Every time Rep. Keith Ellison, an African-American progressive and the first Muslim in Congress, tries to move up in politics, he grapples with the same attacks in one form or another.
His opponents portray the Minnesota Democrat as either an Islamic fanatic, an anti-Semite, an extremist black radical or some combination of the three.
During his unsuccessful race for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, fellow Democrats objected to Ellison’s long-since-disavowed relationship with the bigoted Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, as well as his record of criticizing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Now as Ellison runs for Minnesota attorney general, pursuing the first statewide elected post in his career, he is encountering a less disguised form of prejudice. Last week, a local Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party ― as the Democratic Party is known in Minnesota ― relocated a planned meeting with Ellison following news that alt-right activists were planning racist, anti-Muslim protests at the event.
The Itasca County party had advertised a meet-and-greet with the congressman at its headquarters in Grand Rapids last Tuesday night. That is, until party chairwoman Cyndy Martin learned that alt-right activists were mobilizing on Facebook to possibly disrupt the gathering.
In a since-deleted comment thread on the Itasca Taxpayers Alliance’s Facebook page, captured by Duluth’s WDIO News, one person said, “My friend and I are going … dressed as a camel.”
“Grand Rapids do they even have Muslims up there? Doubtful,” another commenter said.
“Once they find out how good the welfare is they will be coming in droves,” someone replied.
Some of the comments on the Itasca Taxpayers Alliance page also tied an abuse allegation against the congressman to his Islamic faith.
Ellison has been accused of domestic abuse by his former girlfriend Karen Monahan. An Oct. 1 investigatory report, prepared for the DFL by a Minneapolis attorney, found the allegation to be “unsubstantiated,” citing Monahan’s repeated refusal to produce a video that she claims showed Ellison trying to drag her off a bed.
In a since-deleted post on the Itasca Taxpayers Alliance page, one commenter wrote: “He belongs to the Brotherhood of Muslims. You have to realize a Muslim man [has] the right to beat his property, to denigrate his property. That means all women. When he beat up his two girlfriends and claims he’s not guilty ― in the Muslim world he’s not guilty, but it’s us here in the state of Minnesota.”
Virtually from the moment Ellison was accused of domestic abuse in mid-August, far-right critics have used the charge to accentuate existing Islamophobic smears against him. An Aug. 16 meme on the Itasca Taxpayers Alliance Facebook page shows a badly bruised woman in conservative Islamic dress with the words “vote for Keith Ellison.” The photo is not of Monahan, who does not cover her hair or her face like that and has never said she sustained facial bruises from her alleged altercation with Ellison.
Martin, who was raised a “union-loving Democrat” in northern Minnesota, told HuffPost that she had never witnessed public bigotry in the state’s politics of the kind she saw directed toward Ellison on Facebook. She said she began to reconsider holding the event at the party’s Grand Rapids office, which is in a residential building and abuts other office space.
“We were just taken aback by the lack of civility and the hatred. It was scary,” she said.
Then Martin learned that Laura Loomer, a prominent alt-right online personality, who has described Ellison, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and other Muslim politicians as “jihadis,” had used her large Twitter platform to amplify calls for a protest.
“ATTENTION MINNESOTA: Keith Ellison wants you to join him at the DFL office tomorrow. Would be a shame if people showed up and asked him about those domestic violence allegations and his ties to Jihadis and ANTIFA,” she tweeted. “Would be a real shame if it was caught on camera too...”
Loomer’s message was retweeted nearly 700 times.
Loomer, who had previously crashed Ellison’s Labor Day barbecue to pepper the candidate with questions about the domestic abuse allegation, has made mobilizing activists against him a regular theme on her social media feed. She and members of her entourage tussled with campaign staffers at the barbecue as they tried to get access to the congressman.
Martin concluded that she couldn’t risk holding an event that would draw such disruption, noting that many local DFL activists are seniors unaccustomed to being badgered by protesters ― let alone racist protesters ready to call Ellison an extremist “jihadi.”
“It was so ugly,” Martin said.
