He felt passion. He felt empowered. He felt his voice was being heard.

Chad Rafdal is still processing how one of the best experiences he has ever had turned out to be the day that changed his life. He’s disgusted at how what he expected to be a peaceful protest turned deadly and destructive. And he’s reeling following the loss of his job and violent threats against him and his family.

“I woke up Tuesday morning and I just felt compelled to go,” said Rafdal, the 44-year-old man from Blooming Prairie who drove more than 2,000 miles round trip to hear his president speak in Washington, D.C., Jan. 6. “I knew that day would be history, but I didn’t expect the violence. That was terrible.”

Rafdal said he went to the U.S. Capitol because President Donald Trump called for his supporters to show up and have their voices heard. Having his own doubts about the legitimacy of election practices, Rafdal was excited for his opportunity to exercise his First Amendment rights and protest peacefully, insisting he never saw a single warning sign about what became an insurrection.

As members of the pro-Trump crowd began breaking windows and entering the building, Rafdal said he was in shock at what he was witnessing. He said he stayed outside the Capitol.

“Everything that happened before that would be forgotten,” Rafdal said. “It became nothing but an onslaught of idiots — not real patriots.”

Lessons of the past

If there is one undeniable truth about Rafdal, it is that he doesn’t hold back.

“I was a stupid, messed up kid,” Rafdal said. “I’ve got felonies, I was a drug addict, but I’m coming up on 16 years sober now. I’m a totally different guy.”

Rafdal said people often bring up his criminal record, but he doesn’t shy away from it. In fact, it was his time in prison that rooted his constitutionalist beliefs.

“I was really never into politics when I was younger, I honestly was pretty anti-government,” Rafdal said. “I have had all my freedoms taken away from me. I’ve been told when to go to bed, when to wake up, when to eat, when I can shower, when I can do this or that – and it scares the hell out of me.”

Becoming a father also changed Rafdal’s views on politics. He never wants his three children to ever feel their freedoms are being compromised.

It wasn’t until 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, however, that Rafdal felt called to become politically vocal. While he says he very much believes in the coronavirus and understands it can be dangerous for certain individuals, Rafdal said he was simply unnerved by the quarantine restrictions being put into place and the eventual mask mandate in Minnesota.

As the state’s economy shut down more than once due to the pandemic, Rafdal said he started seeing his friends “losing everything” from businesses being shut down or being on the verge of closing for good.

“When it really hit my doorstep and started impeding my life, that’s when I became fearful for my children and what their future will look like,” Rafdal said.

Starting to speak out

Though Rafdal says he’s a constitutionalist at heart, he’s also an outspoken conservative who proudly supports Trump.

“I stand with Trump, I think he has America’s best interest at heart. I think he is raw and misunderstood,” Rafdal said. “I believe he has good ideas and had done good things, but I do not believe he is the be-all-end-all, he is not our savior, and I do believe he needs to be more ‘presidential.’”

As the nation continued to grapple with the pandemic, Rafdal said he felt obligated to stand up for what he believed in as a resident of rural Minnesota, a part of the state he believes Gov. Tim Walz is ignoring. His group, Minnesotans4Freedom, was created out of those concerns.

“There wasn’t enough people standing up,” Rafdal said. “Honestly, it just felt like Gov. Walz was ignoring all of us out here”

Rafdal said he has been accused of being a part of the Proud Boys as well as other far-right extremist groups, ranging from being a member of the Three Percenters militia to being called a white supremacist – all of which Rafdal swear asserts he has no relationship or association with.

“I do not judge people on the color God made them, that is a complete waste of time,” Rafdal said. “I have never threatened anybody and I have never been aggressive. It doesn’t matter where you stand, I stand for freedom for everybody.”

When Election Day came and went, Rafdal felt called to share his belief that the election process had become corrupted throughout the years and the results could have possibly been influenced by voter fraud. Not only have election officials across the country denied Trump’s accusations of election fraud, the president has been unsuccessful in 61 of 62 lawsuits filed by his attorneys or on his behalf. In the one successful suit, a Pennsylvania judge gave voters had three days after the election to provide proper identification to “cure” their ballots.

