Cold Spring, Minn., resident Andrea Robinson has complained for months about the harassment her family has endured from classmates and neighbors because her husband and some of her children are Black.
It took a stolen car crashing into their house on Saturday to finally catch the attention of city officials.
"I'm embarrassed to say I had absolutely no idea that any of this was happening to that family," said Gary Theisen, Cold Spring City Council member. "We have got to do something."
This spring, Robinson spoke at school board meetings — demanding change in the district of about 2,300 students from the Stearns County cities of Rockville, Cold Spring and Richmond. Robinson said since she spoke out about racism in the community, her family has been increasingly harassed.
Richmond resident Benton L. Beyer, 32, was arrested Saturday morning after an unoccupied car slammed into Robinson's house. He faces three felony counts for allegedly placing a large piece of granite on the accelerator of a stolen vehicle so it would crash into the house. On Monday, he was charged in Stearns County District Court with one felony count of theft, one felony count of stalking, one felony count of first-degree property damage and one gross misdemeanor count of violating a restraining order.
The restraining order was issued in May. A recent investigation revealed 18 calls in the past two months regarding Beyer stalking and harassing Robinson, according to court documents. Beyer was also arrested on July 15 for violating the restraining order; he was released four days later.
Dozens of people — some Cold Spring residents and some advocates from central Minnesota or the Twin Cities — gathered in the council chambers Tuesday to demand the council denounce racism and take meaningful action after the Black family has been the repeated target of harassment.
Some speakers warned if they don't take action, those who are hateful will only be emboldened. Pictures and video Robinson posted to Facebook show inside the vehicle, where a little brown stuffed bear swung from string tied like a noose.
The house was occupied at the time of the crash, with one child sleeping on the couch in the living room, which is near where the vehicle hit the house.
"My little brother was in the house, in the living room and he could have got killed by that truck," said Olivia Williams, 15.
Both Williams and 23-year-old Jackie Umerski — two of Robinson's children — spoke at the council meeting.
Williams said she didn't have friends in elementary school. "I don't think I ever had a sleepover," she said. "I thought it was just because people didn't like me. But I never thought it would get to this point."
Williams was the subject of bullying on social media last fall when a Snapchat group created about her referenced ropes and hanging Black men from trees. Robinson chronicled the harassment and the ROCORI (Rockville, Cold Spring, Richmond) school district's response on her public Facebook page.
"We've watched as they've struggled through the administration in our school district — the struggle they had in holding those students accountable for the mistreatment and bullying of their children. The inability for anyone to take significant action in that case was profound to me and to everyone in our community," said Ryan Hennen, a member of Cold Spring's planning commission and Robinson's neighbor. "That situation somehow was the spark [for] someone targeting this family in a way that I've never seen before. The whole situation was truly unbelievable — except that I had seen it with my own eyes."
Robinson has remain outspoken, even as her family has been increasingly harassed by Beyer.
"We've had two broken windows. We've had our security shot at with an airsoft gun. We've been stalked for 83 days. I have barely slept for 83 nights," she said. "Quite frankly, we felt abandoned by school administrators and police and we've also consistently questioned where our community leaders were."
Cold Spring Mayor Dave Heinen read a statement at the beginning of Tuesday's meeting in which he said racism is "not right and it is not welcome here."
About three dozen people spoke at the meeting. Many shared personal experiences with harassment and racism in the community. Nearly all demanded action, including Katy Westlund, who ran unsuccessfully for the House District 13A seat last year.
Westlund urged council members to reach out for help at the county, state or federal level if needed and reminded them they are the checks and balances for the Police Department.
"These are hate crimes and so I'm asking you to act," she said.
The council then voted unanimously to urge the governor to refer the case to the attorney general. It also voted to meet again to gather input from community members and eventually plan a joint meeting with school board members and legislative leaders.
After the meeting, Robinson and her husband, Phil Robinson, spoke outside City Hall. She said she was grateful for the support her family has received since Saturday and said she felt the council heard her concerns.
"I just pray that this can be the catapult for change in our community," Phil Robinson said. "Let's start at the bottom with our schools and then let that be our starting point to make this better. Because if we teach our children hate, they are going to grow and have hate."
The crash caused extensive damage to the Robinson's house, including damage to the siding and potentially the roof. As of Wednesday afternoon, a Facebook fundraiser organized by a family friend had raised more than $19,000 for the family.
Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299