Korboi Balla was honored when Donald Trump’s staff invited him to join the president for a rally at MSP Airport this summer to speak about how rioters burned down his Minneapolis sports bar.
But the Liberian immigrant also worried about backlash from the Black community, which overwhelmingly votes Democrat. Balla doesn’t closely follow politics and is still undecided in the election. He just wanted to talk about what happened to his business. “A lot of people are going to take that the wrong way,” Balla said he thought at the time. “People might look at it [as] he was just there because the president reached out to him to use him to be a Black face.”
Some entrepreneurs of color who suffered losses from the riots after George Floyd’s death are wrestling with the political implications of Trump using their stories to blame Democrats for permitting the chaos and trumpet himself as a leader who will restore law and order.
As the owner of a North Side barbershop that was ruined in the riots, Ray James objects to the Trump administration’s denial of Gov. Tim Walz’s request for federal aid to rebuild. He’s still undecided about who to vote for — he finds Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden “shaky” in some areas — but isn’t happy about the president using business owners’ stories about the riots in his campaign.
“I do not like that because you’re using us as shiny objects to get people to vote when you don’t care,” said James, who is Black.
Flora Westbrooks, who is Black, lost the Minneapolis hair salon she owned since 1986 to rioters, months after she dropped her business insurance because she could no longer afford it. Last week Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence visited the pile of rubble with her on West Broadway before gathering at the airport’s Intercontinental Hotel for a “Cops for Trump” campaign event.
Lamenting the destruction of Westbrooks’ business, Pence told the crowd, “We are going to have law and order in every city in every state in this country for every American of every race and creed and color ... which is quite a contrast to the other side.” Westbrooks declined to tell the Star Tribune whom she is voting for.
“I don’t feel used,” said Westbrooks, who was contacted by the Trump campaign to participate after appearing in various media outlets. “I just want to get my word out there and I just want people to know who I am and what I stand for. It has nothing to do with Mr. Trump. [Ivanka Trump and Pence] didn’t bring his name up to me at all.”
To Westbrooks, the riots are a local issue. “I don’t think it has anything to do with presidential politics.”
After Fox News interviewed Westbrooks following the visit, donations rolled into her GoFundMe page from people around the country who said they saw her on TV. Some framed their contributions in political terms: “No one deserves to lose [their] business to these vandals. Trump 2020,” posted one donor. “God bless you Flora and never give up! Vote for President Trump!” wrote another. “Wake up, Black America — VOTE TRUMP,” urged a contributor.
“Personally, I haven’t heard enough from Biden and Kamala Harris during these tumultuous times,” said Dina Payne, who works as an airport ticket agent and lives on the North Side. “I don’t know if their strategy was to sit back and let Donald’s clown show go on for a little bit and let him just expose himself without even needing any ignition from anybody else.”
Payne was upset to lose some of the businesses she patronizes during the riots, including Cub Foods. But as a Black woman, she cannot imagine voting for Trump. She went on Facebook to criticize the decision by Westbrooks to speak at the Trump event, accusing her of selling out for a president whom she believes does not care about Black people.
“To allow him to use you as a prop to try to further himself in an election where he has no agenda on helping further any [Black Americans] as far as the struggle, I just don’t get it,” said Payne.
The Biden campaign, which has condemned the riots, hosted a virtual roundtable in July that included Ruhel Islam, whose Gandhi Mahal restaurant was burned down in the riots. “We deserve a president who will join with us, rather than one who comes to our state to further politicize the murder of George Floyd and try to pit us against one another,” Islam said then.
The National Small Business Association found in a 2018 survey that more small-business owners identify as Republican than Democrat (38% vs. 28%), but the largest category is politically independent.
On Sunday afternoon, Hmong pop music played in Long Her’s empty clothing store on University Avenue in St. Paul as he reflected on how first the pandemic, then the riots, destroyed his livelihood. He showed a reporter letters threatening to shut off his power because he was behind on his bills, even after laying off his workers. Looters caused him $160,000 in losses.
Her said he agreed to speak at the “Cops for Trump” event at the invitation of the Republican congressional campaign of Sia Lo. Her backed Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election and is now considering a vote for Trump.
Her came here in 1980 as a Hmong refugee from Laos. Trump has criticized refugees and reduced refugee admissions to record lows, but Her said he isn’t voting based on refugee policy.
“Trump supports law and order. ... Whoever is the new president, I need them to hire more police,” said Her.
Balla said he’s been racially profiled regularly as a Black man who drives nice cars. He always makes sure to keep his documents current and his taillights working. Balla ensures that he is polite to officers who pull him over and keeps his hands displayed in a “10 and 2” position on the steering wheel.
As rage exploded over Floyd’s death under the knee of a cop, Balla and his family joined in protests calling for racial justice.
“I am a Black male living in America, so I was out there protesting about what had happened with the whole George Floyd and everything else,” said Balla, a firefighter in Brooklyn Park. “So at the end of the day I’m all for [peaceful protests]. But when they come to burn down people’s hard work that they have worked their butt off for to try to build something for their family, I’m not for that.”
Balla said the Trump campaign reached out from day one after arsonists torched his Scores Sports Bar on Lake Street. Fox News reported in June that nearly two dozen Trump staffers donated to help Balla rebuild; among them was Trump’s former campaign manager Brad Parscale, who tweeted a link to Balla’s GoFundMe page. Contributions to the page now top $1.1 million.
After the campaign invited him to meet with Trump in August, Balla said he consulted his pastor and wife for advice. He concluded that meeting the president was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“As Black men, we have to worry about the backlash in everything we do,” said Balla. “If you meet up with the president, ‘Oh, he’s just another Black dude that’s trying to be an Uncle Tom.’ ”
But he said that’s not the case at all, explaining, “He invited me to talk about my story and my life and the whole world heard my story. It wasn’t anything about any politics.”
At the Aug. 17 rally, where Balla was among four riot-affected business owners to speak, Trump blamed local Democratic leadership for allowing the Twin Cities to burn.
Gemechis Merga, who spoke at the event, also blamed local Democratic officials for how they handled the unrest that severely damaged his auto shop.
“Say we have a gubernatorial election — I wouldn’t vote for the same governor,” Merga, who is an Ethiopian immigrant, said in an interview with the Star Tribune. “I wouldn’t vote for the same mayor. But the [presidential] election has nothing to do with Minneapolis. The general election is not going to change anything on the ground here.”
He won’t disclose how he’s voting in the presidential race. He does, however, appreciate a politician showing interest.
“When the president of the United States talks to me about my problems, I feel a little bit better,” said Merga. “I never heard from the mayor or any officials in the state of Minnesota. Nobody asked me what happened to me.”
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210