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Part 1: “Does anyone know who’s watching us right now?”

INTRODUCTION

Mara Silvers: A few weekends ago, I got into my car to go to a grocery store, not very far away from my house in Helena. 

Mara Silvers: I think I need to go behind Safeway this way. 

But when I got there, I didn’t go inside. 

Mara Silvers: I never had to go to the parking lot behind Safeway before. So, good reason why I’m lost.

Mara Silvers: I walked around the building to a nearby parking lot — a small group of people was already standing there. Bundled up in the chilly wind, wearing masks. 

Mara Silvers: Hello. 

De-escalator: How are you. 

Mara Silvers: Hi, I’m good. Are you guys here for the protest? Hi. 

De-escalator 2: Hi.

Mara Silvers: My name’s Mara.

De-escalator 2: Hi, Mara. 

Mara Silvers: Nice to meet all of you. 

De-escalator 1: Nice to meet you.

Mara Silvers: After a while, about twenty people showed up. They passed out the day’s agenda and started putting on neon green T-shirts, over their jackets and sweaters. 

De-escalator 3: I have some information sheets for folks. 

Mara Silvers: The mood of the group was pretty serious. They were getting ready for a protest at the state Capitol, in honor of George Floyd and many other Black people killed by police. But the team here, in this parking lot — they weren’t showing up to hold signs or march. Instead, they were all focused on this elaborate plan. Because hanging over this whole event was a feeling of fear.

Steven-Bear Twoteeth: Our goal today is to not bother Teddy or any of the other organizers. Our goal is for them to feel safe. If I can go throughout this whole day without having to tell Teddy about any threats, then we have done a great job.

Mara Silvers: That voice you hear is Steven-Bear Twoteeth, one of the people leading this group of “de-escalators.” When they get to the protest, their job is to protect people — especially Black people — from any threats. Run-ins with counter-protesters, armed militias, police. And, we should be clear, none of those are hypothetical.

De-escalator 4: Does anybody know who’s watching us right now? 

Steven-Bear Twoteeth: No. 

Mara Silvers: It’s hard to hear, but a woman asked, does anyone know who’s watching us right now? 

Steven-Bear Twoteeth: But, Shawn, go take a picture of his license plate, please.

Mara Silvers: Everyone turned to look at a white car idling about 20 feet away. The driver’s side window was cracked and a white man, wearing sunglasses, was looking out at the crowd.

Eventually, he drove away. The organizer who went over there said the driver acted like nothing was wrong — like he was just curious. But he had also apparently kept his hands hidden and the organizer wondered if he might have a gun. Personally, I found it spooky. But then again, as Steven-Bear said, that’s why they were all there.

Steven-Bear Twoteeth: And take care of yourselves today. Every single one of you are doing the best work and we have some scary things that are happening. I’ve watched people drive around flags today. I’ve heard a lot of people coming to the rally here to come and counter-protest. But just remember, stay calm and don’t psych yourself out. We got this.

De-escalator 3: The other thing too is if you notice something … 

Mara Silvers: Ever since George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, the country has erupted in protests. Montana is no exception. That means organizers of color here are being more visible, and louder, despite the repercussions.

I couldn’t talk to every person behind these protests. Not even most of them. But what I heard from the people I did talk to made me realize something fundamental. It takes a lot of work and strategy to publicly advocate for Black lives in Montana — where about 90% of the population is white, and less than 1% is Black. 

From Montana Free Press, this is Uphill: a two part story about Black Lives Matter organizing in Montana. In part one: what does it take to plan a protest? 

I’m Mara Silvers. Thanks for listening. 

MAIN STORY

Mara Silvers: Over the last few weeks, just about every big town in Montana has had a Black Lives Matter protest. 

News anchor 1: Here in Missoula, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain momentum and draw attention to systemic racism against people of color.

News anchor 2: In downtown Billings today, a highly anticipated Black Lives Matter protest took place in support of George Floyd. 

News anchor 3: More than 500 Flathead Valley residents attended a peaceful protest honoring Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd. 

