VEMA rally: People of color to share their experiences on the Iron Range

Elizabeth Allen and Seraphia Gravelle pose in Bennett Park in Hibbing . The friends are co-chairing an event to be held July 25 at the park which will bring together community members as well as representatives of the Hibbing Fire and Police Departments to meet and discuss ways of improving race relations in the city.

HIBBING — After leading several protests against police brutality and racism on the Iron Range, Seraphia Gravelle and Elizabeth Allen have been planning a rally for the newly created Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness of Northern Minnesota (VEMA) seeking “to lift up the voices of all citizens of the community that experience discrimination or prejudice, to enact change and educate the community, while providing resources for those affected.”

The event, dubbed the VEMA Offering a Voice to People of Color, is set for 3-6 p.m. Sunday in Bennett Park in Hibbing.

Gravelle, of Keewatin, and Allen, of Hibbing, created the group’s Facebook page in late June and have since been asking for volunteers to share their stories “of racism, discrimination, or prejudice that they have experience in the area.”

They have received a flooding of support from people who live in the string of small rural towns on the Iron Range, where less than 5 percent of the population identify as non-white. Many police chiefs in the region have also expressed their support for the rally, saying they have accepted an open invitation sent to law enforcement agencies from Virginia to Grand Rapids.

“My hope is that we can educate our community on the issues of race that do exist when it comes to people of color,” Gravelle told the Mesabi Tribune on Thursday. “We want to continue to push for change.”

The event is scheduled to take place two weeks after Gravelle and Allen took part in the first Anchoring the Blue Task Force meeting, a separate group co-organized by the Hibbing Police Department. To help them build a bridge between law enforcement and people of color, the LGBTQ community, and others who have shared stories of being discriminated against, Estey recruited local officials and citizens to join the task force: Hibbing City Councilor Jennifer Hoffman Saccoman; Wayne Kangas, K American Foundation; Aaron Reini, Hibbing Community College interim provost; Dana Lindstrom, Hibbing High School teacher; Bryan Ridgeway, HHS psychologist; Leanne Johnson, HHS Indian Education; Jackie Prescott, Housing and Redevelopment Authority in Hibbing; and Katie McLaughlin, Minnesota Judicial Branch.

The task force was created in light of recent protests in Hibbing and elsewhere on the Iron Range following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

The protests in Chisholm, Hibbing and Virginia, among other locations, were smaller than those held in The Cities and in more than 2,000 locations across the country, but the local demonstrations sparked tension between people of color holding “Black Lives Matter” signs and exercising their rights to protest while some citizens focused on bearing arms to ready themselves for riots and the arrival of outside extremist groups that never came.

Area groups then held a “Support the Police” rally, with some backing the Thin Blue Line, which remain points of concern for people of color since the symbol was worn by white supremacists and neo-Nazis who stood next to Confederate flags in 2017 at the “United the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.

During the first Anchoring the Blue Task Force meeting, Estey wore a Thin Blue Line face mask and printed the symbol on the group’s agenda worksheet. Gravelle and Allen noted that his inclusion of the symbol without supporting local protests seemed an aggressive defense tactic that inadvertently sparked an “us-versus-them” message. The symbol “remains confrontational for people of color in our community,” especially at a time when they are trying to build trust with law enforcement.

Estey offered to write a statement saying he did not condone the acts in Charlottesville or any racist connection. Schwerzler offered that they could remove the symbol from any dealings within the group. “We want to make sure people are aware and know that they can come to us and if they see one symbol that completely turns them off to reaching out to us, I agree with you,” he told the leaders of VEMA.

At the time, Gravelle and Allen were surprised with the compromise and told media that they felt progress could be achieved by working with the officers.

Afterward, Gravelle approached the Hibbing City Council to try and obtain the greenlight to hold the event in the city during the times of COVID-19. After some back-and-forth regarding liability issues, some of the council members including James Bayliss, Justin Fosso and John Schweiberger “rallied” for the group to move forward with the event, she said.

“I told them that the event was necessary in our community, because it’s difficult for us to push for change if people don’t know it’s needed. And in order for people to know change is needed, they need to hear the experiences of people of color in our community.” She added, “Mainly racial discrimination hasn’t been a police issue here; it’s been more of a community issue.”

