Hundreds protest President Trump’s Mankato visit: ‘This is rural America’

Jasmine D’Avilar stands in protest on the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Mankato ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit to town. (Photo by Cody Benjamin)

BY CODY BENJAMIN | AUG. 17, 2020

MANKATO, Minn. — Hours before the start of the virtual Democratic National Convention, President Donald Trump paid an in-person visit to Mankato Regional Airport on Monday, kicking off a multi-stop effort to paint the Midwest red in November’s election. While his hour-long speech received only cheers from a crowd restricted to local backers and fans outfitted with “Trump” face masks, his welcome around town was far more mixed.

Earlier in the day, while Trump addressed another private crowd in Minneapolis, some 600 community members lined Veterans Memorial Bridge, in the heart of the downtown district, to proclaim their opposition to the president’s outreach.

Peaceful protesters line Veterans Memorial Bridge in Mankato before
President Donald Trump’s visit to town. (Photo by Cody Benjamin)

Various state officials had already commented on Trump’s visit. (Gov. Tim Walz said he spent the preceding days “trying to tell the White House why it was a really bad idea” for the president to use Minneapolis and the surrounding communities “as a backdrop for his campaign,” especially in the wake of George Floyd’s Memorial Day killing at the hands of Minneapolis police, which also sparked a march on Mankato’s Memorial Bridge. Lt. Gov Peggy Flanagan, meanwhile, called Trump’s Mankato stop simply another chance “to stoke fear and division,” with an “emphasis, both over and unspoken … to divide this country along the lines of race and class.”)

But Mankatoans ensured their own voices were also heard with Monday’s demonstration. Organized by Indivisible St. Peter/Greater Mankato, a progressive community group, the peaceful gathering included just about every age demographic.

Almost everyone had homemade signs. Children advocated for respect: Be Kind. Older women poked fun at Trump’s name-calling while endorsing his Democratic rivals: Nasty Women 4 Biden and Harris. Plenty recycled slogans from prior protests of racial injustice: Hate Has Never Made A Nation Great. Black Lives Matter. Stop Pretending Your Racism Is Patriotism.

“Trump wants to make it sound like rural America is behind him 100 percent on every level,” says Jim Dimock, who helped Indivisible lead the protest. “And this is rural America. This is what rural America really looks like … I think that what he wants to do is send this message that, ‘Oh, up there in Minneapolis, up there in Saint Paul, they don’t like me there, but out here, in Trump Country, they stand up for my agenda.'”

Donald Trump supporters ride across Veterans Memorial Bridge in Mankato. (Photo by Cody Benjamin)

Some locals do stand for Trump’s agenda. More than 100 Trump supporters decorated trucks, buses and motorcycles with campaign flags — Keep America Great! — Monday morning, then rode the caravan on Highway 169 and onto Veterans Memorial Bridge, in front of the protesters. Most were quiet, allowing the revving of truck engines to do their talking, and most exchanges were not hostile. (At one point, a “Trump 2020” flag fell off a car while crossing the bridge, and an anti-Trump protester helped the driver retrieve their banner.) Others, however, carried a different tone, if not a middle finger or two: “You guys are terrorists!” one young lady hollered from the passenger seat of a pickup; “All lives matter, not just black!” yelled another.

Dimock was among those who tried to quell the tensions, taking a megaphone into the crosswalks to encourage his allies: “They are division! We are democracy! They want you to hate your neighbor. They want you to fear your neighbor. They want you to be afraid. But we are not afraid!”

The more fiery remarks from the anti-protest caravan were reminiscent of Trump’s own words, which came later at the airport. Calling the 2020 election the key to the “survival of our nation,” the president took opportunities to disparage everyone from his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton (“She’s a loser, but not a gracious loser”) to Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar (“She’s a horrible woman who hates our country”). Mostly, though, he promised how destructive it would be not to re-elect him: “Joe Biden is the puppet of left-wing extremists trying to erase our borders, eliminate our police, indoctrinate our children, vilify our heroes, take away our energy, destroy our Second Amendment, attack the right to life and replace American freedom with left-wing fascism … They are fascists.”

