In the span of a single month, the St. Louis Park City Council went from saying the Pledge of Allegiance before its meetings, to dropping it from all but a few special meetings, to reinstating it under a storm of protests that came mostly from outside the city.
What shocked many St. Louis Park residents, more than the issue itself, was how quickly outsiders were able to take control of what many felt should have stayed a hometown issue.
Raucous, flag-waving protesters dressed in red, white and blue filled the council chambers for two straight weeks to loudly register their disapproval.
City Council members received letters and messages from people in 22 states and 17 other Minnesota cities, many who were indignant ("If this offends you, move to another country!" wrote a Tennessee correspondent) or appalled ("It would be good if you would change the name of your community ... [to] St. Loser Park," wrote a Minneapolis resident).
President Donald Trump weighed in with criticism on Twitter, and national news outlets debated the city's patriotism on prime time.
The noise got so loud that the City Council in neighboring Edina decided to resume saying the pledge after going many years without it.
And on Friday, Hopkins City Manager Mike Mornson said that City Council members there told him they wanted to start saying the pledge — which they had not been doing — as a sign of their ongoing support for the American flag.
"I couldn't tell you why we never had the pledge … but the council felt strongly about now having it at the beginning of their meetings," Mornson said in an e-mail.
Officials in Minneapolis, another city where the pledge isn't recited at council meetings, said they've heard nothing about a possible protest.
One group that took credit for the flag-waving rallies in St. Louis Park was Save the Pledge, which has attracted supporters because of the passion many Americans feel for their country, said organizer Marni Hockenberg, of Roseville.
"The city of St. Louis Park has publicly stated that they want to create a welcoming environment for all people. We took their statement seriously that we would be welcome to attend their meetings," Hockenberg wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune.
Caught by surprise
Preschool teacher Kathleen Goor, of St. Louis Park, said in an interview that while her neighbors' opinions on the issue itself varied, all were surprised by the attitude displayed by nonresidents at the council meetings.
"St. Louis Park sort of has this history of tackling troubles within the city," Goor said. "And even if there are dissenting opinions … it's done in a really respectful, civilized, peaceful way."
Another St. Louis Park resident, Ross Teichner, attended the July 16 City Council meeting after noticing that out-of-towners at the previous meeting had outnumbered residents. "I felt pretty compelled to actually be represented and to represent," he said.
The Rev. Paul Baudhuin of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in St. Louis Park wanted to show his support for the council, too. But when he drove by City Hall, he said he was so "sickened" by what he saw that he couldn't get out of his car. "I just went home. I didn't want to have anything to do with it," he said.
The red, white and blue Jeep Wranglers, a giant blowup bald eagle and a campaign tent on the corner for President Donald Trump all felt hostile, Goor said.
"The response should have been from St. Louis Park citizenry, not this political tank that showed up," she said.
Hockenberg said that several residents held "All are welcome here" signs at the July 16 meeting, which she said told her that people from outside the community would be accepted.
But one of the St. Louis Park residents holding the signs, Meg McCormick, said the sign made her a target for harassment. She said she was shocked by what she heard.
"When I was standing on that park bench with my sign, some of the things people said to me were awful. Like, 'Hey, maybe we should get your address to send the next immigrants to your house to murder you,' " McCormick said.
'The last straw'
Of more than 60 letters, cards and messages released by the city that officials received on the issue, several came from former St. Louis Park residents expressing disappointment or anger about the council's decision to drop the pledge.
Only 10 came from current residents, six of whom said they opposed the council's decision and two who said they supported it. "Please let the vote stand," wrote a First Ward resident. "Listen to the actual residents of SLP … despite the noise made by those who do not live here."
One St. Louis Park resident encouraged council members to pledge allegiance to the Constitution instead of the flag, and another simply told them to hang in there: "Despite the uproar, we know your hearts are in the right place."
The messages from outside the city typically were more dramatic. A man from Georgia, whose name was on the note, wrote a vulgar message to Council Member Anne Mavity, who sponsored the resolution to drop the pledge. A 66-year-old Michigan man wrote to complain about the council decision, saying he had never sent such a letter before but "this was the last straw."
In an e-mail to the Star Tribune, Council Member Tim Brausen said he had heard a lot from the community, and others, about patriotism and service. "Now, I prefer to focus again on St. Louis Park's strategic priorities, and keeping St. Louis Park a good place to reside," he said.
The issue continues to pop up on the neighborhood website Nextdoor, but there it is a conversation rather than a fiery debate, said Teichner. "I think that our endurance for this type of debate is starting to wane," he said.
For Baudhuin, conversations similar to the one about the pledge are red herrings to avoid discussions about serious issues plaguing the nation.
"At the end of the day, I care more about actual liberty and justice for all than I do about saying or not saying the Pledge of Allegiance," Baudhuin said.
Zoë Jackson • 612-673-7112