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A growing divide: As Hudson discusses inclusion, 'Citizens' flagged as hate group

Tony Bol, center, chats with other members of the leadership team and meeting attendees at the Hudson Inclusion Alliance's latest meeting on Tuesday, May 8. Jackie Renzetti / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 3
Aynaz Anni Cyrus speaks at the Hudson House Hotel Thursday, May 3 to a crowd of more than a hundred poeple. John R. Russett / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 3
Attendees of the May 8 Hudson Inclusion Alliance meeting share concerns and ideas for making Hudson more inclusive. Jackie Renzetti / RiverTown Multimedia 3 / 3

Editor's note: This is the first in a series exploring the climate surrounding inclusion in the St. Croix River Valley.

Sitting in a Keys Cafe, Darla Meyers and Dianne Joachim explained their perceived threat of Sharia law to Hudson, Wisconsin.

“Our whole mission is to make people aware of what true Islam is,” Joachim said. “We may not have a problem or a threat with Sharia law right here in this community, but it’s only a step away because it’s right across the border.”

The two New Richmond and Hudson residents are core members of a group called Citizens for the St. Croix Valley, which the Southern Poverty Law Center added to its list of hate groups earlier this year, citing its anti-Muslim language and actions.

READ MORE: A recap of the history behind Citizens for the St. Croix Valley and Hudson Inclusion Alliance

Since forming in January 2017 out of shared opposition to Syrian refugees resettling in Hudson, the group has maintained an influential presence in the community. They matched a proposed resolution declaring Hudson a welcoming city with multiple proposals of their own, after which the Common Council passed a new ordinance with strict criteria for what resolutions they will consider. In the same year, the Hudson School District re-evaluated its curriculum following public outcry over a rumor that its schools were teaching Sharia law — a set of Islamic moral guidelines — which stemmed, in part, from a post on the group’s Facebook page.

As a 14-year Hudson resident, Eden Penn says she always thought the city — which is 95 percent white, per U.S. census data — needed to improve its ability to actively welcome people of all backgrounds. But after some of the actions by Citizens for the St. Croix Valley, as well as the Common Council’s failure to pass the inclusion resolution, she felt compelled to address what she saw as a growing pattern of intolerance.

Since September, Penn has barely missed a week in submitting a letter to the editor.

“My goal has been to bring attention to the community about what Citizens is doing,” Penn said. “I wanted to say things, because you can’t just get away with that stuff … And I just think people are looking the other way here and hoping it will just go away. And it’s not. It’s gaining legs.”

While several Hudson residents have spoken at Common Council meetings about their experiences feeling prejudiced, Mayor Rich O’Connor maintains the city doesn’t have a problem with inclusion and that the Southern Poverty Law Center-classification of the group is not an issue.

“It’s just a distraction for me,” O’Connor said. “I can’t see this as a story.”

“It’s just a distraction for me,” O’Connor said. “I can’t see this as a story.”

Founded in 1971, the Southern Poverty Law Center is credited with winning lawsuits that shut down the Ku Klux Klan and has tracked white supremacist and other groups since the 1980s.

Even though the Citizens for the St. Croix Valley contends they are not a hate group, the Southern Poverty Law Center says it added the group to its nationwide list after receiving a local tip and investigated the group’s website and social media presence. Its perpetuation of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories — specifically in letters to the editor of the Hudson Star-Observer — was key in the center’s judgement, said Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, in a statement.

After the inclusion resolution stalled, some of its writers formed a group called the Hudson Inclusion Alliance, which co-founder Tony Bol says prioritizes raising awareness of what inclusion means and finding partners in community organizations and businesses.

“We want to say it’s safe to explore inclusion,” Bol said. “That’s what we believe the solution looks like — to say, let us all keep talking.”

‘You have to look prejudice in the eye.’

Several Hudson residents say that while they think most of the city’s residents have welcoming intentions, they’ve felt targeted because of their ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

At an October 2017 Common Council meeting, Hudson High School junior Mary Sikulu spoke in support of the inclusion resolution, sharing an anecdote of attending the school’s homecoming football game with her friends, including girls who are Muslim and Mexican. She said she and her friends were followed by a group of boys whose actions included chanting “build that wall” and throwing garbage in their direction.

“I heard one of the boys ask his friend, ‘Should I pull it?’ while he reached for my friend’s hijab,” she said. “She never felt so violated and demeaned in her life … To see the hurt in her eyes when this happened just really bothered me that this would happen in Hudson.”

