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St. Croix Valley responds to LGBT flag crimes

River Falls residents Joe Schmitt, Wanda Brown and Phyllis Goldin, River Falls City Council member Hal Watson, St. Croix Valley GSA advocate Catherine Olson, Hudson resident Tony Bol and River Falls resident Tonya Schmitt met in River Falls April 20 to discuss a community response to LGBT flag crimes in the area. Submitted photo by Tony Bol.

A love bomb is scheduled to go off at the same time in Hudson and River Falls on Thursday, May 4, with members from both communities chalking the towns with messages of support after cases of LGBT flag thefts and burnings.

The two-town response started last week when a small group of friends gathered in River Falls, concerned about the incidents happening throughout the area. Hudson resident Tony Bol said the group discussed how the St. Croix Valley can respond as a wider community.

In River Falls, two separate flags were stolen from the home of Tonya Schmitt on West Elm Street. The first, a rainbow peace flag, was stolen on Thursday, April 6 with a second coexist flag stolen on Wednesday, April 19.

In Hudson, between Wednesday, April 5 and Thursday, April 6, three LGBT flags were stolen and two were found burnt along Orange Street between Fourth and Eighth streets. Flags have been stolen from this area before, and with the escalation of burning, Hudson Police Chief Marty Jensen said the incident is being investigated as a potential hate crime.

Members of the gathering reported similar incidents in Hammond and Prescott. However, Hammond police said the department has received no such reports. Prescott police has not returned phone calls for comment.

Hate crimes

St. Croix County District Attorney Michael Nieskes said hate crimes, referred to in state statute as "crimes committed against certain people or property," enhance possible penalties of certain crimes committed against people based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry. The statute is an additional verdict handed down by a jury.

The statute applies whether the offender's perception of the victim is correct or not. It does not apply to protected actions, like free speech.

"It doesn't mean an individual can't have problems with people that are from different backgrounds," Nieskes said. "But you can't be committing crimes against a person because of who they are and how they believe."

Nieskes said the enhancer is used when appropriate, but it's not charged very often.

"It's just a statement that we aren't going to tolerate that kind of behavior," Nieskes said.

Hudson resident Pete Larson, who's had flags stolen on multiple occasions in addition to the April 6 crime, said he is glad the most recent incident is being investigated as a hate crime. He said he was disheartened by police response to the first thefts as he felt those were a biased act.

Schmitt said she was in disbelief the first time time one of the flags was stolen. It was upsetting to her to learn that it was an issue not just for her in River Falls, but also in Hudson.

"Someone obviously takes offense to spreading love," she said.

Social media comments suggested the Hudson incidents were a result of the flags using the American flag design, neither of Schmitt's flags had that design. Schmitt said the comments missed the point.

"You can still disagree," Schmitt said. "But this is bully behavior."

Larson's wife Kate said if a flag alone can provoke such hate, she can only imagine the kind of experience marginalized people may face.

"I worry how that extrapolates to other members of our community," she said.

River Falls residents Phyllis Goldin and Wanda Brown, who have been together for 43 years, were not surprised by the incidents, as they have dealt with similar vandalization and harassment in the past.

"We've been victims of hate crime — more than one actually — over the years, and so this experience kind of forces us to revisit the feelings with more poignancy," Goldin said.

Though they have now built a home in River Falls, the acts, especially the burning in Hudson, send a message that they and others in the LGBT community are not welcome.

"It's difficult to describe the loss that one's life has to endure when you can't feel comfortable or secure in your home," Goldin said.

Need for wide community response

St. Croix Gender Sexuality Alliance founder Catherine Olson said her heart sank when she learned about the multiple incidents. A therapist and social worker, Olson said the social and political climate has heightened the need for community response.

"There's always been dissent in our community but now there just seems to be more people feeling they have a duty or right to be mean and destructive," she said.

Much of the community has shown support. Hudson has already seen a large response with many new flags flying in the area, and Schmitt has heard from others in River Falls who will start flying flags as well. Olson said the response shows the greatness in the community.

"One negative act can engage a larger positive response," Olson said.

River Falls City Council member Hal Watson said it is important that everyone responds to the issue as a wider community. In 2007, the city of River Falls passed an inclusion resolution stating its commitment to diversity. Now, Watson said those values are being tested.

"If we don't respond immediately and all together, it won't stop," he said.

He has reached out to the River Falls city administration and its police department to ensure communication between the communities at an official level, and encourages it at a citizen level.

"It's up to all of us to step forward," he said.

One place this wider community response is already being seen is at the youth level. Both River Falls and Hudson high schools have a GSA established, and have helped Baldwin establish one as well.

"These kids can support each other," Olson said. "So let's get these kids together."

She encourages people of all ages to respond with words and action. For anyone looking to get involved, she said everyone is welcome at the St. Croix GSA meeting May 16 at the Hudson YMCA.

In light of the incidents, Schmitt said the focus now needs to be on bridge building.

"We won't let the bullies win," she said. "What we need to do is figure out how to spread more love."

Rebecca Mariscal

Rebecca Mariscal joined the Hudson Star Observer as a reporter in 2016. She graduated from the University of St. Thomas with a degree in communication and journalism. 

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