I rolled over in bed this morning to a text message from a friend containing a New York Times article about St. Cloud, MN, my hometown. As I looked at the Messages preview of the headline all I could think was, ”Oh great, another national news article about how my hometown has become extremely racist”, but that isn’t the picture that emerged. Instead, we get a very intriguing portrait of a small group of people wielding a disproportionate influence over a city, and a political apparatus that is supposed to limit that, but refuses to.
First, we should talk about the people who are mentioned in the article. John Palmer and C-Cubed are nothing more than a small group of people who have had their brains melted by the internet. The very existence of these people is a two-pronged failure — of people failing to control their racial animus in the face of a changing society, and then completely failing at media literacy and letting the whole thing spiral out of control. The concept of a whitelash in response to changing demographics is a well-documented phenomenon at this point. It ruined Reconstruction, it killed MLK, and St. Cloud saw it as the Somali population moved in as I was growing up. It gets to smart people, and twists them. After all, John Palmer is a former university professor before this turn, but his story isn’t just limited to a whitelash. It probably started with that, but then it was fueled by the Internet.
When I talk about media literacy, I’m talking about the ability to make judgments on which outlets are trustworthy and which are not. It’s something that a lot of people struggle with, but older folks tend to struggle with it a lot more. Mr. Palmer, age 70, falls directly into the group that struggles the most with it. And you can tell that he struggles with it because of the media intake that the article mentions. Jihadwatch.com is listed as a hate site by the SPLC, and is so xenophobic that even Dinesh D’Sousa thinks it goes too far. Trusting it as a source of information is a failure of media literacy, and I’m guessing the reading habits of Mr. Palmer and other C-Cubed Members don’t stop there. The confluence of whitelash and consuming all of this garbage online everyday while sitting in the Home of the Butterburger is how you get these people in the first place, but there are usually mechanisms in place to keep them from gaining prominence or power, and that’s where the real failing here is.
Dave Kleis has always struck me as the perfect guy to be mayor of a town like St. Cloud. It’s a super thankless job, but he has always seemed like he likes doing it and he hasn’t made any major mistakes, so I’ve always thought he was the perfect guy for the job. Sure, he’s a little doofy, but that’s part of his charm. If you asked me yesterday, I’d say that I would be fine with making him mayor for life just to save everyone the time of worrying about local elections. That was before I read through all of this lying in bed this morning. In a properly functioning system, a group like C-Cubed would make some noise, and the local party would do something to denounce them and make them seem like the fringe group that they are. Instead, Mayor Kleis’s aw-shucks charm is being used to give a bunch of hateful wierdos the cover to spread their racist nonsense. And I don’t want to lay this exclusively at Mayor Kleis’s feet — there’s an entire local party apparatus here that is refusing to take this issue on, either because they’re afraid of what would happen if they did, or because they see the hate as politically useful. Given what I know about the local GOP and the GOP across the country in 2019, I think it’s probably the latter option there.
And that’s the true tragedy here. Enabling these people is politically beneficial for the local GOP, but it makes everyone’s lives worse in the St. Cloud area. The Somali community are people who have fled half a world to try to live a better life, and now they have to deal with harassment from people with cottage cheese brains from reading IslamisBad.biz every morning. It makes the lives of existing residents worse because it sows the seeds of distrust in the community and pits neighbor against neighbor. And it’s bad for St. Cloud in general because it makes everyone associated with the city look like they’re standing by and letting John Palmer and his shit-for-brains friends do this, when there are exceptionally good organizations like Unitecloud (who didn’t get nearly enough space in the article, and very much deserve your money and support) trying to create a better community for everyone. It is political power for some people, but it comes at such a tremendous cost. And it’s not grounded in any kind of reality. Just listen to the words of one of the supporters:
“One woman, who declined to give her name after the group discussion, bemoaned the city’s so-called no-go zones, or the areas where white residents said they felt so uncomfortable with the Somali-American presence that they would not return — a shopping mall, a community housing center and Beaver Island Trail, a hiking area that borders the Mississippi River.
“They were just — ” she said, searching for the words to describe the offending behavior of the Somali-Americans. “They were just walking around.””
All of this isn’t to say “St. Cloud, do better”, because I know that my hometown is better than this. It’s to lay this at the feet of the people who should be working to clean up their own house — the St. Cloud area Republican Party, because this is their shame to bear. It’s unfortunate for everyone in St. Cloud that they don’t seem to feel any shame about it at all.