BISMARCK — In the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody last month, protesters from American communities large and small have taken to the streets with the message that police brutality against people of color will no longer be tolerated.

The wave of frustration-fueled activism has reached mostly white North Dakota, with demonstrations in Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks and even tiny Rugby.

The Peace Garden State is unique in its lack of racial diversity.

In North Dakota, 84% of residents are non-Hispanic white people, while that figure is 60.4% for the nation as a whole, according to U.S. Census estimates.

It's one of the only states where Spanish is not the second most widely spoken language — in fact, it's German. North Dakota is also one of a handful of states where neither African Americans nor Latinos make up 5% of the total population. Native Americans are, by far, the largest non-white group at 5.5% of the state's residents, Census estimates show.

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Like people of color across the country, many of those living in North Dakota say they're fed up with how they have been treated by police and their fellow residents.

Michelle LaPoint, a Latina resident of Bismarck who organized one of the city's protests, said the hard-to-watch video of Floyd's arrest gives white North Dakotans a look into what people of color have to endure. LaPoint hopes the pervading feeling of unrest will finally result in the kind of lasting change that makes North Dakota a safer place for her young children.

Name-calling and dirty looks

North Dakotans have gained a reputation from outsiders for being exceptionally nice and welcoming, but many people of color in the state say that warm reception isn't always extended to them.

Shire Mohamed, who is of Somali descent, immigrated to Fargo from Kenya eight years ago and now works as a case manager at the Afro American Development Association. Mohamed said he learned quickly upon moving to the state that his dark complexion would mean he received dirty looks and poor treatment from some white people.

While working in a warehouse, Mohamed said white co-workers often acted cordially toward him in their official capacities but then wouldn't talk to him in the break room or off the clock. Mohamed, a devout Muslim, said one co-worker even reported him to their superiors for taking pre-approved breaks to pray.

Mohamed said he now puts on "two different faces" around white people. In the company of those that he knows and loves, he behaves like himself, which he describes as joyful and "always smiling." But in the presence of white people he doesn't know, Mohamed said he acts cautiously and watches his back.

"They try to make you feel worthless," Mohamed said. "They don't treat me the same way they would treat another person .... (There's) an assumption that is assigned to a whole group."

Mohamed said he has been lucky to never have experienced police discrimination, cutting in contrast with LaPoint's experience as a new North Dakotan.

Since moving to Bismarck two years ago, LaPoint said she has been pulled over in her car by police more than a dozen times but only received a few tickets. She thinks the local police have a clear bias against black, Latino and Native American people, which she said has been reinforced by the times she has gone to court for the tickets and seen almost exclusively people of color in line.

LaPoint said she moved from inner-city Toledo, Ohio, because her family was in Bismarck and she thought it would be a more secure environment for her two young boys, who are black. Instead, she said white students made her 6-year-old son's life a nightmare.

The young mother said her son often came home from kindergarten with bruises and stories of name-calling and bullying by other students. She said recently her son was called a racial slur by another child.

Michelle LaPoint, of Bismarck, with her two sons. Submitted photo
Michelle LaPoint, of Bismarck, with her two sons. Submitted photo

Even with the hardship her family has endured, LaPoint said she knows that the "constant stress" of raising black boys doesn't subside as they become young men. LaPoint said she has seen the way local police have treated the father of her children as a presumed criminal, and she worries her boys will suffer the same injustice when they grow up.

"Right now, they're black kids and they're adorable and cute, but when they turn 12 or 13, are they still that cute child or do they become that monster that you supposedly fear?" LaPoint said through tears. "When do our kids go from boys to thugs in society's eyes?"

As a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, is one of the few people of color in the state Legislature. Buffalo said Native Americans are often left out of the conversation about police brutality, despite suffering as much as any other racial group.

From 1999 to 2018, American Indians and Alaska Natives were slightly more likely than black Americans to be killed by police, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, is sworn into office Dec. 3, 2018, at the North Dakota Capitol. Forum News Service file photo
Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, is sworn into office Dec. 3, 2018, at the North Dakota Capitol. Forum News Service file photo

Buffalo declined to share how racism and police bias have affected her family, but she said her level of worry has been heightened for her husband after learning of how Michael Brown was shot by police six years ago in Ferguson, Mo.

Addressing the issue

LaPoint, Mohamed and Buffalo have a number of ideas for curbing police discrimination and broader cultural racism in North Dakota.

To start, LaPoint said the federal government should establish a database of disciplinary action and complaints against police officers, so those with a history of violence or racial bias don't get rehired by another department after being fired. She said officers who receive a high number of civilian complaints, like Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with second-degree murder in connection with Floyd's death, should be given a mental evaluation to determine if they're fit to work on the streets.

LaPoint mentioned that despite her personal issues with Bismarck police, she commends them for keeping recent protests nonviolent.

Mohamed said he is still learning about the historical implications of police brutality, but he believes that departments should add more racial diversity to their ranks.

Buffalo, who holds a degree in criminal justice, said she favors a more holistic approach that addresses disparities in education, health care and the court system for marginalized communities. The state representative said investing more resources to prevent drug use, human trafficking and violence in those communities would be the most productive course right now. As far as policing goes, Buffalo said departments should find ways to build trust with the communities they serve.

Mohamed said the key to relieving some of the racial tensions in North Dakota is exposure. He believes there should be dialogue between people of different races before any judgment occurs. Then, neighbors can see each other as individuals and begin to accommodate cultural differences.

All three expressed hope that the future will bring meaningful changes carried by a young, open-minded generation. Buffalo said young North Dakotans have access to more diversity through their phones than anyone in her generation did through their surroundings.

However, LaPoint noted that the change starts with a guilty verdict for the four officers involved with Floyd's death. Anything less would be a "slap in the face," she said.