In recent weeks, the founders of VEMA have been reaching out to police chiefs in the region. Estey and Schwerzler said they would attend the rally, and other law enforcement agencies have expressed interest in attending as well. But there were several officers that did not return phone calls or flatly refused to show up to the event.

Gravelle also spoke with Megan Phillips who shared her own story from living of experiencing racial discrimination in northern Minnesota.

Phillips told the Mesabi Tribune on Wednesday that she experienced a “cultural shock” moving to Coleraine from Minneapolis as a teenager.

She had been asked whether she lived in a group home and questioned by store owners and police for no clear reason at all. As a biracial girl with a mother who is white and a late father who was Black, she felt “very lonely” and had difficulty making friends in a city where people of color made up less than 5 percent of the 2,000 population in the small city nestled between Hibbing and Grand Rapids.

Now, nearly seven years later, Phillips is one of the leaders of the Itasca Area INDIVISIBLE, a local chapter of a national grassroots organization aiming to promote human rights and safeguard diversity. She’s also on the Grand Rapids Community Advisory Committee, where she meets with law enforcement on how to address racial discrimination in the community. In recent months, she’s helped organize at least four protests in Grand Rapids, a city where the majority of the 11,200 residents are white, following Floyd’s death.

Last Sunday, Phillips took part in a Black Lives Matter protest in front of the old Central School building. “There was a lot of positivity, but some negativity when some young men started a counter protest with Trump signs across the street,” she said. “People yelled expletives from their cars or threw trash at us.”

Given her experiences and her relationship with local law enforcement, she was among others who say they felt “disappointed” in the Grand Rapids Police Department refusing to attend the VEMA really in Hibbing, despite law enforcement from other cities saying they’d show up.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Grand Rapids Police Chief Scott Johnson told the Mesabi Tribune that no one from his department would be attending.

“Hibbing is 40 miles away and it’s in another county,” said Johnson, referring to his police department being based in Itasca County and west of Hibbing in St. Louis County. “We have very little contact with the Hibbing Police Department or the residents of Hibbing and we’re staying out of this whole issue about racism and the police. We don’t go to any demonstrations. We don’t go to any protests. We defend people’s rights to have those things, but we’re not getting involved in this whole public debate.”

Despite being in another county, Grand Rapids police were invited to the event, since they’re considered neighbors in the rural region where citizens often travel short and longer distances on a daily basis.

Johnson noted that he’s seen a social media page describing a “pro law enforcement” event next Tuesday in Grand Rapids. “We won’t be attending that either,” he said. “We’re staying out of this whole public policy issue. Let the citizens and the Legislature decide what it is they want the police officers to do.”

The police chief and Assistant Steven Schaar, who told Gravelle he would not attend the rally, have framed the rally as a politicized movement. But police chiefs from the cities of Chisholm and Virginia as well as those from Nashwauk and Keewatin in Itasca County told the Mesabi Tribune and Gravelle that they view the event as an opportunity to meet citizens and listen to their experiences.

The police chiefs in Bovey and Coleraine, situated between Hibbing and Grand Rapids, did not return Gravelle’s phone calls, she said. The Mesabi Tribune reached out by phone Thursday, but chiefs were not immediately available for comment.

Both Keewatin Police Chief Chris Whitney and Nashwauk Police Chief Joe Dasovich told the Mesabi Tribune on Wednesday that they would attend the rally.

“At our small department, we’re behind the message they’re getting out,” Whitney said, adding that he’s been in contact with the Hibbing Police Department and plans to join Estey at the rally. “We’re all on this Earth together so we all have to get along. Police and the communities that they serve need to trust each other. It’s always good to get together and discuss issues. As long as it’s in a peaceful manner, I’m all about protests and getting the word out. Hopefully it’ll bring across meaningful change.”

Dasovich admitted it was the first time he was hearing of the rally, before saying he would call police chiefs from other cities to flush out details about the event.

“I think it’s important to go,” he said.

For Gravelle, who was attending the second Anchoring the Blue meeting on Thursday, the support from most of the police departments showed a willingness to listen and meant the potential for building trust in a region where racial matters have mostly not been discussed in an open format.

“I have a lot of respect for the officers who are choosing to come and listen and who are willing to learn,” she said.

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