St. Cloud State grad faces anti-Muslim backlash in bid for Minneapolis seat

Saturday July 18, 2020
By Nora G. Hertel

Suud Olat (Photo: Dave Schwarz,
[email protected])

MINNEAPOLIS — Suud Olat has been the target of online abuse and anti-Muslim posts since he announced his candidacy for Minneapolis City Council earlier this year.

Olat, a 29-year-old Somali refugee, is one of 12 candidates running in a special election for City Council in Minneapolis’ Ward 6.

He’s not the only East African candidate, and he’s not the only one to experience racist attacks.

“Islamophobia is real,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “The more public you are the more likely you are to be targeted.”

Olat may get additional push back because of his ties to St. Cloud, which is home to some anti-Muslim activity, Hussein said. Olat’s parents live in St. Cloud and he graduated from St. Cloud State University last year. Hussein is also a SCSU graduate.

Targeted race, targeted place

Olat expected some opposition from people who oppose diversity and globalization, because he’s an activist and lobbied federal lawmakers to support international causes, including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. But the attacks have made him fear for his safety and his family’s, he said in an interview with the St. Cloud Times last week.
“I feel like it’s really sad in 2020 we’re dealing with this kind of rhetoric,” Olat said. “I’m American. I love my neighbors. I have friends of all kinds of race, religion, culture.”

Olat’s address has been released, and he regularly receives threatening messages, although the bulk of the backlash happened when he launched his campaign, he said. 

There are false articles posted that claim he has a radical agenda, he said. His key issues are tied to housing and safety for Somali elders as well as parking and other services.

CAIR-MN Executive Director Jaylani Hussein speaks during a forum on bias Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, at the Miller Center at St. Cloud State University.  (Photo: Dave Schwarz,
[email protected])

Ward 6 in Minneapolis has been a particular target of anti-Muslim voices, including national groups, Hussein said. That’s because of its large East African population and ties to now-Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and former City Council member Abdi Warsame, who resigned the seat in March to become executive director of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. According to a 2016 report from the city, 38% of the ward is Black or African American.

There’s a special election on Aug. 11 when Ward 6 voters will rank their top candidates to choose the new council member. The winner will help the city respond to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer and, potentially, help remake the Minneapolis Police Department.

The Ward 6 winner doesn’t have to be East African, but they need to have a coalition with support from that community, AJ Awed told the St. Cloud Times on Friday. Awed is 29 and Somali-American. He dropped out of high school, then revived his education and earned a law degree from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

AJ Awed is a candidate for Minneapolis City Council in an Aug. 11, 2020 special election. (Photo: Courtesy of AJ Awed)

“It is really important to have connections to the community,” Awed said.

He knows of at least one xenophobic attack against him, a violent comment online against Somalis and Islam, Awed said. But he hasn’t experienced a bombardment of abuse.

Other candidates in the race spoke of their experiences with racism during a League of Women Voters Minneapolis forum earlier this week, in response to a question on reforming the police department.

Candidate Saciido Shaie said she’s in solidarity with African Americans and when she sees George Floyd, she sees her 18-year-old son.

“As a Black, Muslim, immigrant woman, I understand the pain of being discriminated by the people that were supposed to protect you,” she said in the League of Women Voters forum.

Abdirizak Bihi said he’s been in a process to reform police since Sept. 11, 2001, the date of terrorist attacks on New York City, “when my community was impacted because we are Black, immigrants and Muslim,” he said at the forum.

Candidates who are Black, Muslim immigrants — such as Olat, Bihi and others in the race — experience multiple levels of discrimination, Hussein said.

The discrimination is not confined to one party, Hussein said, citing opposition to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s bid to chair the Democratic National Convention. Ellison is Black and Muslim.

“We have noticed Muslim candidates for any office receive overwhelming anti-Muslim threats as well as being targeted by hate groups, usually across the country,” Hussein said. Muslim candidates face other challenges as well, Hussein said. Many don’t have political experience and are dealing with documented disparities in home ownership and education.

Changes stem from George Floyd’s death

George Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck has launched an awakening, Hussein said.

“People don’t understand the complexity in how the system continues to perpetuate violence and disparities,” he said. It’s one thing to be upset about Floyd’s death, “it’s another thing to recognize the legacy of policy that lead us to this moment.”

Olat and some other Ward 6 candidates support dismantling the police department. Like African Americans, East African immigrants have experienced police brutality and economic disadvantages, Olat said. 

“There’s been a lot of suffering in systemic racism,” he said. “And the police have been a problem for a long time.”

Olat is also living with the results of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which bars immigrants from a list of countries including Iran, Syria and Somalia. His wife Hibo (which means “Lucky” in Somali, he says) remains in Kenya, even though she would like to be settled in the U.S. campaigning “shoulder to shoulder” with him, he said.

“She’s the love of my life,” Olat said. “She is a young woman who wants to make a difference.”

He wants to make a difference too, and offered to talk with the people attacking him to “help them to change minds and negative attitudes towards immigrants and refugees,” he said.

“My story’s an American accomplishment story.”

Early voting is already underway for the Ward 6 special election and the primary election. In-person voting will take place on Aug. 11.

Nora Hertel is the government watchdog reporter for the St. Cloud Times. Reach her at 320-255-8746 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @nghertel.

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