Over the past week thousands of people across Montana turned out for locally-organized rallies in support of black Americans and against police brutality. The rallies drew disparate crowds, and while talk got heated at times, the events remained non-violent.
Around 2,000 people rallied at the courthouse lawn in downtown Billings, where organizers said they’d gathered to honor George Floyd and other people who lost their lives due to police brutality and corruption and public injustice.
People in cities across Montana took to the streets to demand change in the days following the death of Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.
In Billings, organizer of Justice for George Floyd & Black, Indigenous and People of Color In Our Community/World, Amber Palmer said she’s asking that more funding and training be directed to the Billings police department.
“We want to bring awareness to racism and our community and we want to help fight it and make this community a better place for our children and a safer place for all our BIPOC family members," Palmer said.
Rally organizers extended a demand for justice not only to George Floyd and other black men, women and children, and also indigenous people and all people of color.
Among the protestors were members of indigenous groups, including Northern Cheyenne tribal member Selene Whiteman with the wellbriety movement.
"It’s a healing for Native Americans. We’re here to heal the historical trauma and to stand together in sobriety and to live well," Whiteman said.
People who gave speeches later in the event stood up to talk about their experiences as people of color living in Billings and in Montana, fear for their families and a need for change.
Jerry Clark, with Not In Our Town Billings, also started his speech by thanking members of the Native American community for joining in the rally.
“We recognize that this is your land. We recognize the injustices you have faced, and we pledge to be with you always," Clark said.
In addition to chanting and marching, organizers asked the crowd to lie on the ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd.
While some lay in silence, others chanted words that Floyd said in the minutes before his death while a police officer held him down: "I can't breathe."
Event organizer Amber Palmer said she and the other organizers worked with police to maintain peace before and during the rally.
"And they are actually open to training and learning more from us. That was something they actually talked about in our meeting with them, that they would love to get together with us so that they can learn more about racial tolerance how to handle situations," Palmer said.
Police and organizers were also in contact with protesters who carried guns at the rally. Yellowstone Militia of Billings commander Tim Westervelt said he and other members of his group were at the rally to help.
“We are here to support the people, support this movement, protect the constitutional rights, make sure it remains peaceful, protect the businesses," Westervelt said.
Near the end of the event, combined rain and hail signalled a natural conclusion for many people, though some remained.
Montana is a mostly white state, with Black people making up less than one percent of the population and Native Americans making up around seven percent, according to census data. But Tobin Shearer, director of the African American Studies program at the University of Montana, says black people have a long history in Montana.
"Not only that sort of sense of vibrant civic engagement on behalf of our fellow African American citizens but we also have to understand that Montana has a history of overt and direct racism toward the African American community," Shearer said.
Shearer says in 1921 there were 5,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan active in Montana and there have been documented lynchings in the state.
Some Black and Indigenous people in Missoula and Bozeman have said on Facebook and in conversations with YPR they didn’t feel safe participating in the past week’s daily Black Lives Matter rallies due to fear of targeted violence. Some organizers and participants choose not to give their names to reporters for the same reason.
Shearer calls the protests happening across the country urban rebellions because he says the word "riot" discredits the Black Lives Matter movement.
"What we see now in the Black Lives Matter protests is a focused political action by a group of people who are intent on changing unjust practices, unjust laws, unjust funding patterns in our country that are negatively affecting the African-American community and are in fact examples of institutional racism," Shearer said.
In Missoula, where a crowd has gathered daily for over a week calling for racial equality, a major protest planned for Friday was cancelled over safety concerns, and because event planners hadn’t taken enough input from non-white organizers. But that ongoing daily rally swelled to more than 250 attendees.
Demonstrators were chanting, cheering, and all around breaking it down as passersby honked their support outside the county courthouse last Friday.
That’s despite rumors of violence that split up the larger event planned for the very same evening. At the same time, though, a group of about a half dozen men wielding rifles rather than signs stood just down the street from the demonstrators.
Desmond Davis, one of those demonstrators, has been at the rally every day for the last week.
"I see the guns, I see the vests, everybody’s got their gear. It’s cool, you feel me? It’s all just a little ploy. It’s all just a front to look big and scary," Davis said.
Rally-goers, including Davis, said they want broad, systemic change - and also specific policy measures, including mandatory police training in de-escalation and a ban on using chokeholds, similar to a measure instituted in Minneapolis last week.
Nadia Adams, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, was sporting a sign that says “Skin Color is Not Reasonable Suspicion.
"I’m excited to tell my children and my grandchildren that I fought for this. That this is my land and I fought for the people around me. Even if it’s just a sign, it’s still impactful," Adams said.
Despite the initial fears of violence, the event remained peaceful, and daily rallies have continued through the weekend.
Rallies and protests have drawn crowds in Great Falls, Kalispell, Butte, Havre, Helena, Whitefish and elsewhere in Big Sky Country. But Bozeman’s Friday event eclipsed previous calls-to-action there, where more than 3,000 peaceful protestors gathered. Organizers asked Main Street businesses to sign and display ‘Freedom Pledges.’
