Nearly three years after the unrest following the murder of George Floyd, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey still gets death threats.
In fact, the threats of violence might be worse now than they ever have been, Frey and his wife, Sarah Clarke, say.
"I think right now is probably the most concerned I've ever been about Jacob's physical safety since he's been in office," Clarke, an attorney and former lobbyist, said.
The threats and vandalism, which lately have come from left-wing extremists and often target their home where they live with their 2-year-old daughter, have gone beyond any acceptable bounds of what a political family should expect, reaching deep into their private personal lives, even whether they should try for a second child, the couple said in an interview.
They emphasized that they believe the vitriol, which has come from far-right extremists as well, is emanating from a small number of people. They decided to speak publicly about it because they want to see stronger condemnation from leaders across the political spectrum — because it's taking its toll not just on his family but on colleagues.
"Taking a position against this kind of thing should not be hard," Frey said. "It should be a prerequisite for entering public service. Part of what we uphold is the institution of democracy. This is an attack on our ability to exercise democracy. On more than one occasion, I've known public officials to change their positions out of fear for themselves or their family."
Their accounts come as concerns over violence and intimidation have taken on prominence in Minneapolis. On Thursday, a divided City Council voted to seek help from state lawmakers in cracking down on threats to officials and disruptions at public meetings after three council members filed police reports for being accosted by activists.
The specter of violence against public officials in their homes was thrust into the national consciousness when a man broke into the San Francisco home of former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and attacked her husband. Before then, local elected leaders had already been reporting an increase in violent threats against them since the pandemic began.
"When you run for office, you are signing up for some level of discomfort and occasionally abuse," said Frey, whose nine-year career in elected office began on the City Council. "I knew that going in. That's always been the case. But the dynamic and what has been deemed acceptable has increased drastically."
What kind of threats?
While they said some online rhetoric crosses a line from criticism to incitement to violence, the threats that most concern Frey and Clarke go beyond social media posts and involve people approaching their apartment in the neighborhood commonly known as near Northeast, across the river from downtown Minneapolis.
In late January, for example, someone painted "Kill the mayor" on the building's front door. Days after the graffiti was removed, the scrawl reappeared, as a sequel: "Kill the mayor, Pt. 2."
"Sarah usually is the first to leave the home and take a run," Frey said. "When you walk downstairs and see kill your husband on the window, she didn't sign up for that."
Clarke related the experience of an anonymous Twitter account that posted videos from a vantage across street, including footage inside their apartment, prompting the couple to buy drapes. She said she determined the identity of the person, someone with a history of violence. Twitter has deactivated the account, and the person has since moved farther away from them — but not out of their neighborhood.
"I still see him sometimes at the grocery store," she said.
Pictures of Frey with his eyes X'd out have been posted on their building, and stickers of extremist groups have been slapped on their exterior walls.
"We've had people climb our fire escape," Frey said, noting that it's since been fenced off.
Frey said that the ideology of the threats and those making them has shifted over the past few years depending on the issue in the spotlight. During pandemic restrictions, for example, the violent threats were from right-wing extremists, while recently, they've come from the far left.
He and Clarke said they believe the most recent wave of threats are coming from a small group of people objecting to city policies regarding homeless encampments and the city's plans to demolish the Roof Depot to expand an adjacent public works facility in the East Phillips neighborhood.
Call the cops or not?
Frey has contacted police for some of the incidents, but not all, according to his account and police records. The vandalism has not led to any arrests.
Whether or not to contact police is a common dilemma for elected officials, said Tina Lee, a senior research specialist for the National League of Cities, which in 2020 interviewed public officials from across the country on threats of violence — the precise time when some cities featured friction between elected officials and their police departments. But there were other concerns as well.
"It was certainly a theme in the interviews of mayors," Lee said. "There was an admission that they felt fear for their safety, but there was a fear that using taxpayer funds would elevate it, so it would be known out there. And then there's a concern that people would say, 'Oh, they're wasting taxpayer dollars.'"
That's Frey's hesitation.
"This is not the thing I want our police handling on a daily basis," Frey said. "We've had attrition, and we have the police here to handle serious crimes and shootings. I don't want them spending time on graffiti, even if it's threats. At the same time, I love my family."
Clarke said she knew when she married Frey, their household wouldn't be normal, but she said it's gone too far.
"You certainly expect it's not going to be easy, but I didn't expect this level of violence and threats," she said. "We've been debating on whether or not we will try to have another kid. There's no room in our apartment, so we'd need a house, but we'd worry about our security in a house and for our neighbors. ... I feel really fortunate that our child is 2 right now. I really don't know how we'll explain this to her when she gets older."