Petrona Melgarejo, who immigrated to the United States from Paraguay for graduate studies 30 years ago and has lived in the Hudson area for the last 16 years while working as a federal investigator for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Minneapolis, says she has regularly felt uncomfortable listening to conversations in public referring to immigrants as “illegal” in Hudson.

READ MORE: One goes down, more go up: Hudson community rallies after LGBT flags burnedSt. Croix Valley responds to LGBT flag crimes

“This is a term that is offensive to me, because legally, correctly, there is no such ‘illegal’ people,” she said. “And when people start describing or criticizing those people, I find it offensive. And that’s what’s happening in Hudson. A lot of conversations about ‘illegal people’ ... in a derogatory way.”

These incidents in part led Melgarejo to co-write the “inclusion resolution.” She said she was disappointed by the majority of the Common Council’s response, which included comments that inclusion was a non-issue for the area.

"I'm offended that some in our community feel we are not inviting to all," Council member Randy Morrissette said at an August 2017 meeting, adding Hudson has always been a welcoming community.

“They failed to recognize the diverse population that the city serves,”Melgarejo said. “What I expected with the resolution was that the Common Council would understand there is much more to gain by recognizing the diverse population than ignoring it or being exclusive. It carries a heavy message either way.”

Council Member Joyce Hall concurs.

“This seemed like something simple and obvious, and I was disappointed by the objections to it,” Hall said. “We as leaders should be setting the examples for our children.”

Deb Monicken, who with her partner became one of the first same-sex couples to marry in Hudson, said she has seen a growing tolerance over time for LGBTQ lifestyles, starting in the 1990s. While she has had instances where she felt targeted — such as finding derogatory terms written on her car — she says she overall feels safe and welcome.

“I think there’s an insensitivity in terms of just ignorance of things. For the most part, people are just trying to go about their lives,” she said.

In an area like Hudson with little diversity in terms of race, religion or sexual orientation in comparison to a larger city, it’s especially important to be clear about including and welcoming those who don’t fit into the predominant demographics, she said.

“When you are in a very homogenous area, I think you have to make some intentional efforts,” she said.

Seventy-six-year-old Liz Bruch, who owns the Purple Tree and has lived in Hudson for over 20 years, says the backlash over the possible Syrian refugee resettlement has sparked a long-needed public reckoning over the city’s climate.

“That ugly thing has made us look ourselves in the eye and think, ‘What kind of place do we want to be?’” said Bruch, who attends Inclusion Alliance meetings with her daughter, Sarah. “You have to look prejudice in the eye. It’s ugly.”

‘The problem is right here’

Earlier this month, Citizens for the St. Croix Valley hosted prominent anti-Islam speaker Aynaz Anni Cyrus at the Hudson House Hotel, which drew a predominantly white, middle-aged crowd of a little more than a hundred people, including roughly a dozen from the Inclusion Alliance.

Some attendees said they drove in from the Twin Cities or Eau Claire areas.

“I am a human rights activist,” Cyrus said toward the beginning of the event. “I am an anti-Islam activist. However, I have nothing against Muslims and I do not preach against Muslims.”

In her remarks, she called for eradicating Islam from the country. She said it was time to stand up for every girl who has been abused under Sharia Law, every woman killed in the name of honor killings.

“I would somehow understand if you all said, ‘Hey listen, their country, their culture, their problem,’” Cyrus said. “I would understand that, but at the moment the problem is right here.”

Hanadi Chehabeddine, U.S. State Department speaker and Human Rights award recipient from Eden Prairie, said she found a lot of controversy in Cyrus’ message.

“With her approach, (Cyrus) undermines the work of millions of people working toward better, equal rights in Muslim populated countries. Her message is against that effort,” said Chehabeddine, whose first event of this kind was May 3 at Hudson House.

Chehabeddine said the more she heard of Cyrus’ story, the more she viewed it as a personal story unique to Iran.

“However, that should not diminish our compassion to her and the millions of girls going through that in Iran or somewhere else,” she said. “Defining the problem is extremely important.”

During the question and answer portion of the evening, Cyrus was asked if she knew of any places in the United States where Islam is practiced like it is in the stories she told.

Dearborn, Michigan, she said, and with a reminder from the crowd, St. Cloud, Minnesota as well.

“It’s so easy for the audience to nod and applaud because that’s the narrative they’ve taken in beforehand,” Chehabeddine said. “They were pre-framed to accept what she was saying and there wasn’t critical thinking in the room.”

At least three men, who some attendees described as armed, stood by as “unofficial security” according to Citizens for the St. Croix Valley.

“The security that we have here is to make sure that we are all safe and that we are not harassed,” Joachim said at the start of the event. “Freedom of speech is one of the crucial liberties that we have in this country and it’s important that we feel that we can express our thoughts, our ideas, our experiences without harassment, without fear, and without suppression.”

