric had found its way into language used on both the left and the right. Olson’s tweets compared the Somali flag at the gas station to a manifesto tweeted by prospective GOP gubernatorial candidate Mike Lindell, taken from 8Kun. This is an online message board popular among white supremacists on the far right. The manifesto stated that war was one of the only remaining options to contest Joe Biden’s win in the presidential election. 

By Wednesday afternoon, a pro-Trump mob had stormed the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in an effort to prevent lawmakers from certifying the election of Democrat Joe Biden.

Olson, who describes himself as a “nonpartisan analyst,” said he’s long viewed the degradation of civil discourse on both sides of the political aisle as dangerous. He penned an op-ed on the subject in the Star Tribune this summer. President Donald Trump’s supporters laying siege to the Capitol this afternoon brought his fears to life, he said.

“Today in Washington is my greatest fear,” Olson told Sahan Journal in an email this afternoon.

“I truly try not to be divisive; today I failed,” he said. “Everyone needs to consider the divisiveness of words and actions. It’s time to heal our state and our country. I will continue to do so more judiciously.”

In Washington, as members of Congress huddled under desks with gas masks and then evacuated the building, insurrectionists draped Trump flags near the steps outside the Capitol. 

Meanwhile, in south Minneapolis, at the site where police fatally shot Dolal Idd, the Holiday gas station replaced its missing American flag with a new one and continued selling gas.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...