VOICES | A Somali Perspective: Brian Coyle Center Controversy


As America celebrates President-Elect Barack Obama’s historic win, the Somali community in Minnesota is forced to deal with negative press brought about by one of their own. On Election Day, November 4th, stories about Somali volunteers allegedly influencing voters at the polling stations began to appear in the press.

Shortly after polls opened at Brian Coyle Center, a precinct inhabited mostly by Somalis, GOP challengers alleged that some voters were instructed to vote for Al Franken by translators. However, two news stories, one by Mshale, and another by the Minnesota Independent reported that witnesses claimed that a translator at the center was instructing people to vote for Coleman. Following these reports, Omar Jamal, a self-described community leader, accused the Somali Action Alliance, a non-partisan grassroots organization, and its volunteers, for pointing voters towards Al Franken.

These community volunteers were trained to help elderly Somali men and women vote by translating the ballot. Many of them had taken time off from work to serve the community. Unfortunately, rather than rewarding or recognizing their sacrifice to support the community, Jamal chose to accuse them of engaging in voting irregularities. The motivations of Jamal are curious. Many in the Somali community suspect tribal vengeance or other ulterior motives.

To add insult to injury, despite Jamal’s inability to establish credible evidence or witnesses to corroborate his claims, WCCO, a local TV station, chose to provide a platform for these stories. Worse, relying solemnly on the pure speculations and personal interpretations of Jamal, WCCO aired a doctored and inaudible video.

Unfortunately, no other media house asked why two Republican challengers were present at the Brian Coyle Center while Minnesota laws allows for the presence of only one challenger at the polls. While it is illegal to record ballots in Minnesota, the media has not bothered to find out the motive and the identity of the person behind the camera. Also, it is important for people to realize that Minnesota election laws permit citizens to be accompanied to the voting booth. State statute 204C, articles 5 through 7 clearly state that you are lawfully permitted to obtain assistant should there be a need.

One wonders why local media continually contacts Jamal on matters involving the Somali community when Minnesota is home to high profile Somali leaders, and activists: two former Somalia Prime Ministers, Abdirizak Haji Hussein and Ali Khalif Galeyr; the former Police Commander, General Mohamed Abshir Muse; Professor Abdi I. Samatar and his older brother Prof. Ahmed I. Samatar among others.

Jamal’s actions have frustrated many of us Somalis who have taken Minnesota as our second home. This negative publicity is not something we need. On the web, many people have made disparaging remarks about the Somali community where Somalis are referred as cheaters, ignorant, lowlifes, etc. On the Minnesota Democrats Exposed website, one reader writes “A few Somali cheaters isn’t [aren’t] going to change the result for angry Al.”

The degree to which these accusations and claims have impacted the community is not yet clear, However, Jamal’s destructive behavior needs to be checked. Local media houses need to be held accountable by the American people as they have given Jamal unchecked access on their airwaves. They need to conduct a thorough background investigation on Jamal and his questionable claims.

For the record, Somali-Minnesotans are responsible and law-abiding citizens of this great state and support a full investigation of this incident that is tarnishing the community’s image.

As a silver lining incident may signify a political maturity of the Somali community and be a signal for the Republican Party to reach out to them. Contrary to how Somalis have voted in the past, in this election while voting overwhelmingly Democrat for the president they presumably split on the senatorial race. Somali immigrants are a microcosm of the larger US electorate and do not vote as a block. Whether the Republican Party takes notice of this or not this unpleasant episode suggests that both political parties have support within the Somali immigrant community.

It is worth noting, however, that Somalis here in Minnesota and elsewhere in the U.S. collectively voted democrat in past elections, Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

Contact the author at Mwali.hassan@gmail.com. Opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent those of Mshale.