News anchor 4: People rallied across Montana as well, including in Great Falls. Although only scheduled to last about 30 minutes, the protest continued into Sunday evening.

Protetester 1: We are over this. We are tired of people putting their boots on our necks. We are tired of being scared.

Protesters: Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!

Mara Silvers: It’s worth saying here that every action is different. And the strategies of organizers change from place to place. Still, there are patterns.

Unlike other marches around the country, police in Montana have usually been staying out of the way, sometimes because protesters asked them to. There’s also no curfew in place, and there haven’t been a lot of big disruptions, like blocking traffic or occupying buildings. So, without much police interaction, not many people are getting arrested, or hit with batons, or pepper sprayed.

Here’s another factor, although maybe it’s not surprising. There are a lot of white people at these events. On the one hand, organizers of color say this is remarkable and moving — that so many of their white neighbors are literally showing up for them. At the same time, that many white people can hog the spotlight. And the media attention.

Protester 2:  I am horrified by police brutality against people of color and, um, and the privilege that I, um, enjoy with — for no reason at all…

Mara Silvers: In Montana, there’s another pattern that’s basically impossible to ignore. It’s the presence of counter-protesters, people with guns, and full-blown militias.

News anchor 2: Thanks very much. A number of armed citizens were also on hand for today’s protest. While protesters marched through the streets, citizens with firearms took up positions at various spots downtown, many of them observing protesters while also serving as a deterrent for anyone who may have chosen to cause problems for local businesses… 

Mara Silvers:  They’re not all there for the same reason. Some are clearly trying to intimidate protesters — at the event I went to, in Helena, people drove by with Confederate flags and “Make America Great Again” banners, sometimes videotaping the march from their trucks.  

Others — sometimes carrying rifles and ammo — say they’re there to protect everyone from violence and looting.

Counter-protester 1: I’m all about liberties. And this is just a really good show of liberty. As long as it’s peaceful, that’s the best possible outcome. 

Mara Silvers: To protesters, the justification for bringing weapons can sound like a thin cover for racist steretopying. Because no matter how peaceful the Black Lives Matter rallies are, armed groups are still there — the Flathead Patriot Guard, the Yellowstone Militia of Billings, and the III%, to name a few. They upped their presence in early June, after rumors started spreading on social media about antifa protesters getting bussed in from out of state. Now, police say those accounts were unfounded. But armed, white civilians keep showing up.

In Missoula, some of them chased and tackled a Black teenager earlier this month when he was trying to attend a protest — police say they’re investigating that. At a recent City Council meeting, elected officials and members of the public talked about how frustrated they were.

City Council Member: “While I fully recognize that open carry is completely legal in our state, I also know that because of the gaping loophole in our background check laws, that we as members of the public, have no assurance whatsoever that those who are openly carrying those weapons passed a background check to get them…”

Mara Silvers: Many organizers say they don’t want anything to do with weapons at their events.

Judith Heilman: We don’t want the guns there. We know what we’re doing. We don’t need any protection. 

Mara Silvers: This is Judith Heilman, the director of the Montana Racial Equity Project, based in Bozeman. We’re going to hear from her more in Part 2 — but I wanted to include her response to the militias here, because it’s so candid. 

Judith Heilman: That’s your own agenda. Leave that agenda out of it. That’s not our agenda. Our agenda is just wanting to be, have racial equity and justice across the board in Bozeman, in Montana and in the United States. So leave the guns at home. Don’t say you’re there to protect us. That’s bullshit. Leave the guns at home. I’m sorry, I’m swearing, but that’s a fact.

Mara Silvers: Some attendees are clear that they’re only there to protect police officers. On the day of the most recent Helena protest, an armed woman who told me her name was J.J. Justice. She was standing across the street from the state Capitol, where the Black Lives Matter rally was taking place. And when I walked over to her, she was talking to a Helena police officer.

J.J. Justice: Thank you, officer for your bravery. And I appreciate you appreciating us being here. We got your six, man. 

Police officer: Appreciate it. 