“But the proud people of Minnesota will not let this happen,” Trump continued. “We’ll save our cities and our suburbs from the future of crime and chaos … In Joe Biden’s America, your community will be left at the mercy of the mob.”

Bukata Hayes urges protesters in Mankato to vote for inclusive, racially just representatives in November’s election. (Photo by Cody Benjamin)

Mankato’s Trump-supporting caravan would likely agree, with some participants telling the Mankato Free Press that “we need law and order” to fix “ruined” Democrat-run states, and others sporting “QAnon” signs to endorse the growing conspiracy theory about a “Deep State” plot to take down Trump and his supporters.

But the hundreds of others who took to the streets on Monday had a different stance, acknowledging the importance of November’s election but rather as a way to vote for change over fear.

“Most older white men are Trump supporters, but that doesn’t mean they all are,” says Bill Durbahn, a retired Mankato West High School teacher. “We won’t change those guys (in the Trump caravan), and they might not change us, but their behavior, our behavior, might affect people that are on the fence … We’re hoping people realize and look around and see there is a movement against this president. And we couldn’t let this visit go unnoticed. If you have 1,000 people that show up and are enthusiastic, and people see that in little Mankato, it might affect somebody else.”

Jason Mack, a Mankato resident who comes from a family of German immigrants, feels the same way.

“It’s important for people to show up and represent that we don’t stand for that … (Trump) knows that there’s energy here that has a lot of momentum,” he says, referencing the nationwide protests that stemmed from what occurred in Minneapolis earlier this summer. “It sparked change all across the country. He’s created such a divisive politic that it’s hard for us to sit down and talk anymore. And I think that’s why being here and standing here is important.”

Jasmine D’Avilar, a recent graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato, was more blunt. D’Avilar, who strolled down the median of the bridge with one fist raised and was part of May’s George Floyd protests, suggests so many people feed off “racist rhetoric” because “this whole entire country is built off white supremacy,” and therefore “they don’t want to change,” let alone engage conversations about the injustices that spawn protests.

“I don’t understand why people who are fighting for justice are seen as terrorists,” she says. “People are just so unaware and so ignorant and so unwilling to have compassion.”

Monday’s demonstration concluded with remarks from several speakers in nearby Veterans Memorial Park, where Bukata Hayes, founder of equity consulting company Love & Struggle, called upon the community to carry its voice to the polls. In the wake of countless summer initiatives, from a charity Rally For Racial Justice to conversations with elected city officials, Hayes cited both Malcolm X and the late Rep. John Lewis in urging his city to engage in a “blood-less revolution.”

“I’m addressing you as someone who’s been in this community for 26 years,” he said. “This (stand) is for all of us being at the table. This is for us doing our part to rid and dismantle one of our country’s original sins, and that’s white supremacy … The most effective protest for anti-racism starts locally. Today, we start here in Mankato, and Mankato leads the state to make sure that we have someone who represents us all.”

Monday, Hayes explains, was just one sign that solidarity is already taking shape.

“In this moment, we are being asked to lift each other up, to have each other’s backs, to work for the betterment of us all. It is in this moment that we must also be willing to courageously confront those forces bent on dividing us, tearing us apart and divorcing us from our conviction for equality. This dual responsibility is what I saw happening in Mankato with the peaceful protest and rally.”

Rally For Racial Justice Scholarship

INTERESTED STUDENTS SHOULD APPLY HERE.

The Rally For Racial Justice Scholarship, unveiled in 2020, is designed to honor and uplift the next generation of Greater Mankato’s Black/African-American community by blessing an upcoming high school senior with a $500 gift for the next chapter of his/her life.

