Commentary

Letter from Grand Rapids: Trump retains his grip | Opinion

March 4, 2021 1:06 am

The Gilbert Mansion in Grand Rapids was decorated in Trump regalia on Halloween. Photo by Pam Dowell.

Editor’s note: QAnon adherants and subscribers to various other Trumpist conspiracy theories believe Donald Trump will again take office March 4. Capitol Police warned of another attack on the Capitol, and Thursday’s House session was canceled. 

My hometown, Grand Rapids, population 11,000, sits in the upper third of Minnesota, the county seat of Itasca. The area boasts of clean Mississippi headwaters, hints of industrial paper company air, abundant lakes and trails, and the good fortune of the Blandin Foundation, which gives grant assets for a vibrant, inclusive culture and rural region. 

On Oct 7, 1925, up to 8,000 people attended an event that was deemed the “largest crowd ever gathered in the Itasca County Fairgrounds,” reported by the Grand Rapids Herald Review. The event opened with a large parade of men and women garbed in regalia. Large classes of both men and women were inducted into the mystery of the order. The main speaker urged the audience to better preserve the United States, invoking the Constitution in his remarks. The event concluded with a display of fireworks which was deemed “the finest ever shown.”  The Ku Klux Klan had arrived in Itasca County. 

My father, the late Jack B. Dowell, Mayor of Bass Brook-Cohasset (1993-97), passed a love for regional and family history to me. Our ancestors were on the Mayflower, and through generations, came to the Midwest, settling in Itasca County. Dad said his aunts relayed stories of when the KKK came to the county holding membership drives. Each person recruited would receive a bonus for each person they recruited. This was enticing to poor rural families. From “Our Story — The History of the People of Bass Brook Township,” residents reported that the Klan caused division and fear, with the use of firearms, dynamite and hate-mail campaigns. The good will that had existed between Cohasset friends and neighbors was strained considerably during that period. 

Recently, history repeated itself, pitting neighbors against one another. Former President Donald Trump concocted a Constitutional crisis with calls for “patriots” to take to the streets under the false claims of a rigged election. Much like the KKK, Trump targeted his largely white Christian audiences with the hyper-nationalistic threat of “we against them.” Trump used repetition and simple rhetoric: “Make America Great Again,” complete with his own line of signature red hats and Trump branded garb.

I saw the tide of ugly division fracture Itasca County during his one term, turning what had been a strong labor union county for nearly 80 years into a red populist county, which voted twice for Trump. Anti-immigration rhetoric and the belief that Trump would magically bring back the paper, logging, and mining industries exposed an underbelly of racism — paradoxical, because the region had been built by immigrants. 

I watched during Trump’s tenure as this threatening wave crossed over into my northern community, often landing in local Facebook groups: Itasca Taxpayers Alliance; the alt-right, conspiracy-driven Itasca Involved Informed Inspired; and Forefathers’ Daughters, an anti-government “patriot” group. The page administrators and followers attacked the community newspaper, area nonprofits, including the Blandin Foundation, government officials, area law enforcement, district judges, school board members, teachers, public health officials and health care professionals. In January 2020, members of the all-volunteer Grand Rapids Human Rights Commission were targeted after an agenda was posted that inaccurately listed an item as refugee resettlement. Several volunteers, frightened, resigned. 

On every street and county road, people refused to take down their Trump signs long after President Joe Biden was declared the winner. We all know how it all culminated on Jan. 6: angry patriot mobs stormed the grounds to the United States Capitol, breaking police lines, resulting in death and destruction. The “Stop the Steal” protest had turned to sedition and insurrection. I wondered who from northern Minnesota I might see, as this historic insurrection unfolded on news and TV.  

On Jan. 13, Itasca County resident Fred Grossman had posted a message on a local Facebook page, The Jesus Freaks. The public post read: “Itasca Militia is about to to [sic] organized with Minnesota 1st Volunteers.  Private message me if you’re willing to help in any way. Fred Grossman.”

I knew of Fred. We sparred politically on the Facebook page of his cousin Rabbi Ron Grossman. Ron, who describes himself as a Reconstructionist Jew, has been active in the Itasca County area with progressive social justice activism, and as an advocate for LGTBQ rights.

I was sent the Triumphant Life Church, Bovey, Facebook social media page link after one Sunday service. At the 47-minute mark, Fred Grossman began his 20-minute presentation on his participation in the “Stop the Steal” protest in Washington D.C. Grossman, at the Jan. 17 testimonial, asked the parishioners to listen to his first-hand account of what happened, and to disregard what they saw from the liberal news media and socialist government networks. Grossman said he joined the mass and helped hold a flag, as the group came to the stairs at the West Side of the Capitol. He heard another yell: “Step-step” as they moved up the stairs towards a police line.  

Grossman, a self-professed Three Percenter, said they wanted to get to where Congress was — to let them know they, meaning Congress, could not steal the election. He said the police began using pepper spray against them as his group was planning to make a rush to get up the scaffolding on the side of the Capitol. They washed off the pepper spray and continued the rush forward past ‘no trespassing’ signs. Grossman bragged he had been tear-gassed and also struck by rubber bullets. He then said, “There was no rioting, no mob out of control, just patriots trying to get our voices heard.”  He asked the church congregation to join the Black Robe Brigade, which would help with a revolutionary war, including a nationwide strike, planned for April 1, 2021. There were claps of applause.

I re-watched his recorded testimony multiple times. The ripple effect of hate and intolerance sat right in this small northern church. The applause! People applauded Grossman’s testimony of rushing the Capitol police. 

I attempted several contacts with Grossman. His daughter returned my call and asked me to email a list of questions for her father to look over. I asked about his intent to enter the Capitol. I asked why he thought he was OK to push through a police line. I asked him if there was any time that he thought the crowd had gone too far. I asked him what if Trump lied, and the election had not been stolen? Grossman declined the interview.

There was one question I forgot to ask Grossman: What kind of history do you want your descendants to read about you 95-years from today? I want mine to read that I did not support the Trump populist movement, one bordering dangerously on fascism, an authoritarian demagoguery, that tried to overthrow the free and fair United States election of 2020.

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Pam Dowell
Pam Dowell

Pam Dowell, is a freelance writer who runs Facebook page called The Itascan Monitor. Her 21-story series “Indivisible, Inspiring, and Humans of Grand Rapids” was featured in the Grand Rapids Herald Review over the past four years.

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