J.J. Justice: Yeah. I’m not going to stand for cops being ambushed and murdered in this country. It ain’t right. 

Mara Silvers: When I asked her about the Black Lives Matter protesters, she wasn’t so concerned.

J.J. Justice: Ah, I would describe that as indoctrinated, indoctrinated idiots. That’s what I think. I think they’re indoctrinated with propaganda. That’s what I believe.

Mara Silvers: For protesters, this kind of sentiment from the people proudly carrying weapons — it’s not all that surprising. But it’s also not the only thing they’re worried about. Sometimes, organizers feel like the threats are coming from all directions at once. 

Remember the guy from the parking lot? The one who started watching de-escalators before the protest even started? He ended up coming back. I watched him walk through the crowds at the Capitol, always flanked by a few organizers in their bright green shirts. Eventually, he started swearing at people and trying to interfere when protesters laid down in the street — which, I should say, police had already blocked off. 

Counter-protester 2: Get out of the street!

Protesters: Peaceful! Peaceful! Peaceful!

Mara Silvers: The de-escalators put themselves between him and protesters, trying to defuse the conflict. Soon after that, he was arrested and charged with a felony for lying about being a police officer. 

The threats and anger directed at protesters don’t always happen in person. A lot of it takes place online, through Facebook messages and comments. That’s what happened to Teddy Jumpp, the lead organizer for the action on Sunday. We spoke during the protest when both of us were wearing masks — that’s why the sound is kind of muffled. He told me he felt a responsibility to organize this protest, as one of the few Black people in town. Even though he knew there would be pushback. Like the time he suggested white people should decline media interviews in an effort to center people of color. 

Teddy Jumpp: A lot of what I ran into was people accusing me of silencing white people for encouraging POC to say things and express themselves and get on record on the media. So I was told a lot that I was silencing white people and that I was racist and I was even accused of segregation.

Mara Silvers: I saw that.

Teddy Jumpp: Which was an incredibly interesting word to use.

Mara Silvers: That pushback was from the people who apparently wanted to come to the protest. Teddy said the reaction was worse when he posted about the event in other Facebook groups.

Teddy Jumpp: People were going crazy on me for how Montana didn’t need this and how it was terrible. That we were somehow practicing hatred by protesting. And eventually an admin decided that she wasn’t going to let people comment these awful racist things toward me and deleted all the awful comments and then locked the whole post down.

Mara Silvers: I didn’t see those comments before they got taken down. But I did see some of the screenshots — one man said he was “locked and loaded.” One woman said she hoped that “entitled thug thieves” stayed the hell out of Helena. Despite all of that, Teddy said, he never thought about canceling.

Teddy Jumpp: I always thought, you know, I don’t know how it’s going to go. Could it turn violent? But I never once thought I should call this off.

Mara Silvers: Why not? 

Teddy Jumpp: Because it needs to happen. It — change needs to happen in the world and needs to happen soon. And if things don’t change, then we’re going to go right back to how things were and they weren’t healthy or happy for anyone.

Mara Silvers: The full scope of the protest still feels hard to summarize. Hundreds of people ended up coming — of all races and ages and professions. Also in attendance was Helena’s mayor, Wilmot Collins. The first Black mayor in the state’s history.

Wilmot Collins: If you’re from Montana and my neighbor, thanks for being here. You from Helena and my neighbor, thanks for being here. Because this is not my fight. This is our fight. 

Mara Silvers: But at the same time, despite all of the precautions, everything did not go as planned. There was another rally being held in town on the same day — a Patriot Parade celebrating Donald Trump’s birthday and Flag Day. Later on, in the afternoon, a string of trucks from that rally eventually circled the block. 

Protesters: Vote him out! Vote him out! Vote him out! Vote him out!

Mara Silvers: The crowd of counter-protesters across the street also got bigger. Eventually, the two groups faced off and started shouting at each other. 

Counter-protester 2: No one will care!

Protester 2: Yes we will!

