I grew up in St. Cloud, and I’ve noticed that every time I see a national outlet reporting on my hometown it’s never for good news, and the most recent report by the New York Times’s Astead W. Herndon is no exception to this. However, instead of being a portrait of a town filled with racists, it’s a look at the disproportionate power that John Palmer and C-Cubed hold over the city and the people who enable them to hold it, and I think it’s important to understand it as that.
Palmer and C-Cubed are nothing more than a small group of people who have had their brains melted by the internet. The very existence of these people is a two-pronged failure — of people failing to control their racial animus in the face of a changing society, then completely failing at media literacy. I saw the start of the white backlash to Somali refugees when I was growing up in St. Cloud, and it gets to smart people and twists them. After all, Palmer was a university professor before his turn to xenophobia but hate online has warped his judgment.
One of Palmer’s favorite websites, JihadWatch.org, is run by Robert Spencer, who is listed as an anti-Muslim extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Trusting it as a source of information is a failure of media literacy — one’s ability to differentiate trustworthy content from untrustworthy. The confluence of cultural backlash and consuming misinformation online everyday is what creates people like Palmer, but there are usually mechanisms in place to keep them from gaining prominence or power and that’s where the real failing is here.
Dave Kleis has always struck me as the perfect guy to be mayor of a town like St. Cloud. It’s a super-thankless job, but it has always seemed like he enjoys doing it and he hasn’t made any major mistakes. In a properly functioning system, a group like C-Cubed would make some noise and the local party would do something to denounce it and make it seem like the fringe group it is. Instead, Mayor Kleis’ aw-shucks charm is being used to give a bunch of hateful people the cover to spread their xenophobia. And I don’t want to lay this exclusively at Kleis’ feet — there’s an entire local party apparatus here that is refusing to take this issue on, either because they’re afraid of what would happen if they did, or because they see the hate as politically useful.
And that’s the true tragedy here. Enabling these people is politically beneficial for the local GOP, but it makes everyone’s lives worse in the St. Cloud area. The Somali community comprises people who fled half a world to try to live a better life and now have to deal with harassment because of people who read hate-filled websites. It makes the lives of existing residents worse because it sows the seeds of distrust in the community and pits neighbor against neighbor. And it’s bad for St. Cloud in general because it makes everyone associated with the city look like they’re standing by and letting Palmer and C-Cubed do this, when there are good organizations like #UniteCloud trying to create a better community for everyone. It is political power for some people, but it comes at such a tremendous cost.
All of this isn’t to say “St. Cloud, do better,” because I know that my hometown is better than this and I don’t think ordinary citizens are to blame. It’s to lay it at the feet of the people who should be working to clean up their own house — those in the St. Cloud area Republican Party, because this is their shame to bear. It’s unfortunate for everyone in St. Cloud that they don’t seem to feel any shame about it at all.
Cooper Lund lives in the New York borough of Brooklyn.