An estimated 1,000 people gathered outside the Montana State Capitol June 14 to protest the death of George Floyd in police custody and police treatment of people of color. The protest was mostly nonviolent, though a riot control team stepped in at one point to separate attendees and counter-protestors.
Protest organizer Teddy Jumpp is asking police departments to tamp down on dangerous use of force on suspects. He also wants them to reconsider their budgets, and for city councils to redirect money toward community projects, like women’s shelters.
Jumpp said that message was loud and clear Sunday and that police officers mostly hung to the sidelines and kept an eye on the protest.
“I think the police presence was appropriate at almost all times. I was really impressed," Jumpp said in an interview after the event.
The demonstration featured multiple speakers. Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, Montana’s first black mayor, commended attendees for accomplishing the protest without violence. Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network, urged the crowd to educate themselves on racism in Montana, and have difficult conversations with family members.
It was only near the event’s conclusion that counter-protestors parked across from the capitol. Jumpp says the two groups chanted back and forth, until the counter-protestors pulled out guns.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton says that’s when things “got rough.”
A joint civil disobedience team of police officers and deputies wearing body armor and helmets, and carrying batons, lined up between attendees and counter-protestors until tensions subsided. Jumpp says such equipment made the wrong statement.
“It scared people. It scared people a lot. I could see the fear in people’s faces as the men in riot gear came over towards them. It was to protect them, but it still said they were ready for either side to go sour, even though it was one side attempting to be violent," Jumpp said.
Dutton says the riot team was initially hidden from view to avoid agitating protestors and that it was only deployed to maintain the peace amid potential violence. He says he couldn’t have deployed the team with any less equipment than they had.
“I really can’t. I understand the concern, but it’s like asking my deputies to quit wearing a life-saving ballistic vest, I can’t do that either,” Dutton said.
Dutton outlined numerous measures he says his office has taken to reduce inequities in policing. He also says he’s open to further conversation.
“No one that I know of embraces what happened in Minneapolis, Minn. No one. You’re living in a dream world if you don’t say ‘Yes, let’s look at this and what can we do better?’” Dutton said.
Helena Police Chief Steve Hagen is on vacation and other officers weren’t authorized to talk about Sunday’s protest.
Both Jumpp and Dutton noted two specific conflicts at the event. One man who was yelling at protestors was eventually charged with impersonating a police officer, and a misdemeanor assault was referred to the city attorney’s office after a woman got into a confrontation with protestors.