Missoula stood in solidarity with cities across the country on Sunday night in condemning the violent acts of an alt-right group of white supremacists that marched on Virginia over the weekend, leading to the death of at least three people, including one peace activist and two police officers.
While Montana may be many miles from the weekend clashes, those who gathered in downtown Missoula say residents across the state have a responsibility to call hate by its name – something President Donald Trump has been criticized for failing to do.
Erin Erickson, who organized Sunday’s event on behalf of Missoula Rises, said that while the white majority has the power to effect positive change on racial issues, it has been silent for too long. That silence included the last campaign season, where Trump’s “winks and nods” to the alt-right went unquestioned on his path to the White House.
“When we saw those micro-aggressions occurring, we didn’t stop and we didn’t call people out because we didn’t want to be too critical,” Erickson said on Sunday. “We cannot continue down this road. It’s time to put that aside. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue any longer. It’s a humanity issue and it’s a community issue.”
While Trump condemned bigotry and hate, he suggested “many sides” were to blame for the violence that erupted over the weekend. He has drawn fire as a result, including from members of his own party who criticized the president for failing to identify Nazism and white supremacy as a scourge on America.
Montana Sen. Steve Daines also condemned the violence in an interview with Fox News, though he stopped short of naming the groups behind Saturday’s clash with counter-protesters.
“This is bigotry. This is racism,” he tweeted. “These are views we as the American people should reject.”
“It can’t be that we’re simply reacting each time one of these incidents occur,” said Erickson. “We have to make it a daily habit to support our minority communities and fight racism every day.”
Doing that has proved challenging, and Montana has seen its share of violence tied to white supremacy and the alt-right. Al Barrus, the son of the man who murdered a Broadwater County sheriff’s deputy in May, told the Missoula Current that his father held anti-Semitic and extremist views for years.
Earlier this year, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin also unleashed a “troll storm” against a Whitefish resident, urging followers to launch a barrage of cruel epithets through social media and other means to intentionally cause the woman emotional distress.
Barrus was shot and killed by Montana law enforcement officials and Anglin now faces a lawsuit in U.S. District Court. But it’s the micro-aggressions and subtle acts of repression, bigotry and violence that had demonstrators in Missoula worried most.
Lauren Small-Rodriguez, an American Indian of Mexican descent, said her family experiences it often.
“Me and my family live it – my people live it,” she said. “It’s been an issue for us from day one, but it’s not a burden I carry. My hope and prayer is for my children to grow up without being treated with prejudice and judgment. My prayer is for my children to live a life free from violence and discrimination.”
Sunday’s event, held in conjunction with similar rallies in Whitefish, Butte and Great Falls, was organized earlier that morning and drew an estimated 150 people to downtown Missoula. They came with posters reading “You can’t be a Nazi and an American,” “Love Trumps hate,” and “Missoula stands in solidarity with Charlottesville.”
One poster read, “Rest in power Heather Heyer.” Heyer, 32, was run down and killed by white a supremacist during the weekend protests in Virginia.
“We’ve certainly experienced racism and white supremacy in our state,” said the Rev. Deborah Schmidt with the United Methodist Church. “We feel strongly we need to model love and inclusiveness over hate. We can’t be silent, and we know we can’t let that ideology prevail.”