Although Tuesday’s 3-2 vote by the Beltrami County Commission to not accept refugee resettlement was symbolic at best -- no refugees have been placed here nor are there any plans to do so -- the symbolism it sent out to the state and the country was profound.
And not in a good way.
Regardless of how you, or the commissioners for that matter, feel about refugee resettlement, Beltrami County became the first county in Minnesota, and only the second in the United States, to say ‘No, we won’t welcome refugees.”
And you have to admit, that’s not a good look for Beltrami County, nor for Bemidji, the county seat and largest city.
That’s a shame, because just in the past few years Bemidji has been highlighted positively around the state, what with hosting Hockey Day Minnesota last year and being named the Best Minnesota Town in 2017.
If perception is reality, and it is for many, we just tripped and fell down after taking those two great strides.
The images from Tuesday’s meeting will linger -- a packed boardroom of mostly older, white people raising their hands when asked if they opposed refugees coming to their community. Those images were shared multiple times on social media immediately Tuesday night and in the days that followed. The Star-Tribune sent reporters to Bemidji and carried the story on its front page on Wednesday -- The New York Times picked up the news, as did Time magazine.
Ironic, isn’t it, for a county where a majority of the population are descendants of white European settlers, some of whom were refugees from war and famine in their home countries. And these same settlers then came here and displaced the original, non-white occupants.
Now, that doesn’t automatically make anyone who disagrees with refugee resettlement a racist. In fact, we strongly believe that Commissioners Craig Gaasvig, Richard Anderson and Jim Lucachick -- who all voted yes to not accept refugees -- should not be labeled as racist. They all said publicly that they voted the way they did because they know Beltrami County is not now -- nor will it be in the immediate future -- in any shape financially to handle an influx of new residents, many of whom would be dependent on county services. (However, we still need a response from Lucachick about his emailed comments to Bemidji City Council member Michael Meehlhause.)
Still, Bemidji and Beltrami County have long struggled with issues of racism in regard to the area’s Native American communities. Tuesday’s vote does nothing to alleviate that perception, both far and wide.
And that’s a shame. Another irony is that the Bemidji region also is well known for its diversity beyond the closeness of Native American communities. We are known worldwide as home to the Concordia Language Villages, and many prominent world leaders (and their family members) have visited or attended the language villages. And Bemidji State University also has a strong international student population.
But, remember, perception is reality to many people. And that perception now is being shaped more and more online. Not with facts, but with fear.
The amount of misinformation spread days before Tuesday’s vote was staggering. And appallingly ignorant. A person visiting various Facebook pages or Twitter feeds would have come away thinking that by the end of 2020, some 3,000 refugees from Somalia would be living in Bemidji. Or that Beltrami County would now be a “sanctuary county,” where “illegal immigrants would not be prosecuted for any crimes.”
To this we say, parroting some online vernacular -- “Puh-leeze.” Where do these people get their information? Oh yeah, Facebook or some other internet site. Well, then, it must be true.
We know, and we’ve just witnessed it, that the internet can be an easy tool to stoke the flames of rage and hate. But we also know it can be a powerful tool for those who want to mobilize and protest against a perceived wrong -- and that can lead to economic hardship on a company, city or a county.
Almost immediately Tuesday night, social media was afire with people all over the country posting that they would never visit Bemidji or Beltrami County again. Terms like “Boycott Bemidji” were once again seen all over. This continued on for several days.
Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht was spot on in her remarks Wednesday after the vote.
“The county's action last night has created a lot of negative criticism for our community. I have received several calls and messages and City Hall has received calls and messages from people who say they are no longer going to visit or vacation here. There is a lot of misinformation on social media that seems to be fueling this fear. My experience has been that seeking understanding and making room for conversation can help.”
And if you think that the Pioneer is just astride our high horse looking down on the situation. Know that we here in the newsroom feel some blame with this, too. We should have been out front of this before Monday’s City Council meeting. We should have been writing stories and sending out information to our many readers, both in print and online, on the facts of the situation to help quell the rumor mill.
We know we couldn’t have stopped all of the misinformation from being spread. But maybe with a little more knowledge, and care, we could have lessened the vitriol that came before, during and after Tuesday’s vote.
Let’s hope going forward that facts, and not fear, drive a community conversation to better understand just what it means to live in Bemidji.