One of the last vehicles to pass the demonstration-protest gathering June 19 was black, white, and labeled “Pelican Rapids Police Department.”
Inside the squad car was Police Chief Jeff Stadum.
The city’s top cop flashed a smile, and a “thumbs up” hand gesture. Waving back to the chief were a handful of protesters who were cleaning up, loading up, and packing up various posters with “Black Lives Matter” messages.
It’s uncertain whether Chief Stadum’s grin was a nod of support to the demonstrators—or a smile of relief, that the day was finally over.
Fears of property damage, or even violence, were Chief Stadum’s primary concern. After all, peaceful demonstrations had flamed into riots all across the nation over the past month.
This couldn’t possibly happen in the friendly town of Pelican Rapids…
…Or, could it?
“The group wanted to get their message out. It’s their right…We all have our own opinions, that’s what we do in the U.S.,” said Stadum. But Stadum had never experienced anything quite like this, in his law enforcement career—which spans a few decades, from North Dakota and back to his hometown, Pelican Rapids.
If he was on edge or nervous, it didn’t show. But you can bet the unprecedented June 18-19 display of political action, in the midst of the downtown Pelican business district occupied most of his energy for a full week.
“We’ve been talking daily,” said Stadum. He was in regular contact with demonstration organizer Ivan Olson—not to mention business owners and community leaders.
Organizers insisted there would be no rioting or property damage.
As it turned out: They were correct. There was a collective sigh of relief at about 5 p.m. June 19.
No incidents. No broken glass. No fires. No rioting.
Crowds varying from a half dozen to about 40 occupied a half block of downtown Pelican sidewalks June 19, from about 8 in the morning to almost 5 p.m.
“Love, not hate…”
“No Justice, No Peace…”
These were among the chants delivered by the protesters.
A day earlier, a group of about 30 conducted an orderly march through Pelican. They called for justice and police reform, in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, which has brought charges against four Minneapolis cops—and ignited demonstrations and riots world-wide.
“I don’t think this is directed at the police, but what is happening to minorities,” said Dena Johnson, who was working inside the Historic City Hall building during the demonstration. “I don’t disagree with their basic motives…but we hope it remains peaceful, positive.”
Protesters ranged from little children to the elderly, over the course of the day.
“I don’t think anybody came in to do damage. We want to keep it in order, and respectful,” said Caya Bravo. “But we have to respect each other’s rights.”
On the streets nearly all day was Grace Haugrud, one of at least a dozen Pelican Rapids High School students who joined the protest.
“I think we’re out here raising awareness,” said Haugrud. “Some people see it as a bad thing. It might make people uncomfortable…but sometimes that’s what needs to happen—including in Pelican Rapids,” said Haugrud.
“Awesome” is how most of the reactions were from the chief and businesses. “They’ve been welcoming, and respect our right to protest,” said Olson, himself a Pelican area native and graduate.
Not all, however.
One immediate concern for Pelican businessman Jamie Stromberg was the flying of the U.S. flag, upside down, during the Thursday march. Historically, an inverted flag has been used as a “distress” signal, most notably by naval ships on the seas.
Demonstrators, mostly from left, have flown the flag upside-down to make a political statement.
“That is intended to be for situations where there is physical distress or danger,” said Stromberg. While court precedent has generally ruled in support of protesters, Stromberg believes the inverted display of the flag is disrespectful.
An admitted conservative, Stromberg accepts the right to protest peacefully—but is a skeptic of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Barb Honer, who organized the Thursday march does not believe the flag was disrespectful. “It is not anti-American…the statement is ‘we need help’…black America needs help,” said Honer.
Several business owners expressed their opposition to the protest. Of course, social media and Facebook were bustling with rumors, angry posts, and critical comments.
“You just can’t believe what you read on Facebook,” said Chief Stadum, shaking his head with disgust.
Most frightening were reports of “busloads” of out-of-town agitators coming to Pelican from the Twin Cities, or Fargo, to cause trouble.
“Fears were unfounded…the buses of rioters never materialized,” said Olson.
But his experience also turned up racism and fear of the Muslim community, Olson reported—much of it circulating on social media. “Most of it isn’t blatant racism, but subtle,” said Olson.
The Somali community was “positive” about the demonstration, but “fearful” to get directly involved. There was very little participation by Pelican’s Somali residents, said Olson.
One thing most parties agree on: “Social media has been a disservice,” said Olson.
Among the “senior” protesters was Al Grothe, a retired Pelican teacher.
Artist Marcella Rose created this poster, which was posted in her downtown gallery’s storefront window last week.He said he identified as a “young Republican” in his college days, some six decades ago. “I remember when the Republican party stood for family values, making a decent living, safety…but that has changed,” said Grothe.
Photos by Louis Hoglund