During the march from Bogert Park to downtown Bozeman, volunteers in blue shirts offered water and granola bars to people carrying signs, reading ‘Say Their Names’ and ‘Remember George Floyd.’
Other volunteers in orange vests led chants. They kept demonstrators on sidewalks and out of the street and told them to ignore a man flipping them off.
The Day of Action for Black Lives was hosted by Bozeman for United Racial Justice in partnership with the Montana Racial Equity Project and Montana State University’s Black Student Union.
An organizer who asked not to be named due to recent threats said one of the main actions Friday was to present businesses with Freedom Pledges.
"Businesses in Bozeman are pillars in our community and if they commit to being leaders in this fight for racial justice, then others will follow, and in addition to that, they have tremendous power in creating spaces that are safe, free and welcoming for black, indigenous and people of color," they said.
The pledge asks businesses to accept feedback from black, indigenous and people of color, include staff trainings on issues like implicit bias and conflict mediation, and support ongoing work for racial justice.
“We recognize that policies need to be better, but we also recognize that where a lot of the real leadership and change needs to come from is from people in our community and especially leadership in our community to not only transform a few policies here and there but transform the entire culture of Bozeman,” the organizer said.
Five on Black, a fast casual restaurant chain in Montana, was one of the Bozeman businesses that signed the Freedom Pledge.
Veronica Petrillo, a shift lead at the restaurant, said the organizers reached out ahead of the march to let her boss and other business owners know what was going on.
“He told us with a resounding yes, like please sign this. Make sure they come into the store. If they skip you guys, go find them. We just really want to be part of this,” Petrillo said.
She said signing the Freedom Pledge wouldn’t necessarily change operations at the restaurant, adding that it is already a safe, welcoming place. She said for Five on Black, signing the pledge was more about showing support and solidarity for the movement.
Organizers with the Day of Action said they would release the list of businesses that signed the Freedom Pledge early this week.
During the rally at Bogert Park, Shane Doyle, a member of the Apsáalooke Nation or Crow Tribe, acknowledged the tribal nations that called this valley their homeland. After singing an honor song, he said he was thankful for the breath to sing, to laugh with friends and whisper to loved ones.
He said everyone has the right to their breath.
“That's why we're here because we want to stand up for all our black brothers and sisters who have lost their breath, wrongfully, and we’re not asking for change, we’re demanding change," Doyle said.
He said change will not be easy or quick, but it starts today.
“We take a big step in four months when we use one of our most basic rights. We vote. We vote," he said.
Julian Collins, advisor to the Black Student Union, read a speech written by Meshayla Cox with the Montana Racial Equity Project.
Cox wrote people need to understand the connection between everyday acts of racism and George Floyd’s death.
“I want to see outrage at racist comments from your family members. I want to see the outrage at elected officials who don’t advocate for racially equitable policies. I want to see the outrage when a black person has their hair or body grabbed without their permission. I want to see this outrage when your child’s history books don’t represent the full black experience,” Collins read from Cox’s statement.
Vasu Sojitra, a professional adaptive athlete, said the voices of disabled people, especially those who are black, indigenous or people of color are often left out of social movements.
“I want to see the movements that center access at the forefront. That means prioritizing access above all because when our disabled, our elders, our ill, our sick and our most marginalized are taken care of, our communities are most resilient," Sojitra said.
An organizer said Sojitra made sure an American Sign Language translator would be at the event. Space in front of the stage was reserved for differently abled attendees.
Cora Neumann, a public health expert who ran for U.S. Senate earlier this year, spoke about her experience realizing the color of her skin gave her privilege. She said white people need to step up.
“We need to hire black, indigenous and people of color. We need to invest in black and indigenous companies. We need to make sure our organizations and companies have diverse leadership at the top, and if that means you need to step aside, step aside!” Neumann said.
Before dispersing the crowd, Jessica Brito with the Black Student Union said showing up to a rally is not enough.
“After this, what are you doing? How are you supporting this movement? Are you donating? Are you telling your friends and family about it? Are you talking about it? Building a sign, coming for a few hours didn’t save George Floyd, and it’s not going to save anyone else," Brito said.
The Bozeman City Commission released a statement Friday afternoon before the Day of Action, saying “there is no place for bigotry or racism in Bozeman or Montana or anywhere.” It said the city would review its training for police and employees, policies on the use of force and de-escalation, hiring practices and accountability.
Police departments across the state have expressed support for peaceful protests and First Amendment rights.
A coalition of law enforcement agencies in Gallatin County say George Floyd’s treatment in the hands of police is not reflective of the values or service provided by agencies in the county or Montana.
In a letter last week, the agencies say they practice “stringent hiring practices with thorough background checks and psychological testing” as well as “rigorous training in all areas including anti-bias, anti-racial profiling, de-escalation, crisis intervention, and the recognition of implicit bias.”
This post was updated to correct the spelling of Tobin Shearer. We regret the error.