Liberian immigrants in Fargo gather for a cookout in the garage of Teta Roberts, which they affectionately call the “Noisy Grill.” (Dan Koeck/for The Washington Post)
14 min

WEST FARGO, N.D. — The aroma of barbecue ribs used to comfort him, but now Manny Behyee worried it could attract trouble. Walking up to Teta’s garage cookout, he’d scanned the cars lining her suburban street. Should everyone have parked further apart? Was it obvious they were having a party?

The Liberian immigrants had tried to keep a low profile since someone — a stranger? a neighbor? — distributed hundreds of fliers labeling them a threat to White children. A mile away, people woke up one September morning to small plastic bags on their lawns containing a picture of a Liberian man who had recently been convicted of killing a 14-year-old girl in Fargo. The caption invoked a racist theory that foreigners of color are “replacing” White Americans in the United States: “THE GREAT REPLACEMENT AND ITS CONSEQUENCES.”

The victim’s father had appeared in court with someone he called a “pro-White” advocate. Anti-Black stickers and graffiti showed up on streetlights and buildings, including the international grocery store where Behyee shopped.

The 37-year-old hospital chef had survived two civil wars that killed a quarter million Liberians between 1989 and 2003. He wore Old Navy jeans over the bullet scar on his left knee and black Vans over the one on his right foot.

“I came here for safety,” he said in Teta’s garage, where West Africans who’d fled the conflict often gathered to eat. “It feels like the safety is disappearing.”

Behyee wasn’t sure what “Great Replacement” meant until he asked a co-worker. The definition bewildered him: People actually believed that Western elites, controlled by Jews, were plotting a “migrant invasion” to wrest power from conservative White voters?

The theory hinged on the idea that all Black immigrants backed Democrats, which he found laughable: Behyee hoped to vote for Donald Trump in 2024. A Lutheran charity had brought most of his Liberian friends to North Dakota so they could live in peace — not fulfill the electoral bidding of imaginary puppet masters.

Behyee’s exasperation — “ridiculous! just ridiculous!” — chilled to fear upon reading about the mass shooters who have referenced the Great Replacement.

The White man who opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, killing 11, had blamed Jews for bringing immigrant “invaders” to the United States. The White man who gunned down 23 people at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 told police he’d targeted Mexicans after rambling about the “Hispanic Invasion of Texas.” The White man who targeted Black shoppers and employees at a Buffalo supermarket last May, killing 10, had written that African Americans were part of a conspiracy to “ethnically replace my own people.”

Were the Liberians in North Dakota at risk, too? Could the Afrobeat music at their cookout bring danger?

“You always want to be alert,” Behyee said, fidgeting in his foldout chair. “Just in case.”

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The Great Replacement, a doctrine of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups for decades, has lately been finding a bigger audience.

Tucker Carlson, one of the nation’s most popular cable television hosts, name-checked it last year in a monologue about Haitian migrants seeking asylum in Texas. President Biden wanted to “change the racial mix of the country” with lax border control, Carlson said. “In political terms, this policy is called the ‘Great Replacement,’” he said. “The replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries.”

Such rhetoric has become a pillar of far-right rallies with animosity aimed at undocumented immigrants. Days before Behyee’s cookout, Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.) told an Arizona audience that outsiders were “on the verge of replacing you, replacing your jobs and replacing your kids in school and, coming from all over the world, they’re also replacing your culture.”

Similar language has emerged on racist leaflets nationwide as politicians amplify it, said Jeff Tischauser, a research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center who tracks the spread of white supremacist propaganda.

“It is such a low-effort way to recruit and terrorize,” he said, “and create that psychological trauma for the targeted groups.”

Tangy smoke filled Teta’s garage. Even in light jacket weather, the group of immigrants kept the door shut. They’d taken a cue from the area’s Liberian churches, which had begun bolting their entrances during service.

They feared someone — a stranger, a neighbor — could show up with a gun.

The fliers

Daisy “Jupiter” Paulsen, 14, was skateboarding from her father’s house to her mother’s in June 2021 when Arthur Kollie, 23, attacked her with a knife. He stabbed her more than 20 times outside a Party City, police said, seemingly at random.

The girl died days later. The Fargo mayor, police chief and county sheriff attended her public memorial. Soon after, Jupiter’s face began appearing on white supremacist propaganda.