Liz Bruch said she felt that the guards were for intimidation.

“That was the most fearful I had felt in a setting in Hudson in the 20-plus years I’ve lived here. And I think they probably wanted it to be that way,” Bruch said, referencing the armed men.

After the event, two of the men approached a teenage girl who was taking pictures of a large bumper sticker display. They came within inches of her and continued to lean closer, causing her to take steps backwards as they asked her what she thought of the stickers and videotaped her, said the girl’s mother, who requested anonymity for safety concerns.

Police Chief Geoff Willems said he sent two officers as a protocol for events with opposing viewpoints.

“Any time you have two opposing groups attending the same event, you’re going to want officers there just so everybody knows to be on their best behavior. It’s more of a command presence … so people can feel safe,” Willems said. “We are not the moral authority of the city.”

Hotel owner Stu Schultz did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him for comment.

Moving forward

In October 2016, St. Patrick's Church was asked to help with the resettlement of syrian refugees. File photo

Meyers and Joachim attribute their original momentum to shared opposition to St. Patrick’s Church potentially hosting refugees in December 2016. Since then, they say, their group has had success in spreading its message and finding like-minded residents.

“[The message is] getting out there ... because of the speakers, because of the factual information that we’re getting out there,” Meyers said. “And a lot of the people are feeling the same way.”

According to its website, Citizens for the St. Croix Valley claims to be “a voice for the silent majority.”

When asked to comment for the story, Mayor O’Connor said he was unaware that Citizens for the St. Croix Valley was classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, adding that he was unsure of the 47-year-old organization’s credibility.

He declined to meet for an interview, saying he had recently returned from vacation and needed to catch up on work, citing his clients as a priority.

Council member Jim Webber said that while he supported the inclusion resolution, he thinks ultimately the task of fostering a welcoming community lies with all of Hudson.

“It’s not the city council that’s going to do this,” he said. “We can only pass so many laws … We have to be sure that we stay on the loving side of this thing, not on the hate side.”

While the Hudson area is the only part of western Wisconsin with a hate group on Southern Poverty Law Center’s radar, it’s far from the only area grappling to bridge gaps within its community.

Since 2016, the number of hate groups across the country has increased by about 4 percent, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, with more than 950 hate groups currently classified. A November 2017 report from the FBI says hate crimes in 2016 increased by 5 percent from 2015, with more than 6,100 reported crimes.

Dr. Howard Lavine, who teaches political psychology at the University of Minnesota, says the group dynamics at play in Hudson reflect the national conversation. Ethnocentric mindsets — the tendency to separate people into in-groups and out-groups based on categories like religion or partisan groups — and the idea of national identity have become more salient across the country since President Donald Trump’s campaign. Meanwhile, events on the local level, such as the possibility of Syrian refugees resettling, can further contribute to emotional divides.

“As much as people might end up enjoying diversity over time, it seems like a symbolic threat to their way of life at the outset. And so, to castigate them as racist or xenophobic is not a productive response,” Lavine said. “It would be productive to talk about it in a way that … is beyond these in- and out-group boundaries. Try to appeal to something more humanitarian.”

Members of the Inclusion Alliance have been meeting with leadership of community institutions such as businesses and churches to discuss their views on inclusion, Bol said, with the hope to use the information for planning next steps.

Tony Bol hands out invitations to contact the Hudson Inclusion Alliance. Jackie Renzetti / RiverTown Multimedia

At the Inclusion Alliance’s suggestion, the Common Council has joined the National League of Cities, which provides resources on building inclusive communities and solving other issues based on what works in cities across the country.

Kien Lee — who holds a Ph.D. in community research and practice and co-runs the Maryland-based organization Community Science, which provides resources on building inclusive communities — said the Inclusion Alliance’s strategy of finding partners in local institutions is common, and often works because it taps into the organizations’ capacities to make an impression on visitors.

“It’s all part of an ecosystem,” Lee said. “What you want to do is create strategies that are neighbor-to-neighbor.”

Lee said one of the most important techniques for building an inclusive environment is for residents to focus on the similarities they share with those of different backgrounds.

The Inclusion Alliance hopes to foster such a discussion with an Aug. 5 event inspired by the old adage to “build a longer table, not a taller fence,” Bol said. At Lakefront Park, the group will host a potluck with foods from residents of various traditions.

“We need facts, facts, facts over fear,” Melgarejo said. “I’m very optimistic … because we all have the ability to grow and see what the benefit is for all of us, while still we love our country and while still we love Hudson.”

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