APPLICANT MUST BE:

  • A Black/African-American student entering his/her senior year (2020-2021) at one of the following Mankato high schools: Mankato West, Mankato East, Central High, Central Freedom School, Loyola Catholic School, Kato Public Charter School, Immanuel Lutheran School

APPLICATIONS DUE BY:

  • Friday, Nov. 6, 2020

SCHOLARSHIP WINNER WILL BE SELECTED/NOTIFIED BY:

  • Friday, Dec. 4, 2020

Thousands march for George Floyd, protest racial injustice in Southern Minnesota

BY CODY BENJAMIN | MAY 31, 2020

MANKATO, Minn. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. opined in his famous 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail that there is no such thing as a perfect time to protest racial injustice.

“For years now,” King wrote, “I have heard the word, ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant, ‘Never.’ We must come to see … that justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Nearly 60 years later, Southern Minnesota did not wait to demand justice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Within three days of the 46-year-old black man’s death at the hands of a white police officer, both Mankato and St. Peter had joined a national wave of resistance. Roughly 80 miles from the street where Floyd’s neck was pinned down by Derek Chauvin’s knee, thousands marched over bridges, into parks and through city squares, braving the COVID-19 pandemic to call out police brutality, systemic racism and the senseless loss of another darker-skinned human being.

It started in St. Peter, home to not even 12,000, where 500 people lined both sides of Highway 169 with handmade signs of solidarity. Justice for George. No Justice, No Peace. We Believe Black Lives Matter.

Protesters along St. Peter’s Highway 169. (Cody Benjamin)

Organized by Indivisible St. Peter/Greater Mankato, a progressive community group, the gathering opened with a silent vigil, then included brief remarks from four guests: Indivisible’s Yurie Hong, South Central College’s John Harper, local pastor and NAACP president Maurice Staley, and Bukata Hayes, of the Greater Mankato Diversity Council.

Most of the protesters were white. Some of them were older. But they all stood quietly, buoyed by countless honks of support from passing cars and semis, in support of the same thing: Overdue racial equity.

“As much as we all want justice for George Floyd,” Hong told the crowd, “the better thing would be for him not to have needed that justice in the first place. The better thing would be for him to be alive today.”

Less than 24 hours later, Chauvin had been arrested and charged with murder. The three officers who stood by his side while Floyd repeatedly groaned for help — “Please … I can’t breathe” — remained free.

And so the next day’s demonstrations, in neighboring Mankato, were just as momentous.

At least another 500 people, this time more diverse, with a heavy college-age representation but also lots of families with children, spent hours traversing the town, signs in hand. Normalize Being Black. Silence Is Privilege. Enough Is Enough. Many posters, hastily designed on cardboard, listed nearly a dozen of the black men, women and children who’ve had fatal encounters with police since the riot-spawning 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

So many of those victims prompted separate responses of anger, grief and action. But the frustrating cycle of tragedy and outrage, Hayes says, doesn’t diminish the importance of staying vigilant, of doing it again for Floyd.

“Any time it happens, we have to stand up and be seen,” he explains. “When it was Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, on and on and on, you still have to be there. You still have to show up and speak out … I always believe it’s good to show solidarity with folks up in the Twin Cities or wherever it might be. That, for me, has been reassuring to see here in our region, that there are folks who want to be a part of a solution.”

Protesters march across Veterans Memorial Bridge in Mankato. (Cody Benjamin)

This time, he adds, the injustice just might be clear enough to ignite some hearts.

“It’s always, ‘Well, he was resisting,’ or, ‘She was resisting,’ or he did this, or they did that. There’s always, ‘Somebody had a cellphone, somebody had this, somebody had a toy gun.’ Those who wanted to be comfortable could sit in that gray area. With this case, where is the gray area?”

Mankato’s Friday protesters asked the same question. After marching near Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSUM), the group parked itself across Veterans Memorial Bridge, above the Minnesota River. (It was the same spot where, a day earlier, several people had been spotted waving “Trump 2020” flags. President Donald Trump, of course, had just tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts!”, recycling a line from 1960s race riots while generally classifying protesters as “THUGS.”)

