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Critics challenge Kristi Noem’s book accounts of George Floyd protests

Tales of two protests in South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem’s new book don’t appear to match up with reality, a state lawmaker, a political expert and a Sioux Falls community advocate say.

They’re calling into question Noem’s accounts of two Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, one based in Sioux Falls and the other in Washington, D.C. Both are mentioned in her new book, “No Going Back: The Truth on What’s Wrong with Politics and How We Move America Forward.”

The book, released May 7 and assisted by a ghostwriter for Noem, has already seen controversy, including nationwide criticism over a part where she wrote about killing a 14-month-old hunting dog.

Her publishers have also had to make at least two corrections to the book. In one account, Noem falsely said she met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. In another, she incorrectly claimed South Dakota GOP Sen. Mike Rounds called for Donald Trump to drop out of the presidential race in late 2016.

Noem, the top elected leader in South Dakota, is a vice president contender for former President Donald Trump, who was recently convicted by a jury on 34 counts of falsifying business records tied to money used to cover up his relationship with a porn star and influence his 2016 election.

More: Sen. Rounds gets publisher to issue correction in Noem’s book over claims he didn’t support Trump in 2016

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South Dakota state Rep. Linda Duba (D-Sioux Falls), along with Julian Beaudion, a Black activist who helped plan the May 2020 Sioux Falls protest, say the second-term governor painted an exaggerated picture in her memoir by claiming that “hundreds of Second Amendment-loving bikers” stood with and protected police during the demonstration.

More: ‘President Trump did nothing wrong’: Gov. Kristi Noem responds to hush money verdict

Their suspicion of Noem’s retelling extends to how another civil rights protest near the White House played out months later.

“This book is just more proof that she is directly trying to negatively impact the progress that Black and brown folks are making,” said Beaudion, who is also the director of the South Dakota African American History Museum and a former South Dakota Highway Patrol officer.

Julian Beaudion, center, speaks at the beginning of a protest to demand justice for George Floyd, joining nationwide protests on Sunday, May 31, at Van Eps Park in Sioux Falls.Julian Beaudion, center, speaks at the beginning of a protest to demand justice for George Floyd, joining nationwide protests on Sunday, May 31, at Van Eps Park in Sioux Falls.

Julian Beaudion, center, speaks at the beginning of a protest to demand justice for George Floyd, joining nationwide protests on Sunday, May 31, at Van Eps Park in Sioux Falls.

Noem sensed explosions, screams and tear gas. Media accounts depict a calmer scene.

Of the Washington anecdote in the introduction to the book, the Republican governor writes about her experience attending Trump’s Aug. 27, 2020, acceptance speech on the South Lawn of the White House as part of the Republican National Convention.

Noem, who gave a pretaped speech lauding Trump the night before, was one of about a thousand guests invited to the South Lawn.

Beyond the White House fencing, hundreds of demonstrators protesting the death of Black Americans at the hands of police — namely George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others — assembled.

Floyd was a 46-year-old black man who was murdered in Minneapolis by a white officer, who was later sentenced in Floyd’s death to more than 22 years in prison for murde and manslaughter. The officer later pleaded guilty to a separate but related civil rights charge and was sentenced to 21 years in federal prison, according to The New York Times.

More: Trump says Gov. Kristi Noem ‘had a bad week’ when it comes to recent controversies

Taylor was a Black medical worker killed in March 2020 by police in Louisville, Kentucky, during a botched search warrant. Since then, the U.S. Justice Department has charged four current and former officers involved with civil rights violations.

But media reports by multiple credible national outlets with on-scene journalists, including USA Today, The Washington Post and NPR, depicted the protest Noem descibes as “largely peaceful, though raucous at times,” with moments of live concerts, singing and even dancing.

“Protesters beyond the gates began setting off firecrackers at the start of Trump’s speech,” USA Today reported at the time. “They also amped up the horn-blowing and the chants — all audible from the South Lawn of the White House — but none of it seemed to distract Trump or his supporters, who chanted ‘USA!’ and ‘Four More Years!’”

In fact, Noem cited USA Today’s coverage of the protest in her memoir, albeit with a different take.

More: Protesters outside the White House make themselves heard inside as Trump delivers RNC speech

Noem incorrectly cites the Aug. 27, 2020 speech as an “early August” event and described hearing the sound of “explosions and screams” from the South Lawn, where she was surrounded by U.S. Secret Service and military officers. What she “guessed was the smell of tear gas,” she writes, wafts into her area.

“A massive and, at times, violent protest erupted just outside the White House grounds and extended to the National Mall,” Noem wrote. “The streets were filled with rioters, agitators, and those hell-bent on destroying America.”

Then, Noem described leaving the White House with her team after the majority of guests had already been escorted out and encountering “several streets … blocked by mobs wielding weapons.”

“Protesters pounded on our vehicle and shouted threats while we passed,” Noem wrote. “My security detail knew to keep going at all costs, even driving on the sidewalk when necessary. Stopping meant danger, and no one would be able to help us.”

