Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #127. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Feb. 3, 2018; in print Feb. 4

Imagine a historian in 2118, 100 years from now. You and I will be dead.

The scholar, writing a history of the Greater St. Cloud area, sifts through issues of the Times to find out what was going on, and comes to January 2018.

This historian is not narrowly focused. She knows the story must be set in a larger context.

That is why she stares incredulously at the Jan. 15 headline: “NAACP honors St. Cloud officials.”

The local branch of the oldest civil rights organization in the country, at its annual Freedom Fund Dinner to mark the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, honored officials — and not just any officials, but the mayor and the police department. Could this be?

The historian knows that stories of suspicion and conflict between people of color and law enforcement had filled the national news. The Department of Justice investigated police departments. Protesters took to the streets. Racial profiling was alleged, and often proved. Wariness reigned on both sides, and sometimes included mayors and city councils.

Yet here’s how the Times article begins:

“In a community struggling to find its way as it becomes increasingly diverse, the St. Cloud NAACP honored the work of local officials in fostering diversity and equality and challenging racism and division. Mayor Dave Kleis and the St. Cloud Police Department were recognized for their work in recent years.”

The key sentence in the story: “Denise Fale, president of the St. Cloud NAACP, said each was nominated for ongoing efforts to improve the community.” The key word: “ongoing.”

As testimony to the mutual regard of the NAACP and police, Fale recounted a moment when she believed she was being racially profiled. Her telling the story in the context of presenting the award was to keep the conversation going, not to undercut the genuineness of the honor.

The mayor and the police department aren’t reactive. Their commitment, every day, is to “fostering diversity and equality and challenging racism and division.” This means that when a crisis occurs, as with the Crossroads stabbing in 2016, the community doesn’t come unglued.

That historian in 2118 will find in the Jan. 15, 2018 article a reference to what I consider the most encouraging moment I have ever witnessed in this area.

She will read this: “[St. Cloud Police Chief Blair] Anderson affirmed those efforts in an interview on Fox News soon after the attack. When asked whether he was concerned about refugees, including Somalis, entering the U.S., Anderson said: ‘I can tell you that the vast majority of all our citizens, no matter their ethnicity, are fine, hardworking people. Now is not the time for us to be divisive. We already have a very cohesive community. And I expect that this will draw us even closer together.’” Note where he said it: Fox News.

But the historian will also uncover a very different story.

Here’s the Jan. 18 headline, just three days later: “’Unapologetically white’ posters displayed in St. Joseph.” “’This is the first time the St. Joseph area has seen such signs,’ the St. Joseph police chief said. Similar posters have been seen in St. Cloud.”

“Hate speech is free speech”; “End white guilt”; “There has never been a greater force for good than the white race”; “You will not replace us.” Slogans echoed those of the notorious neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville last August.

Perpetrators fraudulently claimed legitimacy with a logo: “Saint Cloud State White Student Union.” The university quickly disavowed them because the group is not a registered student organization.

The NAACP honoring the St. Cloud Police Department (and those of St. Joseph, Sartell, Sauk Rapids, and Waite Park as well, noted in the program and at the podium). White nationalist signs in St. Joseph, and earlier in St. Cloud. The tensions are real, the battle lines drawn. The future historian will find it a challenge to weave them into the same story.

The entire Freedom Fund Dinner demonstrated the “Wheel of Integrity” of the St. Cloud Police Department: “Accountability, Transparency, Respect, Humility, and Honesty.”

As I imagine that historian a century hence trying to make sense of now, I suspect that she will tell her story, as all historians do, to illustrate how the present was set in motion by the past.

And will her present, in 2118, trace itself back to the “fostering diversity and equality and challenging racism and division” that was celebrated at the NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner?

Or will the now of 2118 track itself from a 2018 revival of white supremacist maliciousness, which was itself a resurfacing of sinister forces from nearly a century earlier?

What you and I do in the rest of our lifetimes — also part of that history — will determine what story she tells.