A Black Lives Matter event in Billings this weekend drew around 2,000 people who rallied in support of racial equality and justice for people of color victimized by law enforcement. Speakers talked about their experiences being Black in Montana.
Editor's note: YPR News is chosing not to bleep a racial slur in quotes in this story because we think it provides important context into the racism Black people experience in Montana.
James Bulluck said he’s of mixed race and grew up in Billings.
“Being in Montana, that is a predominantly white state, we act like this stuff doesn’t happen all over. We act like this stuff doesn’t happen here," Bulluck said. "But let me tell you, it does.”
He said he went to Skyview High School and said he felt he was reduced to being seen as a black kid with a white mom.
"If it wasn’t for my ability to play basketball growing up, I know a lot of people would of looked at me a lot differently. They’ve told me that. And the sad part of what’s happening now and as an adult, I can look back. As a kid, I let too much go. Let too much go. There was too much things being said behind my back, to my face, from people who I thought were my friends. I’m not letting my kids grow up like that," Bulluck said.
Lily Mae, who was raised in Montana and Wyoming, talked about abuse and neglect from her white adopted parents before the age of fifteen.
“A lot of times I did think my skin color had a lot to do with it because of the white community I lived in. Everywhere I’ve ever lived my whole entire life, I’ve always been a minority. There are many days I blame my skin color on my parents’ abuse. Maybe they didn’t want me. How could they love a child who wasn’t theirs let alone clearly didn't look like them?" Mae said.
Mae said just before she turned sixteen, she was placed with a foster father who was a police officer and that’s where she met her best friend. However she also talked about discrimination in her school and racially-based bullying.
"I was one of three Black kids in a school of 400 and everyone thought I was a foreign exchange student. Kids frequently used the phrase 'nigga' in front of me and make sure that it was directed elsewhere so they would not get in trouble. Or they would joke that they would give me a white eye instead of a black eye. I was frequently called the n-word. I was laughed at and talked about, and the teachers assumed I knew the answers to all the African-American history questions," Mae said.
She also shared her experience with local law enforcement and said she’s never been treated poorly by Billings police officers.
Aaron Thompson, a seventh-generation Montanan, said he was raised by his mother and grandmother.
“I lovingly refer to myself as one of those uppity Negros because I grew up in a white middle class family with two strong women who weren’t able to teach me any different that I have the same rights, the same opportunity to live a decent life in this country and nobody should be able to take that way from me," Thompson said.
Ken Palmer said he’s originally from Chicago, Ill., where he said he’s been questioned for being in a certain neighborhood and been kicked out of an establishment because of what he looks like.
“Coming out here I’ve experienced my fair share of the n-word yelled at me, but I will say that what I’m seeing today is by far the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in the four years I’ve been living here. I thank you all for coming. I really appreciate that," Palmer said.
The rally in Billings was one of a handful across Montana held in the days following the death of George Floyd in police custody. Despite attracting different opinions and groups, the events have remained nonviolent.