Feb. 19: In a response to Orono residents on Nextdoor, Mayor Dennis Walsh doubled down on the video he sent. “The 3 and a 1/2 minute video that talks about government overreach regarding covid mentions the holocaust [sic] for 5 to 10 seconds as a reference point and is absolutely not anti-Semitic,” Walsh said, “and absolutely does not minimize the holocaust. False information.”
In April 2022, Brad Erickson, a businessman who works in the city of Orono, logged into his Facebook account for the first time in several years to check and clear out messages.
In the video, the face of the Joker, standing in a hallway, is animated amid giggles, laughs, and an overdubbed voice that claims the United States government has used COVID-19 pandemic measures — like lockdowns, face masks, and vaccines — to control citizens and turn to socialism.
These right-wing conspiracy theories have been documented as going hand-in-hand with antisemitism, according to the Anti-Defamation League, the leading Jewish organization that tracks and researches hate. And three minutes into the video, Jews are directly brought up. (Editor’s note: The video has been downloaded to Google Drive so that it is viewable, but does not contribute to YouTube traffic.)
“Think about it: Six million Jewish people were exterminated in Germany because 97% of the population cowered to populace control,” the overdub says. “Nobody wanted to think about it — it’s easier just to ignore it. That couldn’t happen here, in America, right? They got you, without a thought, without a fight.”
Erickson — the grandson of Holocaust survivors from Holland — was furious. “I think [Walsh thinks] it’s a joke,” he said. ”I don’t find it as a joke at all to be comparing mask mandates…[to the] extermination of 6 million Jews. It’s unbelievable. And it blew me away. And it really spun me out.”
The video was produced by The United Spot, which claims on its YouTube channel that “all videos are not real or true…in order to be truly happy, you must laugh often. All videos are created only for fun.” Other videos from the channel also feature right-wing conspiracy theories.
Soon after, Erickson went to an Orono City Council meeting to confront Walsh during the council’s public comments period — and since April 2022, he has been back month after month to demand an apology, for the mayor to be censured by the city council, and for the mayor to step down. Erickson has gotten none of those things, even as he has told the mayor “you sent Holocaust paraphernalia to a survivors’ family.”
“I lost it, I guess…I wanted [the city council] to get out in front of it and make sure that that this wasn’t something that they actually subscribe to and wanted to propagate,” he said. “Well, to my dismay, apparently, it is something that they stand behind wholeheartedly.”
Recent City Council meetings have been contentious and verging on fistfights in Orono, with public comments being cut from five to three minutes soon after Erickson first confronted the mayor. The city is also embroiled in a bitter fight with residents and former mayors facing off against Walsh over public land given to one of Walsh’s donors, and Orono’s use of neighboring city Long Lake’s fire department.
Public comment periods have included Walsh pulling out a newspaper to explicitly ignore one resident and arguments, sometimes yelling, between residents and the mayor.
Census data shows Orono, a suburb of Minneapolis, is a largely white and affluent area. Median household income was nearly $170,000 in 2020, and median property value was roughly $764,000.
During the city council meetings, Walsh “won’t answer any questions, he just sneers at me, and he laughs and tells me I’m embarrassing myself,” Erickson said. “I don’t have a choice. I have to stand up and say something…and beat that drum until something happens.”
While clashing with the mayor, Erickson has also found links between Orono City Council Member Richard Crosby — seen as a close confidant of the mayor — and the Proud Boys, a right-wing antisemitic extremist group known for their involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection effort in Washington, D.C., in 2021.
Crosby has an account on Parler, the right-wing alternative to Twitter, where he follows several far-right accounts — including a Minnesota Proud Boys account verified by Parler.
He also participated in “Stop The Steal” rallies at the Minnesota Capitol in 2020, protesting the election of Joe Biden as U.S. president and engaging in the conspiracy theory that the 2020 presidential election was rigged against Donald Trump.
A photo from the rallies shows a man who looks like Crosby standing in the center foreground of the crowd, wearing a red hood and a Vikings jacket, clasping his hands together and looking directly at the camera. Participants of the Minnesota rallies have also been linked to the events on Jan. 6 — and Erickson said he passed on evidence to the FBI that Crosby was in Washington, D.C. at that time.
“He finds it in his heart to go crowdfunding, it makes me wonder if [Crosby and Walsh are] Proud Boy members, or what they are members of and who they work for,” Erickson said.
Walsh and Crosby did not respond to requests for comment. Only one Orono City Council member, the recently-elected Alisa Benson, responded to TC Jewfolk questions about what the two men’s actions mean for Orono residents, and if there would be any repercussions.
“I am troubled by the fact that these ongoing allegations have not been given serious attention,” Benson said in an email. “I know there are residents in Orono and others in the wider community who are disturbed by what is being presented at the city council meetings and the apparent lack of any action to address the situation. I plan to push for answers with regard to the allegations and will use facts to guide my future decisions on the council.
“As a city official who took an oath to serve all members of my community, I unequivocally denounce antisemitism in any form,” she said. “There is no place for hate speech, or the promotion of violence or discrimination, against our Jewish citizens in the City of Orono…I want to assure you and the Jewish community that I am committed to creating a safe environment for all residents of our city.”
Given Walsh’s video and Crosby’s Proud Boys connections, Erickson is worried about how minority residents of Orono can feel welcomed. He sold his previous business, the Orono Station, to an Indian family. “What kind of representation do they have here when you get these people in charge?” Erickson said. Erickson’s grandsons also live in Orono.
He continues to attend City Council meetings, using up his three minutes of public comment time to angrily talk about Walsh and Crosby’s behavior. Erickson has also brought attorneys in to mediate between him and the council, but without evidence of illegal activity they haven’t been able to do anything (both Walsh and Crosby’s actions fall under political speech, which — even if hateful — is legal).
Erickson’s main issue continues to be with the mayor, but considers Crosby “cut from the same cloth” and needing to be dealt with as well.
“If it comes down to it, I will pay for and I will place pictures of [Walsh] with a Hitler ‘stache or a swastika over his face, or whatever I have to do to make sure people know I am that upset and pissed off,” Erickson said.
“Why they didn’t want to just meet with me and apologize…will always be the question in my mind.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to show that Brad Erickson is not Jewish. He did not claim he was – this was a mistake on the part of the writer.