Over the weekend, the Butte community rallied in response to an incident in early June where a resident’s home was vandalized with racial slurs targeting Native Americans.
On Saturday, Miki Chessmore stepped up to a podium in a gazebo, and smiled at the 70 or so people spread across the grass at a park in Uptown Butte. Many were holding homemade signs and wearing shirts that said things like "hate is not a family value".
"Hi," Chessmore said. "I hate to meet you all this way but I’m so glad to see you."
Chessmore is 65, lives on the Flats in Butte, and rents part of her home. She’s not Native American, but her current tenant is a member of the Sioux tribe. One morning two weeks ago, she woke up to find racial slurs scrawled across the side of her house. It had been spray painted in the middle of the night.
"All of this started after I started renting to him," said Chessmore. "And most of the graffiti that was written on my house was directed to Natives. And it was filth."
Local law enforcement described the vandalism as a hate crime. Chessmore says since it happened, she’s been on high alert, and lies awake at night, listening to every little sound. She wonders if they’re coming back, and what could be next.
"There’s prejudice all over this state and it’s gotta be stopped," Chessmore said. "I used to say not in Montana. Well, then I said not in Butte. Well, yeah it’s in Butte. It’s right on my doorstep."
Her tenant wasn’t at the rally, and according to the Montana Standard, doesn’t want to be identified for fear of retaliation.
To show support for Chessmore, her tenant, and the indigenous community, first, a local company repainted her house for free. Then, several local anti-discrimination groups leapt into action and organized this CommUnity Rally Against Hate.
The event featured seven speakers, including Cheryl Eagle, with the non-profit Indian People’s Action. She’s an enrolled Blackfeet member who’s lived here off and on for almost twenty years. She said that while she loves Butte and how friendly people are, it’s a hard place to be brown. She recounted how she was discriminated against at a job site because she smelled like sage. She had smudged before coming to work.
"There are seven reservations in Montana, and sometimes we are treated like we are strangers to this land. It blows my mind," Eagle said.
Travis McAdam with the Montana Human Rights Network spoke too. His organization has helped communities respond to hate crimes for 30 years.
"Hate crimes are a little bit different than other crimes," McAdam said. "Hate crimes not only target the victim, but they’re meant to send a message to a broader constituency in the community. So in this case, the anti-Indian racist graffiti, it sends a message to our Indian community, and the people of color in the community: you’re not wanted here."
McAdam says that’s why publicly denouncing hate crimes is so important. It helps the victims feel safer, and raises the level of awareness.
"If we don’t do something like this, the person targeted and that community that’s targeted can make the assumption that the broader community, that we don’t care," said McAdam. "And you wanna know what? We care!"
At the end of the rally, Miki Chessmore said she was overwhelmed by the turnout.
"It means the world to know that there are people who care," said Chessmore. "And that’s the only way we’re going to put a stop to it. Is the fact that you all came out. You’re all helping, and I thank you."
But activists warned that just showing up to a rally isn’t enough. They urged locals to pressure institutions like government and police to do a better job at keeping people safe, and get involved with anti-racism organizations.
Afterwards, I spoke with Kim Perkins, who had brought her kids and several friends. She said she appreciated Chessmore’s willingness to speak up and out. She’s Chippewa Cree, a member of the Pembina Band of the Little Shell, and half Irish.
"That doesn’t show. But I’ve been treated a certain way because of the color of my skin," said Perkins.
"And this woman being tortured just because she was helping a Native American? She said a lot of stuff, it’s not just about this. It’s about hate. This is about hate, and this is about fear. And the only thing that’s going to fix that is love. That’s why we’re here."
According to Butte-Silver Bow’s sheriff, there are no suspects at this time, but police are doing extra patrols of Miki Chessmore’s neighborhood, and the investigation is ongoing.
The rally raised more than $400 so she could install a better security system at her house, and there’s also a GoFundMe page set up to help her address her safety concerns.