On the anniversary of her death, members of a group known for peddling racist and antisemitic conspiracies marched through Fargo, holding signs that said, “Justice for Jupiter.” Four months later, following Kollie’s murder conviction, fliers the size of postcards landed before dawn in the yards of a mostly White neighborhood near an elementary school. They came in plastic bags packed with dried corn — probably to make them easier to throw, officers noted at the scene.

The front featured photos of Jupiter and Kollie. (“THE GREAT REPLACEMENT AND ITS CONSEQUENCES.”) The back directed people to the websites of a white supremacist network that took credit for distributing racist fliers across the Upper Midwest. “Do you really want your children to become a hated minority in their own country?” the group wrote.

Police announced an investigation, asking residents to share home security camera footage that might reveal the culprit. Officers were able to identify only a suspicious sedan.

“It’s not a crime to hurt feelings, though,” a man commented on the West Fargo Police Department’s Facebook page.

“I’m surprised to see community members being so utterly dismissive about racist propaganda being left in our streets,” a woman shot back.

“What’s to Investigate?” another man asked. “We do have free speech rights here In America.”

The police chief, Denis Otterness, tried to explain to disgruntled callers: Yes, he respected the First Amendment, but at the very least, whoever scattered the fliers had violated a littering ordinance. They could have damaged property. They could face fines.

“We want our neighbors to feel welcome here,” he said.

That sense of welcome is fragile, said Ebenezer Saye, president of the state Liberian association.

When the first group of Liberians resettled here about two decades ago, they confronted some misunderstandings. Neighbors used to call the police, characterizing their lively conversations as aggressive. (“We’re not fighting,” Saye said. “We’re just loud.”) Co-workers complained about the smell of Liberian lunches. (Maybe they weren’t accustomed to West African spices.)

Saye met with city officials. He shared bowls of fufu, or cassava balls in pepper soup, with the police chief and mayor. Liberians had an important role to play here, he recalled telling them. They filled factory, health-care and child-care jobs that sat vacant. They paid property taxes.

Over time, tensions eased.

“We felt this place was heaven,” Saye said. “People could live here without threat or intimidation.”

After Jupiter’s murder, Saye reached out to her father, Robert Paulsen, expressing his heartbreak and horror. Saye didn’t know the killer, but he’d heard about Kollie walking in the snow without clothes. (During the murder trial, Kollie’s sister said he talked to himself and saw things that weren’t there.)

“This innocent child did nothing to deserve this,” Saye recalled telling Paulsen. “We are all with you.”

The men agreed to a meeting. Saye, who has eight children, wore a shirt that said “DAD” in solidarity with Paulsen. They shook hands. Paulsen, a welder at a tractor factory, said he worked with several Liberians.

He accepted Saye’s invitation to a candlelight vigil for Jupiter.

“I know there are racist people out there who have a lot of hatred, but we come from some of the same backgrounds,” Paulsen said at the time, according to the local newspaper. “If anything happens, tell me and I’ll stand in the way.”

Then Peter Tefft got involved.

‘Relentless’ outreach

Paulsen, 40, wears his daughter’s ashes in a silver music note around his neck. At the time of her death, Jupiter had been teaching herself to play the acoustic guitar he gave her. She wrote poems and recited them on TikTok: I wish I was the rain so I could be free. She made flower crowns for toddlers at the park.

“I went from being a happy dad to my worst nightmare come true,” Paulsen said one morning last month, leaning against his pickup truck in the parking lot of a health center, where his 13-year-old son was in counseling.

When the news broke, the Liberian community’s support touched Paulsen. Then life for the rest of Fargo seemed to return to normal, and he felt isolated in his grief. One man who’d contacted him right away on Facebook kept sending messages, Paulsen said.

Peter Tefft had marched in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where white supremacists raised their arms in Hitler salutes and chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” After a neo-Nazi sped his car into counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 35, Tefft’s father published an open letter in the Fargo newspaper, condemning his son’s attendance as “vile, hateful and racist.” (Tefft did not respond to requests for comment.)

Paulsen didn’t know much about Tefft, but he appreciated the outreach. They started chatting on an encrypted app.

“He was relentless,” Paulsen said. “He kept saying they could do more. He said things that I had already pointed out: that if the justice system had done their damn job, my kid would still be here.”

Jupiter’s killer had a record of felony charges and had been arrested while running from a bar fight three days before stabbing her. Why hadn’t he been in jail?

