ST. CLOUD, Minn. - St. Cloud, like many other communities across the country, is dealing with the growing pains that come with the arrival of new Americans whose culture and customs are unfamiliar to longtime residents.
But this conservative central Minnesota city is unlike others, in that it is now bathed in a harsh spotlight that follows a violent incident Friday night, when a man stabbed nine complete strangers in a rampage at the Crossroads Shopping Mall.
While authorities have not officially identified the assailant, who was fatally shot by an off-duty police officer, a member of the Somali community identified him as Dahir Adan, who court records say is 20 years old. St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson told reporters that Adan, who was wearing a private security outfit and armed with a knife, reportedly made references to Allah during the attack and asked at least one victim whether they were Muslim.
Those witness accounts triggered an immediate reaction in St. Cloud's east African community, who have found themselves at odds with other community residents in recent years. There have been incidents of vandalism at mosques and Somali-owned businesses, and problems have erupted at local high schools with fights, walkouts and allegations of racism and bullying by white students and administrators. Somali residents say people in cars or on the street shout things like "go home" when they walk by.
On Sunday, members of the east African community held a press conference to express concern for the climate in the community, and fears that Somalis will be targeted by those angered over the stabbing at the Crossroads Mall.
"We are also concerned about the potential backlash to this community," said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). "We understand in St. Cloud there is more anti-Muslim organizations and we hope that they do not use this incident as a way to continue to polarize, divide and spread fear in our community. This is a tragedy that effects all people in St. Cloud and this is an opportunity for us to come together."
St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson confirmed that community elders expressed concerns to him about potential problems that may arise from the stabbing, and the fact it appears it was carried out by someone from the Somali community.
"They did express concerns and their fears. Sad as that is, it didn't surprise me," Anderson told reporters, a nod to the conflicts that have simmered between longtime residents and new arrivals for years. "What I do know about St. Cloud is this: No matter who fear-mongers, yells racial epithets or has myopic ideas about people who are different, it is not representative of this community at large. A lot of fine, hard-working people here and we are going to do our level best to be sure our entire population, not just east African community, there are other groups that live here in St. Cloud who weren't born here. Our job is to make sure they all get the same level of professionalism and safety."
After traveling to St. Cloud Monday morning, Gov. Mark Dayton acknowledged the possibility that the mall rampage could cause tensions that already exist to boil over.
"I implore citizens of St. Cloud, and really, citizens throughout Minnesota to rise above this tragic incident and remember our common humanity, and our shared citizenship, and our shared desire to live together peacefully and constructively for the benefit of ourselves, our families and communities," Dayton said.