Despite no evidence, downtown Minneapolis attacks blamed on 'Somali gangs'

Social media conservatives and right-wing blogs are trafficking in the thing they hate most -- "fake news" -- claiming the robberies were perpetrated by a "Somali mob."

Social media conservatives and right-wing blogs are trafficking in the thing they hate most -- "fake news" -- claiming the robberies were perpetrated by a "Somali mob."

The security camera shows a typical sidewalk in downtown Minneapolis. A few men approach a guy in a white T-shirt who’s looking at his phone. They seem to be chatting him up, occasionally gesturing. Then a few other men join in, forming a rough circle around him.

A man puts his arm around T-shirt guy’s shoulder, pulls him close, almost friendly. T-shirt guy tries to make a break and cross the street. That’s when things get bad.

Another man grabs T-shirt guy from behind, and a third tries to wrestle his phone from his hand. Then he’s on the ground, and the others are on top of him—kicking him in the head, punching him from all sides, throwing a foot into his gut until he’s lying limp on the pavement. They take his phone, wallet, keys, and cash. When passersby try to help him up seconds later, he can barely stand, and he’s somehow lost both shoes. 

This pack robbery, one of two group beatdowns in Minneapolis recently caught on film, has captured the attention of national media for its brutality. Debates raged about the safety of city streets as police announced they’d charged 18 people in the incidents. The oldest suspect was 27. The youngest were only 15.

But some are choosing to blame the carnage on a default villain of conservative philosophy: Somalis.

“A group of Democrats in [Rep. Ilhan Omar’s] district we’re [sic] caught brutally beating and robbing a man,” one Twitter commenter wrote. “This is the latest in a string of violent robberies by Somali gangs.”

“I used to live in #Minnesota before all the Somalis showed up,” another tweeted. “Glad I don’t live there now!”

“Not a robbery,” another said. “Terror attack by Black Somali Muslims against a white man.”

Even the Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson’s conservative outlet, posted a video blaming the attacks on a “Somali mob.” It got several hundred thousand views.

But here’s the thing. None of the reports of the arrest mentioned anything about the suspects being Somali. Nor do the names of arrestees suggest Somali heritage. Sahan Journal, a nonprofit covering Minnesota’s immigrant and refugee communities, actually asked Minneapolis police whether they were involved: 

“Whereas the Minneapolis Police Department does not engage in immigration enforcement issues, there is no indication that any of the individuals arrested for the recently highly publicized robberies and assaults were Somali,” spokesperson John Elder said.

It wouldn’t be the first time right-wing blogs and social media have jumped the gun—and the facts—in an attempt to pin something on immigrants in the Twin Cities. Just last spring, a minor crime story involving a few Somali teens allegedly holding metal pipes and threatening light rail passengers transformed into “Eight to 10 Somali teens armed with hammers” randomly attacking bystanders.

Then, when an innocent 5-year-old boy was thrown off a Mall of America balcony, rumors rampaged on social media that the culprit, Emmanuel Aranda, was a “Somali immigrant.” The Associated Press felt compelled to release a special report just to clarify that he was actually born in Chicago.

And then there was last week, when someone falsely accused Omar, a Somali refugee, of dancing to Lizzo on 9/11. President Donald Trump, known to traffic in the same "fake news" he detests, went ahead and retweeted it.

The Caller eventually removed its video and issued a correction, saying it had “incorrectly identified the gang as Somali.” The report, however, still takes care to mention that the incidents happened in Omar’s district, and that “authorities attribute this rise [in crime] to Somali gangs.”

Meanwhile, the rumor has refused to die. Comments on City Pages’ coverage are full of Facebook users calling the suspects “Somali refugees” and “Moslem [sic] immigrants.” People are also still tweeting about these incidents somehow being Somali-related, and others still are insisting that it’s too soon to say it wasn’t.

“’No indication’ is not the final word,” a Twitter user protested.

The reporters behind Sahan probably aren’t that surprised. The nonprofit was created as a “much-needed addition to Minnesota’s media landscape” at a time “when immigrants and refugees are targets of hateful rhetoric in politics and some media.”

Now more than ever, journalism needs to be vigilant, accurate, and nuanced when it covers these communities. After all, we’re all too familiar with the alternative.