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Grand Forks City Council aims to address neighborhood concerns over tenants' shouts of 'white power'

College-aged students will not see lease renewed after early-morning actions bring racial concerns to the forefront.

gfk white power.jpg
Several college-aged students allegedly shouted a racist phrase from the roof of their Grand Forks rental property on April. 26.
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After several college-aged students allegedly shouted "white power" from their rooftop in Grand Forks in the early morning of April 26, police classified the incident a hate crime. However, since no charges were filed, some think that term may carry the incident too far.

During the Grand Forks City Council's discussion about the incident at its Monday night meeting, council president Dana Sande expressed concern about the designation.

"It looks bad for the city of Grand Forks," Sande said. "I'm not all about optics on this because I recognize that this is bigger than how the city of Grand Forks looks to the rest of the world .... (but) labeling something as a hate crime when no charges were filed seems odd to me."

Grand Forks Police Chief Mark Nelson explained to the council that the incident was determined to be misdemeanor disorderly conduct. As such, police could not make an arrest since the alleged offense was not made in their presence. Heidi Castle, the neighbor who reported the incident, initially told police she did not want to press charges, but told the Herald Tuesday she had changed her mind and had reached out to the Grand Forks city prosecutor. As of Tuesday afternoon, no charges had yet been filed.

"Understand this: No crime has been charged out, but it is an integral part of a report that, based upon the information that's there, whether or not what was meant or what was allegedly said at this point in time, constituted in the reporting party's mind that they felt threatened, or that it was a disparaging remark against their children based upon race," Nelson said. "So therefore, having to look at this situation back and forth and based on the last guidance we have relevant to (Uniform Crime Reporting) and FBI audits, we ought to classify this as a hate crime."

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Castle, who is a mother of school-aged African American children, called Sande's response Monday "hurtful."

"What I feel when I hear things like that coming from our city councilors is that the image of our city is more important than me or my children, and it's OK for citizens to live in fear, people of color, as long as the image of Grand Forks looks good," Castle said. "Racism is real, and this mentality is exactly what keeps it alive."

The incident was placed on the City Council agenda for discussion and elicited 23 emailed public comments ahead of the meeting. While those comments were not read aloud, the emails were entered as documents into the public record.

Many of those public comments went directly to City Council members. In an emailed mass reply to seven of these commenters, which was obtained by the Herald, Sande said he intended to visit with the tenants to better understand what happened.

"Outside of the personal approach, I'm wondering what exactly you all think we could or should do?" Sande said in the email. "I am aware of the request to review the premises in relation to city code 21-0611, and I believe we will do so. However, all council members have taken an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, including its justification of freedom of speech. We cannot target a landlord and his/her business due to the words spoken by their renters."

"... I mean, he's concerned about the welfare of three of the five white men that caused the disturbance that committed the hate crime," Castle said. "But was there any concern about us, or others in the neighborhood who are people of color, and our safety or how that situation might be affecting us?"

According to the police report, officers responded to a complaint at 2629 Sixth Ave. N. Castle told police her family had been awakened around 5 a.m. by shouting from their neighbor's roof. Castle told police that, when her husband went outside to investigate, he heard them yelling "white power." Police contacted other neighbors, who said they, too, had been awakened by the shouting, but couldn't discern what was being said, according to the report.

The report states that after speaking with police, the tenants apologized to Castle and her family. Castle told the Herald she believes everyone listened to one another. The tenants also expressed worry about the number of threats they were receiving online, and the Castles agreed to take down a social media post describing the incident, according to the police report.

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She also noted that, since the incident, the tenants had become "model citizens," cleaning up their yard, which she said has been subject to neighborhood complaints of unkempt grass, unshoveled sidewalks and improperly stored vehicles. Still, she said, whether the tenants had been joking or not, their words have the potential to make their fellow residents in a diverse neighborhood feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

In the aftermath of the incident, Ward 2 Council member Katie Dachtler, a frequent advocate of improving the relationship between renters and homeowners in Grand Forks and in whose ward the incident occurred, has taken charge of the council's response. She listed five potential solutions she said she hopes to bring before the council for consideration in the coming days: working with UND to implement a freshman student life course on being a member of a community, working with High Plains Fair Housing Center to provide Fair Housing Act trainings, working with the Lutheran Social Services Restorative Justice program to mend the "tenuous" relationship between Grand Forks homeowners and renters, streamline communications about rental properties through one city department, instead of multiple, and working to improve understanding among city employees about what constitutes a strike in the city's three-strike program for rental properties.

She said that, though the landlord of 2629 Sixth Ave. N. will not renew the current tenants' leases, such incidents in a neighborhood do not go away just because the people do.

"No one on this council or in this meeting tonight would want the right to speak their mind taken away from them. I certainly don't," she said. "However, that's not to say that freedom of speech has freedom from consequences. This is not an incident in which people are being held up as a sacrificial example for the city or for rentals or renters, but rather it shone a light on necessary areas of improvement."

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