“I feel that since there was a 2016 investigation, there is now even more sufficient evidence to give reason to look into it however we can,” Rafdal said. “I don’t know exactly what happened, but let’s at least look into it and audit it, let’s just make sure it is done right. I feel a lot is being suppressed.”

Trip to the Capitol

On Jan. 5, Rafdal made the last-minute decision to pack up his car and journey to Washington, D.C. to support Trump and be heard.

“Trump called for us, called for his supporters,” Rafdal said. “I went out there for unity. Trump asked us to be heard and he did not call for violence.”

Speaking at the Ellipse, a 52-acre park south of the White House fence and alongside the Washington Monument, Trump delivered a speech at what he called a “Save America March” and “Stop the Steal” rally.

During his speech, Trump said the “fake news media” along with the “emboldened radical left Democrats” rigged the election that declared Joe Biden the nation’s next president. He told the thousands of people that “we will never give up, we will never concede, it doesn’t happen” and that “our country has had enough, we will not take it anymore and that’s what this is all about.” Toward the end of his speech, Trump told the crowd that they are “determined to defend and preserve government of the people” and that “we fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

Rafdal said he felt nothing but empowered in his First Amendment rights during Trump’s speech and that the atmosphere he experienced was one of unity as participants rallied together in cheers, song and prayer.

“The feeling wasn’t to rush the Capitol, it was to be heard,” Rafdal said. “But what happened next – I’m just disgusted.”

Rafdal believes in the right to peacefully protest, but the moment the line is crossed and laws are broken it defeats the purpose. He condemns those who’s behavior led to five deaths, injured more than 50 and seriously damaged the nation’s Capitol.

About half an hour after he saw people going into the Capitol, Rafdal said he did a quick circle prayer with a group around him and headed home.

The aftermath

“I’m still proud of what I experienced and holding on to what I was a part of before the riot,” Rafdal said. “But by the time I got home at 3 a.m. Thursday, someone had already posted all my information including where I live online stating that I’m starting a terrorist cell in the community and that if anyone sees me to attack me.”

Rafdal said it didn’t take long for his name to be public. What he originally felt was not a threat, however, quickly altered his entire reality.

He said his employer terminated him Friday because he was in Washington, D.C., Wednesday.

Rafdal says he’s gotten threats both online and on the phone, some threatening his three children’s lives. Rafdal and his wife have seen people outside their home at night, sometimes throwing things at their house and driving off when one of them stepped outside. While they have filed reports with police, Rafdal said there isn’t much that can be done.

“I am terrified and my kids are terrified, I won’t let them be at my house anymore,” Rafdal said, sharing a text message from an unknown number that threatened to burn his house down with his children inside. “This has affected my kids, my family, my neighbors – my entire community. I’m not trying to overthrow the government here, I’m just trying to be heard.”

Hearing Walz recount the tale of his own 14-year-old son crying in fear as he was relocated at his home during the “Storm the Capitol” protest that later shifted to the governor’s residence on Jan. 6, Rafdal took a moment.

“That should never happen,” said an emotional Rafdal said. “No child should have to worry about their safety at their home. If you don’t like a politician, you take care of it through an election. No one’s kids should be scared.”

Investigations coordinated by the FBI have uncovered plans for armed demonstrations and protests to take place at each state Capitol between now and Inauguration Day Jan. 20, including a planned armed protest in St. Paul Sunday. Though Rafdal has attended rallies in the Twin Cities over the last year, he said he wants nothing to do with what will be happening this weekend after his experience in Washington, D.C.

“I would tell anyone to stay away from it – don’t go,” Rafdal said. “You see how easily you can get people to do things – I believe a lot of the people at the Capitol who broke in never had that intention at first.”

This whole experience shows me how fragile this country is right now,” he said. “If something does happen on Sunday, it could be the worst day in American history.”

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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