The chanting got louder and the Helena police department changed its tactics. Ten officers arrived with batons and face shields and stood in the middle of the street, between crowds. To the Black Lives Matter organizers, this was an escalation — a situation where they could imagine people quickly getting pepper sprayed or hit. The people in green shirts lined up to face the officers, putting their bodies in front of Black protesters. Pretty soon after that, everyone from the rally dispersed. 

Police officer: We’re trying to keep everyone separate. 

Protester 3: We’re peaceful.

Protester 4: What are you doing?

Mara Silvers: Organizers I talked to later had mixed feelings about how the day went. There was huge pride about the turnout and the solidarity of the crowd. But there was also frustration about the counter-protesters and anger about the police bringing out heavy equipment. One organizer told me that the worst part of the day was hearing so many young people afraid to walk back to their cars as the crowd of counter-protesters kept growing.

Here’s one more takeaway. By the time everyone went home, the only people taken into police custody ended up being counter-protesters — the man I mentioned earlier, and a white woman who crossed the street and got into a fight with a Black woman as she was leaving the rally. 

When it comes down to how the day went, there’s also the perspective of people who just wanted to show up to protest. People who didn’t plan anything, and probably didn’t know about all the threats that were being monitored moment to moment. Earlier in the day, I talked to one man named Charly Ayidomihou. He and his family have lived in Helena for a decade — his daughters are 10 and 12. 

When I asked him what it was like being there, he said it felt important. Like more people were signing up to change the course of history. 

Charly Ayidomihou: I don’t want my kids to grow up and read the story that they were hated at some point, or their parents were hated, by white people. What I want them to learn is we are all one and we love and care about each other. So we have to do, whether we are Black or white, we have to do the right thing now for the future generation. It’s not a white fight against Black fight. No, this is not taking anything away from white people. Let’s just get together and support each other and bring peace and harmony on earth.

Mara Silvers: Peace and harmony might feel like a long shot right now. But in the meantime, the organizers from this rally are already preparing for the next one.

CREDITS

Mara Silvers: This episode was reported and produced by me, Mara Silvers. It was edited by Brad Tyer. Special thanks to John Adams. The news clips you heard at the beginning are from MTN News, KPAX, KULR, and KRTV Great Falls. The music is by Blue Dot Sessions. 

Thanks to all of the organizers who spoke to us for this story. In Part 2 of Uphill: 

Benjamin Finegan: I think that organizing is something that every human being knows how to do on some deep level. It’s also the best work. It’s the — it’s the most fulfilling, exciting, beautiful work I think that there is.

Mara Silvers: More stories from Montana’s movement for Black lives. We hope you listen.

Part 2: “This is like dust in the air. We all breathe it.”

INTRODUCTION

Google Maps: Your destination is on the right.

Mara Silvers: Earlier this month, I turned onto a quiet, residential street in Bozeman, lined with green, leafy trees. Pretty close to Montana State University. 

Mara Silvers: Hi. 

Nnamdi: Hello, hi. 

Mara Silvers: Hi, how are you? 

Nnamdi: I’m good, I’m sorry I was just… 

Mara Silvers: I was at this house to meet Nnamdi. He’s been a grad student at MSU, studying English, since 2018. 

Nnamdi: Do you want to come inside? 

Mara Silvers: Sure, yeah. Whatever works. 

Mara Silvers: When I met up with him, Nnamdi had just gotten back into town — he’s a filmmaker and was scoping out a location for his next movie. That’s one reason why he said he was feeling tired — but it’s not the only one. 

Mara Silvers: So tell me a little bit about your work over the last couple of weeks. How have you been involved? 

Nnamdi: Um, yeah.

Mara Silvers: Nnamdi’s also part of the Black Student Union at MSU, and the African Students Association. So he’s used to being an advocate.

Nnamdi: So I already was into all of these things, but it was more like — there was no, the world wasn’t the way it is right now. With the whole George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor. It became very intense. 

Mara Silvers: In the last few weeks, Nnamdi and so many other people in Bozeman have been organizing public actions — marches, rallies, and meetings to advocate for Black lives. When Nnamdi talked about this movement, he emphasized how important it is. But he also sounded exhausted.