Tefft told Paulsen the state didn’t care enough about White people — that if Jupiter had been Black and Kollie had been White, people would have rioted. He said Jupiter was a victim of anti-White discrimination and that her murder should be considered a hate crime. It didn’t matter that Jupiter’s mother is Hispanic, another group demonized by Great Replacement rhetoric.

The remarks echoed what Tefft has said publicly. On one far-right podcast, he accused Fargo leaders of creating an “atmosphere of anti-White hatred.” He called himself a “pro-White advocate,” a euphemism white supremacists have used to reframe their movement’s violent history. He referred to Paulsen as a “family friend,” which Paulsen said wasn’t true.

Yet one of Tefft’s views stuck with Paulsen.

“I don’t want it to be a Black and White thing, but what I agree with is: If the roles were reversed, it would be a different story,” Paulsen said. “There would be riots. People would be burning stuff down.”

After an April court hearing, Paulsen told reporters he’d accepted the help of “pro-White advocates” to lodge an “anti-White hate crime” report against Kollie.

“In all honesty, for the longest time, the only people who were persistent was Peter and his group,” Paulsen said. “I was like, okay, you guys go ahead and speak.”

Tefft had drafted the language for the report, Paulsen said, and recorded a video of them dropping it off together at the Fargo police department. (Paulsen said he has not heard back from an officer, and Fargo police said Kollie has not been charged with a hate crime.)

Jupiter’s killer was ultimately found guilty of murder, robbery and aggravated assault. A judge sentenced him last month to life in prison without parole, the maximum penalty in North Dakota.

Paulsen said he deleted the encrypted app in September and lost touch with Tefft. Before Kollie’s sentencing, though, Saye had invited him to pray together at a Liberian church. Paulsen would have gone, he said, but he had to babysit.

“I have no problem with the Liberians,” he said. “I have hatred toward only one person.”

The cookout

They called Teta’s garage “the Noisy Grill.”

“Because we make a lot of noise!” Saye said as everyone dug into a steaming platter of chicken skewers. Beside him, Behyee grinned. The group had gotten noise violation tickets one evening last summer.

They couldn’t be so carefree now.

“Even tonight, in this part of town, with a lot of police around,” Behyee said, “you have to be afraid.”

That’s why Teta — 41-year-old Teta Roberts — kept her garage door shut. The home health aide in a blue apron had spent three years in a Ghana refugee camp after fleeing conflict in Liberia. As a girl, she saw a rebel soldier slit a man’s throat with a machete. These days, she worries about her kids going to elementary school in North Dakota. Were they safe?

“I pray nothing happens,” Teta said, flipping ribs on the grill.

Twenty friends crowded around her plastic table, enjoying the meat she bought at Sam’s Club and the Miller Lites in her cooler. They tossed dollar bills on a paper plate marked: Tips, plz. Risky or not, the cookouts provided a support group after the “Great Replacement” postcards.

“Don’t worry,” said Christian Sampson, 54. “A few cowards came up with that leaflet.”

Sampson fled the first civil war by bus to Ivory Coast, where he joined a security firm and ended up a bodyguard for U.S. diplomats. Now he worked in customer service at American Airlines and offered protection in his spare time. During the 2020 George Floyd protests in Fargo, when vandals disrupted an otherwise peaceful demonstration, he stood watch outside of Liberian restaurants.

“There’s no intimidation here,” he said. “A few of us can handle this.”

Behyee hoped that was true. He’d just finished an 8-hour shift cooking lemon pepper tilapia for hospital patients. His pulse had quickened walking out to his car.

“Coming from a war-torn country,” he said, “we take every little threat seriously.”

During the fighting, his family hunkered down in their northeastern village. When he was nine, rebels caught him in an ambush and shot him in the foot. When he was 18, they stole his livestock and shot him in the knee. Both times, they’d left him to bleed.

Haunted by the memories, Behyee had applied for a U.S. Diversity Visa Lottery every year until he won in 2012. Adapting to life abroad wouldn’t be so hard, he’d imagined. Freed enslaved people had founded Liberia in 1822. The capital, Monrovia, was named after President James Monroe. Liberia’s red stop signs and yellow school buses look just like the ones in Fargo.

North Dakota would be colder, sure, so he bought a North Face jacket. Nothing had prepared him for the racist fliers. Now Behyee feared conflict could erupt. The warning signs were there, and they felt familiar. The rebels, too, had divided people with propaganda.