The planned event did not fall apart entirely, however. Martin moved the meet-and-greet to the home of a Democratic activist and pulled all information about it off public platforms. Ellison was still able to speak to the group of people who had planned to attend.
Billy Grant, a spokesman for the campaign of Doug Wardlow, Ellison’s Republican opponent in the attorney general race, condemned the racist commenters and attempts to disrupt any events.
“It’s really disturbing to hear people saying those kinds of things. We don’t condone any kind of action like that,” Grant said. “We think this can be a fair campaign and we can have a battle of ideas. Everyone can have their own events without fear of them being shut down by one side or another.”
Last week, Loomer appeared at a gathering for Republicans hosted by Wardlow at a Rochester, Minnesota, bar after President Donald Trump’s speech in that city. She posed for a photo with Jeff Johnson, the Republican nominee for governor of Minnesota (as seen in the picture below taken by a DFL volunteer in attendance).
Grant, the Wardlow spokesman, said the campaign could not control who comes into such a large event at a public venue.
“We don’t have any affiliation with Laura Loomer,” he said. “We don’t want her there.”
Nonetheless, Wardlow’s campaign has tried to depict Ellison as a kind of black radical who, as the Republican’s campaign video warned, “supported cop killers.” That video also featured a photo of Ellison being arrested during an act of civil disobedience at an immigration reform rally and an image of unnamed teenage activists burning an American flag.
Wardlow maintains that blasting Ellison as a defender of cop killers is not a racist dog whistle but a legitimate criticism. In a speech to Republican activists in Plymouth, Minnesota, at the end of September, Wardlow claimed, among other things, that Ellison spoke at a 1992 rally “supporting” the accused murderer of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf.
But a St. Paul Pioneer Press account of the event described it at the time as a rally in opposition to police misconduct and in support of United for Peace, a group of gang leaders who had formed a tentative alliance with the Minneapolis police department to maintain quiet after the initial acquittal of the Los Angeles cops who brutally beat up Rodney King. The Minneapolis police severed ties to the group after Haaf’s murder, claiming that the inquiry into his death had exposed other crimes committed by members of United for Peace.
“The main point of our rally is to support United for Peace [in its fight against] the campaign of slander the police federation has been waging,” Ellison told the Pioneer Press back then.
Paraphrasing Ellison’s remarks, the newspaper also reported that he told the crowd that the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, the union representing city cops, is “systematically frightening whites in order to get more police officers hired” and increase its power.
“I have always stood with police in terms of them doing their job.”
Ellison told HuffPost this September that “it is ridiculous” to suggest that he has ever condoned violence against police officers.
“I have always stood for a fair trial for everybody,” Ellison said of his advocacy at the time. “I have always stood with police in terms of them doing their job.”
In fact, the congressman even voted for a “Blue Lives Matter” bill in May that would make injuring or trying to injure a police officer a federal crime akin to a hate crime. A Splinter story about the vote blasted Ellison and the many other House Democrats supporting the bill for sending the message that they were “willing to put a thumb on the scale for the police.”
Meanwhile, Wardlow has widely advertised his endorsement by the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. The photo on the Wardlow campaign’s Twitter page on Monday touted the union’s backing and showed him standing with a group of what appear to be white police officers. A new Wardlow campaign RV is likewise plastered with that photo and endorsement.
The Minneapolis police union is not categorically averse to backing Democrats. It endorsed Democrat Mark Dayton’s successful bids for governor in 2010 and 2014, after endorsing Republican victor Tim Pawlenty in 2002 and 2006.
But as with police unions in other major cities, the Minneapolis federation has a reputation for relentlessly defending its members from charges of misconduct and diminishing the seriousness of officer killings of civilians. The current union head, Bob Kroll, called the local cops’ fatal June shooting of Thurman Blevins, a black man running from the police, “heroic.”
Kroll has faced many misconduct allegations himself. In 1995, he was the target of a federal lawsuit for allegedly severely beating a teenage boy and denigrating him with racial slurs. A federal jury acquitted him.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated Thurman Blevins was unarmed at the time he was fatally shot. Authorities said he had a gun.