Nnamdi: To be very honest, it’s really crazy because, I mean, like, I’ve not had time to process everything. It was just like boom, boom. So I don’t have time to sit back and really understand what has been going on the past few weeks.

Mara Silvers: There are a few things that Nnamdi said he knows for sure. Lately, with so many prominent killings of Black people and the protests across the country — he said he feels more on edge in Bozeman than he used to. 

Sometimes, this fear spikes suddenly. The other day, Nnamdi said, he was standing in his driveway, making a video. 

Nnamdi: I was doing a video outside with a camera faced at me and I was just recording myself and this white lady was walking her dog, and she just kept staring at me. It wasn’t a pleasant look. He wasn’t, it wasn’t a look of admiration. And I was like why is she looking at me. I had to pack up my stuff. And I ran back to the house for fear — I was scared she might call the cops and so I was very afraid. So that moment I realized that, oh, wow. You know, this is really — it was really bad. Like, why was she looking at me that way? 

Mara Silvers: The fear came again, Nnamdi said, after he saw the video of Ahmaud Arbery getting chased and killed by two white men in Georgia.

Nnamdi: I took a walk to clear my head. I don’t know if you drove around, you saw how very lonely this path is. So I was coming back home and I got to the road. I stopped and I realized how very scared I was. I literally ran. Like I ran and locked the door because I think I’m the only Black person in this whole neighborhood. 

People don’t ask what we as Black people go through, why we protest. I mean, for people who are not Black people, they are going, like, oh, yeah, Black lives matter. But then when we get there and we’re calling these names, it’s like traumatizing all over again. Because we are seeing ourselves being killed over and over again. You know, it’s traumatizing in a way that people who don’t wear that skin would never, never understand. 

Mara Silvers: From Montana Free Press, this is Uphill: a two part story about Black Lives Matter organizing in Montana. In part two: why it’s so hard to show up in the first place. And what happens after the protest is over? 

I’m Mara Silvers. 

MAIN STORY

Mara Silvers: When I talked to Nnamdi, he tried to explain to me what the last few years of living in America have been like for him. He came to Montana from Nigeria — since then, he said, he’s been learning what it means to be a Black man in this country.

Nnamdi: And navigating that experience was, I’m not going to lie, it’s been very difficult. I mean, these past few weeks has been like the top. But then over the past two years, it’s been really hard trying to find a place as someone who is not American but at the same time, someone who is Black, which is the, the for, um, for like for America generally, Blackness is a whole new ballgame. 

Mara Silvers: Nnamdi told me he considers Bozeman a welcoming place, for the most part, with plenty of nice people. But he says he’s also been profiled, a lot, and had racial slurs used against him. He has short hair now, but when he used to have dreadlocks, he said people told him he didn’t look like a grad student — others would come up to him on the street and ask if he had marijuana. So, he cut his hair — he said he just didn’t want to deal with those stereotypes anymore. 

Nnamdi: All they see is Blackness. And that’s what’s — you know, the Blackness to America is like just the melanin or the curly hair or, you know, your facial features. It doesn’t, it doesn’t — they don’t care about where you come from or your history, or your identity or, or your own personal identity. All they just see is your physical identity. It’s just funny how someone’s looks covers and takes over every form of identity you have. And for me who is Nigerian, an Igbo Nigerian, I come here and all those things are like gone — all they see is just a Black man.

Mara Silvers: The more he experienced this kind of racism, Nnamdi said, the more he started to understand what so many Black Americans go through every day. So when the protests started happening, he felt like he needed to be there. And still, he had some doubts.

