Attorney general, former white supremacist hold listening session in St. Cloud |

Attorney general, former white supremacist hold listening session in St. Cloud

Updated: October 23, 2019 09:21 AM

Attorney General Keith Ellison continues to put a spotlight on hate in Minnesota. He held a listening session in St. Cloud focused on white nationalism on Tuesday evening.

"The main goal is safety and community respect," he said. "Every inch of this state should be a place where we promote tolerance."

In May, a New York Times article reported on racism in St. Cloud, attracting national attention to the community. Ellison told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that's not why he hosted the event in the city. He said it's a continuation of trips he's making around the state.

"There are some people who want to argue that St. Cloud has this problem that's worse than anywhere else," he said. "And that is not true. It's everywhere."

More than 100 people gathered at St. Cloud State University for the forum, including 14-year-old Kayla Okonu from St. Joseph.

"We need support from everybody," she said. "I just want people to speak up and stand up, just start forming a community that will learn from their experiences and grow and hopefully just become more loving."

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Listening session addresses issue of hate crimes in Minnesota

She spoke up about racism she's experienced in her community. Okonu said white supremacy signs went up in her neighborhood a couple of years ago. When she brought it to school leaders, they didn't address it.

She said she's been working to organize events to educate other students.

"I've had racist remarks, I've had people call me the n-word, I've had people touch my hair," she said. "I need to feel welcome, and I need to feel accepted." 

Data from the FBI shows hate crimes have risen in Minnesota since 2014.

"I'm scared for the people of America," said Christian Picciolini, who leads the Free Radicals Project. "What I've seen in the last few years is a tremendous surge in this type of isolating and hateful sentiment."

Picciolini led the hour and a half long discussion.

When he was 14-years-old, Picciolini was recruited into a white supremacist skinhead group. 

He said he was raised by Italian immigrant parents, who were accepting of all people. Picciolini explained his parents often worked seven days a week, sometimes 16 hours a day. He said he felt isolated.

"I started to take my own self-hatred and project it on other people," he said. 

After about eight years, he left the group after members of his community reached out to him.

"I started to realize very quickly that I had much more in common with the people I thought were my enemies than the people I surrounded myself with," he said.

He now helps others leave hate groups.

Picciolini encouraged those at the forum to reach out to others.

"Show compassion to people you think least deserve it because oftentimes they're the ones who can benefit from it the most," he said. 

Ellison said he is working with the U.S. Attorney, police, and lawmakers to address the rising number of hate crimes in Minnesota. 

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Callan Gray

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