BEMIDJI, Minn. — A Minnesota state representative may have taken part in a citizen's patrol soon after a protest this past weekend in Bemidji in response to the killing of George Floyd.
Social media has been swirling with questions and rumors regarding curfews in Bemidji, potential dumpster fires and what the mayor described as "vigilantes” since Saturday's protest. An evening curfew was enacted for Bemidji on Saturday and Sunday following a “specific series of credible threats to property and people,” and not in response to the peaceful protest, according to a statement from Mayor Rita Albrecht.
Various speculations and questions have since been raised via social media and residents have sent in screenshots to the Bemidji Pioneer of since-deleted posts, including mention of state Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, participating in patrolling the city with the owner of Off Grid Armory, a business located near Itasca State Park.
In a press release Monday, Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel addressed some of the 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.”
According to Beitel, on Friday, May 29, law enforcement officials were alerted that extremist organizations planned to infiltrate the peaceful protests scheduled to take place on Saturday in Bemidji, including starting fires. These extremist organizations have not been named by law enforcement.
Throughout Saturday, law enforcement continued to receive threats related to "burning Bemidji down," specifically toward burning down the Beltrami County/Bemidji Police Department law enforcement center, the release said.
Beitel claimed his fears “were justified” after law enforcement found “multiple dumpsters filled with gas accelerants and caches of tools hidden,” were found around the downtown 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).”
Waste Management was called to empty dumpsters at 6 p.m. Saturday in downtown Bemidji, Beitel said.
On Saturday afternoon, the planned peaceful demonstration began at 2 p.m. with speakers and music before protesters walked to the law enforcement center, 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. Beitel said the person was immediately arrested.
“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 said.
The first floor windows of the center then were boarded up, and law enforcement called for mutual aid from other agencies.
“Many of the law enforcement officers that responded and patrolled the streets of Bemidji were doing so in dark SUV squad cars,” Beitel said. “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 (Mike) 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 Monday.
The sheriff said his office also received information that buses filled with protestors were headed to Bemidji, so when Grossell called him, Beitel said "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. Unfortunately, a miscommunication resulted in some of the citizens placed in fringe locations around the city of Bemidji.”
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."
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.”
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.”