Nnamdi: I was a bit skeptical, to be very honest, to be involved in the protest because again, I was scared for my safety. But at the same time, if I don’t go to do these things, you know, I would feel bad for myself because it could have been me, again. That’s just — it could have been me, you know. So before I go, I tell myself that there’s a reason why I’m going to do this thing, is to let people know that, you know, people — people’s, all lives matter. We know. But at this moment Black lives matter a lot because we’re being killed every day, you know. You know, we’re being killed. So we need to be given that attention. If you think all lives do matter, then what about Black lives. Because Black life is a life… 

Mara Silvers: There was this theme that kept coming up during our conversation. It was the way that Nnamdi talked about his trauma and the responsibility he felt for this movement — like both of those pieces are completely intertwined. He’s not the only person who talks about Black Lives Matter like this. The work is heavy, and for some people, it feels unavoidable.

When I started following the protests in Montana, I wondered about where this movement would go. Rallies and marches take so much energy for organizers — so how do people stop from burning out? 

Mara Silvers:  Oh, I think I’m close. No, I missed it. Oh, OK. I found it. I found it. I found it. 

Mara Silvers: Of course, it’s not like the movement for Black lives started a month ago. Or like it’s going to end if protests wind down — but that sustainability requires a lot of strategy. And people.  

Mara Silvers: Hi. 

Benjamin Finegan: Are you Mara? 

Mara Silvers: I’m good, yeah, hi, it’s nice to meet you. 

Mara Silvers: When I was in Bozeman, I went to visit the Montana Racial Equity Project — also known as MTREP.

Mara Silvers: I appreciate it. It took me a second. I really wasn’t sure if I had found the right spot. 

Benjamin Finegan: Yeah, we kind of try to keep our spot low key.

Mara Silvers: It’s been around for about five years. After a while, they realized that being public about their location and staff members only made it easier for white nationalists to make threats against them. Now, their building is unmarked and there are no bios listed on their website.

Judith Heilman: People think we’re being humble by not having our pictures and names up there. No, it’s actually security. 

Mara Silvers: It’s not the case. Oh my gosh.

Mara Silvers: The organization is headed by Judith Heilman, who you heard from briefly in part one of this series. She’s made a name for herself by relentlessly pushing Montanans to talk about race and racism through workshops and trainings and book clubs. When I talked to her, she had this metaphor — that racism is like dust.

Judith Heilman: Because this is like dust in the air. We all breathe it. That’s how racism is. And when the light shines a certain way and then you see it on the surface of everything. Well that light is shining a certain way right now. And a lot of people are seeing that dust in the air that they’ve been breathing this whole time. 

Mara Silvers: All the people seeing the dust for the first time? Judith said she’s glad they’re starting to pay attention. And show up. A few weeks ago, about 5,000 people turned out for a Black Lives Matter march in Bozeman. She said it was incredible — but that it also can’t stop there. 

Judith Heilman: Our big concern is that it’s not performative, that people are really, really wanting to learn and listen. 

Mara Silvers: When she thinks about next steps, Judith said, her main fear…

Judith Heilman: Is that people will become complacent again. Or that they’ll say this is too hard. ‘I want to get comfortable again,’ whether they acknowledge that to themselves or not. But they just drop the ball. 

Mara Silvers: Slowly stop showing up. 

Judith Heilman: Just slowly stop showing up. 

Mara Silvers: Judith is also worried about organizers starting to get tired, especially if they’re Black or Indigenous. She wants people to be able to take breaks and recharge. And she wants everyone else to keep caring. 

Judith Heilman: We’re navigating deep trauma at the same time as we are doing these actions and calling people to get off their duff, calling people to get out of their easy chairs and be uncomfortable. To do the work that is really, really necessary to read, to learn, to listen to BIPOC, Black, brown, Indigenous and people of color.

Mara Silvers: All of that labor gets easier if there are more people doing it. A few weeks ago, another group called Bozeman United for Racial Justice started doing public campaigns and calls to action — they helped plan the marches and the protests, along with the Black Student Union. And, organizers got dozens of businesses to commit to anti-racist policies. They’re calling it a Freedom Pledge.

Jaya: Like when I do walk into this establishment, I see our Freedom Pledge sign with a fist on it. And I feel really welcome there. I’m like, wow, this person signed our anti-racism pledge. 

