BEMIDJI -- Social media has been swirling with questions and rumors regarding curfews, potential dumpster fires and “roaming vigilantes” since a local protest this past weekend in response to the killing of George Floyd.
An evening curfew was enacted for the city of Bemidji on Saturday and Sunday following a “specific series of credible threats to property and people,” according to a statement from Mayor Rita Albrecht.
“The implementation of a curfew today and tomorrow is not in response to peaceful protests,” she said.
Since then, various speculations and questions have been raised via social media and readers have sent in screenshots of since-deleted posts -- some including mention of a state representative participating in patrolling the city with the owner of Off Grid Armory, a business located near Itasca State Park.
In a press release Monday afternoon, Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel addressed some of these rumors and misinformation that has been “engulfing our community surrounding law enforcement's response to the credible, evidence-based threats to the City of Bemidji, its citizens and its businesses that occurred this past weekend.”
Beitel said rumors and misinformation were shared by local public officials, who he didn’t name.
Threats to Bemidji, accelerants found
According to Beitel, on Friday afternoon, law enforcement officials were alerted that extremist organizations calling for the burning down of Bemidji planned to infiltrate the peaceful protests scheduled to take place on Saturday.
The threat was concentrated on the downtown area, he said. These extremist organizations have not been named by law enforcement.
“The information about burning/property damage to Bemidji came from a longtime Bemidji resident -- who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation -- in-person to a Bemidji police officer,” Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin said in an email to the Pioneer on Tuesday.
Throughout Saturday, law enforcement continued to receive threats related to "burning Bemidji down" with threats made directly toward burning down the Beltrami County/Bemidji Police Department law enforcement center, the release from Beitel said.
The Minnesota Fusion Center, a section of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, also provided information to local law enforcement “that people were planning to attack government buildings in Bemidji which may result in property damage and arson,” according to Chief Mastin.
Beitel claimed his fears “were justified” after it was reported to law enforcement that “multiple dumpsters filled with gas accelerants and caches of tools hidden,” were found around the downtown Bemidji area.
Mayor Albrecht’s statement, released on Sunday, also said that “dumpsters were found to have already been laid with accelerants (gas) and flammables (bags of leaves and broken up pallets).”
The accelerants and flammable materials were found by Waste Management staff, Mastin said. He added that law enforcement is working to determine if the placement of these materials were captured by any local video surveillance systems.
Beitel said that Waste Management was called to empty dumpsters at 6 p.m. on Saturday in downtown Bemidji.
On Saturday afternoon, the planned peaceful demonstration began at 2 p.m. at Paul Bunyan Park with speakers and music before protesters walked to the law enforcement center at 613 Minnesota Ave. NW, about five blocks from where the demonstration began.
The demonstration remained mostly peaceful until a dozen protesters surrounded and threw debris at a squad car.
In Beitel’s statement, he said officers took immediate action to detain and arrest a subject. A 58-year-old man was issued a citation for disorderly conduct.
“The organizers of the peaceful citizen's march were able to step in, calm and dispersed most of the crowd and stopped any more damage from occurring,” the release from Beitel said.
First-floor windows of the law enforcement center were then boarded up, and local law enforcement called for mutual aid from law enforcement partners across the state.
“Many of the law enforcement officers that responded and patrolled the streets of Bemidji were doing so in dark SUV squad cars,” Beitel explained in the release. “At no time did the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office or Bemidji Police Department call for private security or citizens to assist our law enforcement response as it has been stated on several social media platforms and statements made by government officials.”
“Unbeknownst to myself or (Bemidji Police) Chief Mastin we learned that some business owners and citizens, including State Representative Matt Grossell had offered to assist and were with local law enforcement officers and a neighboring sheriff at a Bemidji Fire Station,” he added.
Grossell is a retired law enforcement officer, having served as a Clearwater County sheriff's deputy. A Republican from Clearbrook representing District 2A, Grossell made statewide news when he was issued citations for disorderly conduct and trespassing last August in St. Paul, but reached an agreement allowing him to avoid convictions and instead participate in a six-month court diversion program.
“At approximately 9:30 p.m., Representative Grossell reached out to me and offered assistance by being ‘eyes and ears’ for law enforcement,” Beitel explained.
Grossell did not respond to a request for comment.
Beitel said prior to Grossell’s call, law enforcement had received information that buses of protesters were coming to Bemidji. It is not clear where the buses were reported to be coming from or who provided this information.
Mastin said to the best of his knowledge, no buses arrived, “but, we need to consider, prepare and react to all information received.”
“When (Grossell) asked how he could help, I intentionally directed him outside the city limits to watch for buses that may be coming into Bemidji and report his observations to law enforcement,” Beitel continued. “Unfortunately, a miscommunication resulted in some of the citizens placed in fringe locations around the city of Bemidji.”
This “miscommunication” is currently under investigation, Mastin said.
That statement contrasts with Albrecht’s Sunday statement, in which she said, “We are aware of multiple inaccurate rumors on social media that can lead to misunderstandings and violence. The city did not request, nor do we condone, vigilantes patrolling within the city limits, now or any time."
Local business responds
A now-deleted Facebook post from Off Grid Armory, posted at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, said, “I’m sitting in a blacked out SUV here in Bemidji with a bunch of patriots to make sure this town doesn’t get burned down or looted like Minneapolis… We started off at the police station where we met protestors. Now we are posted up in (five) locations in town, making sure none of the Minneapolis shenanigans take place here!”
According to the Off Grid Armory website, the mission of the business is: “We believe in keeping our communities safe. Teaching others responsible ways of handling firearms and personal protective equipment is the most important way we can help contribute to the safety of our loved ones.”
When asked to comment on the public statements regarding the situation, Samuel Smith, the owner of Off Grid Armory said, “We would like a public apology from the mayor of Bemidji Rita Albrecht, for publicly calling business owners in Bemidji vigilantes.”
According to his statement, they were strategically and intentionally placed out of city limits at entry points of the city in order to be the eyes and ears for law enforcement.
In a video posted to the Off Grid Armory's Facebook page Monday night, Smith clarified that those involved in the patrol were unarmed.
"We went into town on Saturday night because we had information that Bemidji was going to be burned to the ground basically," he said. "Nothing took place. It was an uneventful, boring night and I can't believe that I have to sit here and apologize for volunteering to protect my local town."
Beitel said in his statement, “These citizens did not actively patrol city streets, further, we do not share their personal views as they have expressed on social media.”
On Sunday, May 31, the Bemidji Police Department began an investigation after one of the citizens “being the eyes and ears for law enforcement” used a social media platform to report what he was doing, according to the release from the sheriff's department.
“Law enforcement found that prior to and after the curfew, he was with a neighboring sheriff and local law enforcement officers at the Bemidji Fire Station. When they were directed away, they left what they thought were the city limits of Bemidji,” the release said.
It is not clear if the department was referring to Off Grid Armory, Rep. Grossell, or someone else in this statement.
This story will be updated.