With the city’s towering silo mural — a tribute to Mankato’s diversity and Native American heritage — as the backdrop, Friday’s crowd greeted traffic with chants commemorating Floyd.

Say his name! … George! Floyd! … Say his name! … George! Floyd!

Before long, the contingent marched on both sides of the street to nearby Washington Park, where Mayor Najwa Massad and state Rep. Jack Considine observed the demonstration before offering their support. One protester reminded everyone that kids were present, promising a safe and peaceful environment. (The only PG-13 moment may have been when a passing car could be heard playing a YG song with some explicit lyrics about Trump.)

Protesters gather in Mankato’s Washington Park. (Cody Benjamin(

Then, a young black man and MSUM student, offered several remarks to the encircled crowd through a megaphone.

“Some people are sick,” he said. “Some people don’t understand. They don’t want to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes because it’s uncomfortable, because they’re not used to it. It does not matter. How you were raised is not who you are. You can be better than what you were raised as.”

“It took riots and fire for them to notice,” he continued, alluding to more destructive protests in the Twin Cities. “Do you know where fire comes from? The devil. But that’s what it took … But we still gotta pray for ’em. The man up there knows what’s going on. And He knows what’s gonna happen in the end. But still march. Still put your heart into all of this. Speak your mind! Don’t be silent. Because the moment you are silent, you’re not with us. And if police stop you out here, just put your fist up and say, ‘I … can’t … breathe.'”

Hundreds of voices echoed, with fists raised high: I can’t breathe! … I can’t breathe!

A day later, Gov. Tim Walz authorized in Minneapolis and St. Paul the first full use of the Minnesota National Guard since World War II in an effort to combat increasing violence, most of which he suggested was the work of out-of-state agitators and white supremacists looking to overshadow original protests.

Hayes, who spoke at the St. Peter vigil, works in Mankato and was present during initial protests in Minneapolis, says it’s the peaceful demonstrations that will advance the truly important causes the most.

“Part of this looting is honestly taking away energy and focus on, ‘Let’s make sure we get justice for George Floyd.’ That bothers me to my core, because I see the opportunity.”

John Harper and Bukata Hayes at St. Peter’s vigil for George Floyd. (Bukata Hayes)

As head of the Greater Mankato Diversity Council, Hayes is already in touch with the City of Mankato for next-step initiatives, like a community journaling project that’ll address Floyd’s death. (“I’ve gotten so many messages of, ‘I’m devastated; tell me how I can help.'”) He shares Dr. King’s Christian faith, using it as the bedrock for his activism. (“Christ said, ‘They will know you are my disciples by how you love.’ Revelation 21:1-4 … ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.’ To me, that is one of those things that, metaphorically, applying it today, we want to see each other as valued, as real, as complete, to be free of some of those -isms that plague our communities.”)

Most of all, though, he hopes the adrenaline rush of his cities coming together in a time of crisis isn’t just a passing breeze. Hayes, like so many other black men and women his age, has seen generation after generation of civil rights efforts. He was 18 when Los Angeles erupted over the police beating of Rodney King.

For America but especially for cities like Mankato and St. Peter, where protest is the exception rather than the norm, he prays for people to wrestle with these issues not just when hundreds of others are literally marching along.

“Are we only showing up when the cameras are on?” he asks. “Are we showing up to vote? Are we showing up to be a part of community-building efforts? … We’re showing up now in this moment of crisis, and we are on the offensive. What about when it’s time to clean up? What about when it’s time to do the unseen work? So many people show up now but won’t be there when it’s an 8 o’clock meeting in the middle of February and no one even knows you’re meeting.”

Until then, the marches and chants and collective cries for change will go on. In Mankato. In St. Peter. In Minneapolis. In Atlanta. In Chicago. In Detroit. In D.C. In Philadelphia. All across a nation whose bloodied history with persons of color dates back not a few days, not a few years, not a few decades but literally to its birth.