Mara Silvers: Jaya is an organizer with MTREP and Bozeman United. She’s 19 years old and a member of the Blackfeet Nation. And she said the last few weeks have been hard, but they have her feeling hopeful.  

Jaya: I feel like there’s just some solidarity in doing this work with other people of color. These topics are so heavy to us and this oppression weighs on us all every day. But I feel like there’s just some kind of hope with it by the response we’ve gotten from the Bozeman community.

Mara Silvers: Jaya’s young, but not new to organizing in Bozeman. When she was in high school, she pushed for teachers to get better training about racism and how much it impacts students. She said it didn’t really get off the ground. And until recently, she had started to give up on Bozeman’s ability to change.

Jaya: Having this influx of new leaders kind of helped change that because they brought this new energy. And then after that second rally, just seeing all these people, that kind of changed my mind really. Because it feels like people want to invest in us. And if they want to invest in us, then I feel like I’ll invest in them.

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Mara Silvers: Jaya’s still going away to college in a few months. But this wave she’s talking about — with new energy and leaders — it doesn’t seem like it’s slowing down. This month, organizers campaigned for a bail reduction for Joshua David Blair, a black man who was held on a half-million-dollar bond for alleged car thefts. After the Gallatin County judge decreased that amount to $25,000, community activists helped raise the money to bail him out. Bozeman United is also lobbying the city to take money away from its police budget and put it toward social programs, specifically for Black and Indigenous people. And there’s a campaign for Montana State University to sign on to the Freedom Pledge. Organizers say, hopefully, this is just the beginning.

Benjamin Finegan: It is about making things better here and now. But, I mean, that’s part of a really, really long process, that, yeah, it’s definitely a marathon, it’s definitely about stamina. And I think I’m on the same page with a lot of the people that I’m working with about that.

Mara Silvers: This is Benjamin Finegan, who uses the gender pronoun they or them and is one of the organizers with Bozeman United and MTREP. We sat on the grass and talked just outside of the office. Growing up in Bozeman, Benjamin said they were one of the only Asian kids in school and remembers, as they put it, “absorbing racism in every way.” After graduation, they couldn’t wait to leave. But now, Benjamin says Montana feels like a place where they can make a difference.

Benjamin Finegan: I think I’d like, run away from home basically for four years. And had begun to feel more responsible for making change in the community that it felt like it had pushed me out in the beginning. And yeah, to help make this state and this town a space where, like, other kids with melanin in their skin don’t feel like they have to do that. 

Mara Silvers: To Benjamin, everyone should take responsibility for making Montana better. In a state that’s mostly white, Black people and Native Americans are dramatically overrepresented in prisons and jails, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In 2019, their high school graduation rates were more than 10 and 20 points lower than their white peers. And so many people, like Jaya and Nnamdi, recount daily experiences of discrimination. The way Benjamin sees it, it will take more than protests to break those kinds of patterns. 

Benjamin Finegan: I think that organizing is something that every human being knows how to do on some deep level. Because the work of organizing is about building relationships. It’s about building trust. It’s about, it’s about inspiring people.

It’s also the best work. It’s the, it’s the most fulfilling, exciting, beautiful work I think that there is. And it’s stressful for sure. And it’s hard, but I’ve been completely transformed as a human being by it. And I just hope that more people just decide to, like, take the step and, and join us. 

Mara Silvers: Uphill was reported and produced by me, Mara Silvers. Brad Tyer was the editor. The music came from Blue Dot Sessions. 

If you haven’t heard part one of this series, we encourage you to do that at our website. Both episodes will also be available in the Montana Lowdown podcast feed. And — tell us what you thought about this project. We want to hear your feedback. You can email or Tweet at me at mara_silvers. 

Thanks for listening. 

Silvers returns to her home state from producing Slate’s daily news podcast What Next. Before that she worked as a producer and reporter in the WNYC/Gothamist newsroom at New York Public Radio. Her work has been featured on NPRThe United States of Anxiety, The Takeaway, Nancy, and Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org and follow her on Twitter.