Last year in late May, Melody Bernard was driving home to the Rocky Boy’s Reservation near Havre in north-central Montana, after a trip to Wisconsin. When she stopped in Minneapolis, she found a flood of people taking to the streets, protesting the murder of George Floyd. Bernard, a former tribal judge and police officer of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, was shaken by the video of Floyd’s death; she joined the march. When she returned to Havre, she went on Facebook to organize something similar. She and her daughter bought a megaphone and printed out photos of Floyd at Walmart. But when they went to a local park on the appointed day, they were the only ones there.
Within a few minutes, however, others began to arrive. Dorian Miles, a football player for Montana State University Northern, had also been thinking about organizing a protest; his uncle had been killed by police in Maryland three years previously. Driving through town that day, he noticed a group of middle school kids on the sidewalk holding up signs. And then, turning the corner, he saw dozens more, including Bernard and her daughter. He began to cry.
In Havre, where Native Americans comprise 12% of the city’s population of 9,700, Floyd’s death echoed a local story: In 2009, A.J. Longsoldier, an 18-year-old from the Fort Belknap Reservation, died from alcohol withdrawal syndrome after four days in a jail cell. The Montana Human Rights Commission blamed his death on “discriminatory indifference.” The protesters in Havre, over 100 of them, held up signs showing his face as well as Floyd’s, Breonna Taylor’s and others. In front of the police department, the crowd knelt for eight minutes, their fists in the air. “That day, I developed so much respect for the people in this town,” said Miles, who is Black. “To not be around my family at that time — I felt so alone. I remember crying to these complete strangers who felt like family. It felt like every person was holding me up from falling.”
Last summer, similar protests sprang up across Montana, in places like Helena and Butte, Billings and Bozeman, Missoula and Great Falls. Some, like Havre’s, lasted for weeks and drew hundreds; others were one-time events, some with more than a thousand participants.
In Havre, the movement is quieter now than it was last summer. Bernard finds hope in organizing events like “Blackout Racism,” an annual Fourth of July 5K run and fireworks show designed to foster community between police officers and local residents. And Miles, now a rising junior at Montana State University Northern, is considering running for student body president next year to bridge the racial divide he sees between athletes and other students. For Bernard and Miles, this is a start. “I will walk 4,000 miles if I can just be at peace and know that we are making a change,” Miles said. “We can set the example [so others] understand that, bro, it doesn’t matter if you’re Black, if you’re white, if you’re Mexican, if you’re this or that — if you get pulled over, you don’t need to lose your life.”
This year, on April 8, Daunte Wright, a Black man, was shot by police during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb. A few days later, nearly 300 people assembled in a Bozeman park under a cloudy sky. Large standalone speakers blared Outkast’s upbeat “Rosa Parks” while the crowd — largely white, socially distanced and masked — floated cardboard signs painted with fists and slogans like “affordable housing not police.” The park was also the site of demonstrations the previous year, when a newly formed group called Bozeman United for Racial Justice rallied nearly 3,000 people to protest George Floyd’s murder and push to defund the local police.
In Gallatin County, where Bozeman is located, Black people were arrested for marijuana possession at 18 times the rate of white people between 2010 and 2018, according to the ACLU. Nationally, Indigenous people as a group are the most likely to be killed by law enforcement. Bozeman organizer and Gros Ventre tribal member TW Bradley said the fight for Black justice and Indigenous justice is the same battle: “The institutions and the society we’ve built have been formulated in order to stop the agency of Indigenous people and Black people. When it comes to the fight for racial justice, it comes pretty naturally that we can empathize and share that weight of fighting for the same rights.”
Bozeman United for Racial Justice is a multiracial coalition of Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and Asian American Bozemanites whose main goal is to reallocate the city’s $9.4 million police budget to community-oriented, mutual aid-style relief. The group hopes to elect at least one candidate to the City Commission in November. It’s currently focused on hosting rallies and “defund the police” trainings, but in August it plans to start endorsing candidates, canvassing and phone banking. (It has not yet announced its preferred candidates.) Because the City Commission controls the city budget, the group hopes the newly elected officials will funnel more money into housing, homelessness, education and substance use prevention.
Bozeman United for Racial Justice formed quickly last summer in the wake of Floyd’s death. It felt like “one big experiment,” said Benjamin Finnegan, a local Korean American grassroots organizer in Bozeman, since the city had never been home to broad-reaching racial justice organizing. But with the help of the nonprofit Montana Racial Equity Project, student activists at Montana State University and local organizers from the Sunrise Movement, an international youth climate action group, the newly formed initiative was able to galvanize thousands.
Racial justice organizers can accomplish more if they’ve already built some momentum and discussed policy changes with city leaders, said Matthew Clair, a Stanford sociologist who studies social injustice and the criminal legal system. Since last summer, he’s seen major cities, including Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Seattle and Los Angeles, successfully trim their police budgets. Simultaneously, crisis prevention programs like CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon, an alternative to traditional policing focused on de-escalation, have inspired new programs in Denver, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Oakland, California, as well as Portland. “There’s been an uptick of practical strategies that have gained traction,” Clair said. “If there’s another unfortunate incident of (police) violence, we might see now even more cities having organizing capacity on the ground, because of what happened this past spring and summer.”
While Montana has yet to see such concrete shifts, activists have begun to envision what racial justice might look like for their own communities. For some, that means commencing a lengthy battle to reallocate funding from local law enforcement to housing, education and drug abuse prevention. For others, it’s as simple — and difficult — as keeping public discourse around racial equity alive. “The way we attack it is to get as close to it as we can,” Miles said. “Talk about it. Rip the bandage off. Rip it off. At the end of the day, no Black person is going to ask you to apologize for the actions of 300 or 400 years ago. … The only thing we want to talk about is privilege and injustice, and how you may not relate, but how you can still fight for it.”
This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) on May 26, 2021.