An annual tradition at the University of Minnesota was again met with tension among students from opposite sides of the political spectrum.
For two days each October, student groups at the university are allowed to paint panels on the Washington Avenue bridge. The panels decorated during the Paint the Bridge event "serve as a platform to bring awareness to each group's activities and to promote their group/department to students," the website says.
The U of M calls the event "an opportunity for student groups to create community." But the political messages painted by student groups in recent years have led to more division than unity.
Last year, pro-Donald Trump paintings created by the University of Minnesota College Republicans were labeled "racist" by other student groups.
A "Build the Wall" mural in particular did not go over well. Over 100 students protested, and the paintings were painted over in gold with messages like "Stop white supremacy."
This year, paintings done by political student groups led to an altercation between two students, and some were vandalized soon after they were completed.
College Republicans stuck with the "Trump train" this year.
The group painted their panels with an image of a train and the phrases "Still not tired of winning,” “Least Popular Minority on Campus,” and “Trump-Pence 2020.”
Two students fought over the College Republicans’ panel on the bridge during Thursday’s event, according to Minnesota Daily.
And someone painted over the panels sometime between Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, the paper says. They wrote “You’re Not a Minority” and “You’re the Oppressors.”
Another conservative group, the university's chapter of Turning Point USA, painted panels that said “Free Markets, Free People, Free Speech,” and “Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings."
The panels also featured a drawing of the American flag with the words “We Stand” underneath.
WCCO says vandals wrote, “Fight Fascism,” “Punch Nazis,” and “End White Supremacy” in the white lines of the flag drawing.
Under “We Stand,” they added “With Immigrants We Do!” (The station posted before and after photos here.)
Other groups' paintings were also targeted, Minnesota Daily says, including the Minnesota Republic, a conservative student publication, and the Minnesota Bipartisan Issues Group.
Responses to the vandalism
In a Facebook post on Saturday, the Minnesota Bipartisan Issues Group called the vandalism "upsetting."
"While we escaped relatively unscathed compared to some of the other student groups, it's still upsetting to us that any student group, particularly a group built off of amicable political discourse, was attacked in any way. This provided no solutions to any problems and is not the way we should be moving forward as a society," the post says.
The group is inviting other students to discuss the incident at their next meeting on Thursday night.
"In a campus that appears to be full of partisan discontent today, hopefully we can work together and express our views in a more respectful way," the group wrote.
University of Minnesota Police Department Lieutenant Troy Buhta told GoMN that reports of vandalism at the bridge are being investigated.
When this happened last year, some students called the "Build the Wall" mural hate speech, but the university deemed it protected.
University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said it all came down to free speech.
"People in our community may disagree with the sentiment expressed," Kaler wrote in a letter at the time, adding that while the university "values" free speech, the vandalism of the panel (painting over it) "is not the way to advance a conversation."