In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter protests have surged across the country. Montana has been no exception, with residents planning rallies and marches in several towns and cities over the last few weeks.
But the protests against police brutality and racism, in a state that is roughly 90% white and 1% Black, have taken on distinctive characteristics. While local police departments have largely sought to accommodate protests, many organizers have been disturbed and angered by the continued presence of armed, white civilians, often from militia groups across the state. Those attendees usually say they intend to protect businesses, police and members of the public, despite the absence of credible threats originating from the Black Lives Matter events.
Uphill Part 1: “Does anyone know who’s watching us right now?”
Some organizers, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, are also navigating threats and bigotry from counter-protesters and those who oppose the public rallies. Activists have sought to come up with their own methods for monitoring and mitigating antagonists at protests, in addition to planning events attended by hundreds and thousands of people.
Amid instances of animosity and tension, and the broader environment of racial strife in America, organizers are seeking to protect their own mental and emotional health as they work to establish a sustainable movement for racial justice in Montana. Community groups in various towns are pushing local governments to invest in social programs rather than policing; organizers are calling on businesses to implement anti-racist policies and practices. Some are even collecting bail funds for people in county jails and detention centers.
Uphill Part 2: “This is like dust in the air. We all breathe it.”
All told, the energy of Black Lives Matter actions and racial justice initiatives in Montana is growing. This movement is the focus of Uphill, a two-part audio series from Montana Free Press. Listen by clicking the audio players embedded in this piece, or in your Montana Lowdown podcast feed.
Note for episode one: Helena Chief of Police Steven Hagen told MTFP the deployment of police officers with batons and face shields at the Helena rally was an attempt to keep protesters and counterprotesters separated while also securing the safety of officers. Regarding the armed attendees who said they were there to protect police officers and protesters, Hagen said his department did not “need the help,” citing sufficient staffing and unfamiliarity with those groups and individuals.