Noem ends the description by stating, after she made it safely to her hotel through underground access and help from private security, she put her head in her hands.

“I was trembling — not from fear but from anger,” she writes, as she goes on to quote Daniel 2:20-22 from the Bible and states the nation was in a “dark time.” “… I decided that night to live a life of significance — no matter where that commitment took me — because I believe America is better than the story that night told.”

But Noem’s account is likely a rhetorical perspective, University of South Dakota political professor Michael Card told the Argus Leader, a USA Today Network partner.

That’s due, in part, to the political talking points of the time, Card said. Trump, in response to the 2020 George Floyd protests developing across the U.S., adopted a “law and order” message. This came at a time when the country was grappling with police brutality, which was amplified by the Aug. 23, 2020 incident involving Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was partly paralized after being shot multiple times by a white officer, and the Aug. 25, 2020, shootings in Kenosha involving Kyle Rittenhouse, then 17, who was later acquitted for killing two Black Lives Matter protesters at the time.

Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul, when leaving the White House after Trump’s speech, alleged he was “attacked” by a crowd of more than 100 protesters. NPR reported a police officer carrying a bike and walking with Paul pushed a protester, who then returned the push, causing the officer to collide with the senator.

A hard copy of South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem's book, "No Going Back," on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at the Argus Leader newsroom in Sioux Falls.A hard copy of South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem's book, "No Going Back," on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at the Argus Leader newsroom in Sioux Falls.

A hard copy of South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem’s book, “No Going Back,” on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at the Argus Leader newsroom in Sioux Falls.

If Noem, who claimed to have encountered “mobs wielding weapons” while driving to a hotel that night, had publicized her story at the time, she could have aided Trump’s narrative.

More: Transcript: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s RNC speech

“Why not make a bigger deal out of it, especially if you are trying to present order … why not label yourself as being in danger in Washington?” Card said. “Certainly, on South Dakotans, it would have had an impact, because I think many people feel that cities are dangerous places. People here feel that cities are dangerous places.”

The Argus Leader could not find any published coverage from media outlets of Noem speaking about her experience during the Washington protest publicly. Instead, what is found are mostly articles about her speech in the days before, where she used similar language to call out Democrat-run cities.

“From Seattle and Portland to Washington and New York, Democrat-run cities across this country are being overrun by violent mobs. The violence is rampant. There’s looting, chaos, destruction and murder. People that can afford to flee have fled,” Noem said from the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in the nation’s capitol. “But the people that can’t — good, hard-working Americans — are left to fend for themselves.”

State Rep. Tony Venhuizen, who was Noem’s chief of staff at the time, did not join Noem in Washington. However, he told the Argus Leader in an email she had at least spoken of it privately.

“I do remember her talking about it in a very similar way at the time,” Venhuizen stated.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and her police chief at the time, Peter Newsham, however, made no mention of tear gas being deployed or reports of explosions during a composite report of the Aug. 27, 2020, White House protest and subsequent demonstrations, conflicting with Noem’s account. Newsham specifically mentioned when officers deployed tear gas in later protests.

More: Kristi Noem, Seattle mayor spar from afar after South Dakota governor’s RNC speech

Beaudion believes Noem’s depictions of the Black-led demonstrations are, in his opinion, “clearly racist.”

“It’s not an undertone for me,” Beaudion said. “It’s a clearly defined effort by Kristi to place Black, brown and Indigenous folks in the category to where she looks superior and in a place of power over us.”

Noem says Sioux Falls was protected by alleged group of bikers

As for the “hundreds of Second Amendment-loving bikers” Noem says watched over Sioux Falls during the May 31, 2020, “March for George Floyd” protest, she wrote, “(T)here was a large Black Lives Matter protest in Sioux Falls, which grew to thousands of people at our local shopping mall,” where “(s)parks of violence erupted but never got out of control.”

More: City issues curfew, Guard activated after protests at Empire Mall

She then described a scenario where those “hundreds” of bikers allegedly stood with police “with their Second Amendment rights on full display.”

Noem also didn’t mention the National Guard members who were called into downtown Sioux Falls and asked to remain on standby, while local authorities responded to the violent group about 4 miles away after the peaceful protest. A citywide curfew was put in place as things escalated.

Sioux Falls police wear protective gear as they form a line in front of protesters on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Sioux Falls, S.D.Sioux Falls police wear protective gear as they form a line in front of protesters on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Sioux Falls police wear protective gear as they form a line in front of protesters on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The Argus Leader reported at the time a crowd of “well over a thousand” peaceful protesters walked through downtown Sioux Falls that afternoon and evening. After the march ended, a separate group of about 700 people walked to the Empire Mall, where violence ensued, Mayor Paul TenHaken said at a press conference that night.

Some protesters vandalized and looted nearby stores, while others threw rocks at police officers. Several adults and some juveniles were arrested and charged for their actions, including 13 named by police, according to Argus Leader archives.

