A rally in Missoula Sunday drew hundreds to decry the presence of armed vigilantes at racial justice demonstrations. The gathering was spurred after one person was allegedly harassed and attacked by a group of armed individuals during a protest held at the county courthouse over a week ago.
The Caras Park pavilion overflowed on Sunday, and an afternoon shower trickled to a stop as speakers took the stage in front of a rapt crowd of roughly 450 people.
“You need to care,” speaker London Marq said. “You need to care!”
For weeks, demonstrators have gathered impromptu at the Missoula County Courthouse to protest racial injustice and the killing of George Floyd. In contrast, Sunday’s Black Lives Matter event was highly organized and focused on black speakers sharing their stories.
The event was a response to the ongoing presence of people wielding guns at rallies in Missoula. A group of those individuals allegedly followed, harassed and piled atop a black teenage protestor at a demonstration on Friday, June 5. Local police are investigating what happened.
Rally speaker and Missoula hotelier Shaley Hall said she was at the courthouse when the young man, a friend of hers, was attacked. The group of armed individuals who tackled the protestor on the courthouse lawn claim he appeared suspicious.
“But what really happened was that they stalked him for a majority of that protest, they cornered him, they chased him into the courthouse where he thought he could find solidarity, but instead was turned in pretty much, to, like, a criminal,” Hall said. “And instead of the police stepping in and doing their job, they went into the mic and let a crowd of people cheer. While the rest of us — of color — stood in fear, running home, crying to let everybody else know.”
For the most part, the armed individuals portray themselves as protectors of property or defenders of public safety, rather than members of any single group or even counter-protests. Discredited rumors of an Antifa presence at Black Lives Matter events across Montana proliferated on social media, and spurred widespread interest from militia groups.
The conflict at the courthouse wasn’t isolated, Hall said, and it heightened the already stewing tension between protestors and what rally leaders called “armed vigilantes.”
“Myself included, we’ve been followed, we’ve been targeted, we’ve been agitated, we’ve been intimidated,” Hall said. “And we’re community members, so to feel like our lives weren’t mattering every single day just wasn't — wasn’t okay for us.”
Vigilante groups are less accountable than the police and have a long history of racist violence, according to Montana Racial Equity Project’s Meshayla Cox. Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Georgia earlier this year, and Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in 2012, both by armed men.
“Trayvon Martin’s death sparked a movement, and the young black man who was attacked in Missoula in front of the courthouse by armed militiamen sparked this one," Cox said.
The event’s organization was designed to protect speakers and attendees. Its location was released only hours before it took place and organizers rented out a private pavilion in the park so any armed groups that did show up could be asked to leave.
“We call on the City of Missoula, the chief of police and all local governments and law enforcement to join us in rejecting and condemning vigilantism,” Cox said.
Speakers called for a ban on chokeholds, a prohibition on no-knock warrants and de-escalation and anti-racism training for the police department, among other measures. They also called on attendees to contact local officials. After the rally, Mayor John Engen issued a response in support of Black Lives Matter.
“This is my answer to those emails and calls,” he wrote. “We’ll listen, learn and change. It won’t be enough for some and too much for others. It will be too slow or too fast. But we’ll make progress.”
After the event, Cox explained that even if they stand idly on the sidelines, just the presence of big, burly white men wielding AR-15s and pistols silences rally protestors.
“I had multiple people come up to me today and say, ‘I didn’t go to any of the protests because I felt unsafe, and this was the first time I felt like I could feel safe coming to support my own life,’” she said.
Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, said the tension between armed paramilitary intervenors and protestors spreads beyond Missoula.
“What we’ve seen over particularly the last few months is a really growing anti-government, far-right militia movement in the state,” she said.
That growth began with demonstrations against the restrictions associated with COVID-19, she said, and expanded to include a presence at racial justice protests across the state. She also says the Network has received incident reports on paramilitary group behavior in virtually every city where Black Lives Matter protests have occurred in Montana.
At the rally in Missoula, Missoula Police Department patrol captain Richard Stepper monitored the event with several other officers. He said he was in full support of the message that afternoon, and that the police department has an obligation to ensure that protestors feel safe and free of intimidation.
“I think it’s important so that they can truly get their message out and not be interrupted, and not be intimidated and not feel like they’re in danger," he said. "I think it’s important for us, as an agency, to take care of ‘em.”
Stepper wasn’t on-site when the conflict between the protestor and armed individuals occurred over a week ago at the courthouse, but he’s been following the events closely and checking in on developments.
“Law enforcement absolutely does not agree with a group of individuals chasing a young man into the lawn and tackling him and acting as their own private law enforcement,” he said. “We absolutely disagree with that.”
Those events are still under investigation by the Missoula Police Department. Depending on what investigators conclude, it will be referred to the city or county attorney's office.