More: One year after a Sioux Falls protest turned violent, here’s where charges stand for arrestees

The Argus Leader reviewed dozens of archival photos, multiple videos and accounts from the Argus Leader accounts on X, formerly known as Twitter. The news outlet also reviewed coverage by other local media outlets, Mayor Paul TenHaken’s press conference from the night of the protest, and Noem’s next-day press conference and social media.

Reporters found no mention or evidence of “hundreds” of bikers — potentially armed ones, nonetheless — standing with police at any point during the peaceful protest or the overnight violence.

Noem’s social media presence on X, Facebook and Instagram made no mention of any bikers in Sioux Falls around the time of the protest either.

Beaudion was one of the lead organizers of the Sioux Falls protest. He said he started the day of the protest reviewing the demonstration plans at 7 a.m., marched during the evening, and then responded to the violent events at the Empire Mall until about 4 a.m.

Throughout that entire time, Beaudion said he “didn’t see a single biker.”

“There were no bikers that were there,” Beaudion said. “Her language is a clear threat to Black folks everywhere, because the Black community has historically been unwelcome in spaces of bikers.”

If bikers protected Sioux Falls during Black Lives Matter protest, where’s the proof?

The Sioux Falls Police Department, which works with the state’s Highway Patrol and Attorney General’s office when necessary, would not confirm or deny any amount of bikers were present with police the night of the protest.

“The bikers (excerpt) is just a strange one,” Card said. “Normally, police don’t like to see anyone wielding and brandishing weapons. I think of the ALICE training that we’ve had at various times here at USD. It’s basically, ‘If you see a gun, put a garbage can over it. For God’s sake, don’t put your hands on it, because when we come in, we’re going to neutralize whoever has a gun.’”

Former Argus Leader editor Michael Klinski, who directed the newsroom’s live coverage of that night, said he couldn’t recall his on-the-scene reporters mentioning a large biker presence.

“I don’t recall motorcycles either,” former staff photographer Abigail Dollins, who covered the Sioux Falls protest at the time, wrote the Argus Leader on May 15. “I’m sure if they were there and prominent, I would’ve photographed them.”

Duba took part in the peaceful events of that day. She, too, did not see any bikers along the protest route.

“I’m sorry, Governor, this does not pass the smell test,” Duba told the Argus Leader.

More: Gov. Noem: Riots and looting ‘will not be tolerated in South Dakota’

It wouldn’t make sense for the area to see any large groups of bikers in late May, Duba said. The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the largest biker gathering of its kind in the U.S., draws hundreds of thousands of bikers to South Dakota every year, but travel season doesn’t typically begin until mid- to-late July, Duba added.

The fact Noem included these scenarios in her book is intentional, Beaudion said.

Beaudion said her book’s introduction on the Washington protest, which is meant to serve as a preview for the rest of her writings, depicts the civil rights protesters as “animalistic” and “violent.”

And, as seen in the case of Cricket, the unruly hunting dog Noem killed, there are problematic parallels with how she views disobedience, Beaudion said. Noem’s support of an alleged group of gun-toting bikers ready to take justice into their own hands articulates “a clear threat to Black folks everywhere,” Beaudion said.

“It’s additional evidence the governor does not really have her finger on the pulse of the community which she says she represents,” Beaudion said.

Officials with the Governor’s Office did not respond to the Argus Leader about directly addressing Beaudion’s allegations of racism in her book.

Noem’s version of the Sioux Falls protest also states: “I’m not sure what the official statements might be from law enforcement about that night, but I’m sure our police appreciated the additional support.”

Noem was in Sioux Falls the day after the protest, where she joined TenHaken and her then-Secretary of Public Safety Craig Price to talk about the violence that followed the main demonstration.

“It goes to the core of her character,” Duba told the Argus Leader. “Why are you saying this? No, this is not factual. But yet, (Noem) continues on … making these wild accusations and they can easily be disputed. And that’s what kind of gets at me.”

The Mayor’s Office did not directly address the Noem’s account of bikers when reached out to by the Argus Leader. And Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum, who was there that night as part of the response, but was not yet chief, could not be reached for comment, despite multiple attempts.

“The riots four years ago were a challenging time in our city’s history,” the city’s spokesperson Vanessa Gomez wrote in an email to the Argus Leader. “We are proud of how our entire community responded to send a message that lawlessness wouldn’t be tolerated here.”

Asked to answer direct questions about the inaccuracies, Noem spokesperson Ian Fury wrote in an email, “Gov. Noem stands by this book and thanks you for the free advertising for her latest New York Times bestseller, ‘No Going Back.’”

The Argus Leader has also asked Noem’s office multiple times for an interview with the Governor to give her a chance to directly address South Dakotans through a local avenue since the book was released, but those requests have been ignored.

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Critics challenge Kristi Noem’s depiction of BLM protests in book

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