By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
BOZEMAN – Large crowds took to the streets of Bozeman on Sunday joining Missoula, Billings, Great Falls, Helena and other cities nationwide in an expression of solidarity for racial equality following the alleged murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin faces charges of third-degree murder and manslaughter.
The rally, which was organized by Montana State University’s Black Student Union and Montana Racial Equity Project, began in Bogert Park where a masked audience filled the lawn. According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, roughly 2,000 people were in attendance. A handful of speakers opened the rally by discussing white privilege, allyship—the process of seeking to understand marginalized groups—and what it means to be a person of color living in Montana. One woman shared her personal story of growing up as a Native American in the state and how she felt forced to “kill the Indian” and assimilate into white culture.
“I cannot say that I know what better is, but I know this isn’t it,” she said to roaring applause. “This isn’t the American Dream because so many of us have only lived in its nightmare. It’s time to wake up.”
From Bogert, rally organizers led protesters in a march down Main Street to the Gallatin County Courthouse, chanting phrases like “No justice, no peace,” “Black lives matter” and “Say their names,” a reference to Floyd and other individuals alleged to have been murdered by police.
Organizers asked that protesters avoid speaking to or arguing with police and focus rather on “solidarity and taking a stand.” As the march flooded the downtown sidewalks, cars passing by responded to chants with honking, symbolic fists and peace signs thrust out of windows and the occasional black exhaust emitted from revving diesel engines.
At the courthouse, more speakers shared personal anecdotes and calls to action. Judith Heilman, the executive director and founder of Montana Racial Equity Project, imparted her perspective as a former black California policewoman. “There are so many people that think that racism, bigotry and prejudice does not exist in Bozeman, does not exist in Montana, and if black people and Native people would just stop talking about it, it would just go away,” she said, later calling that belief false.
“Living as a black man in Bozeman … people need to know that black lives matter,” said Edwin Allan, a graduate student at MSU and a rally attendee. Originally from West Africa, Allan said he has experienced instances on campus where people were visibly afraid of him, something he never witnessed in West Africa.
“When I saw the video of George Floyd being strangled, I’m like ‘Doesn’t the policeman realize he can’t breathe?’” Allan said. “People need to realize we are humans and we bleed. We need oxygen, we need everything all other humans need, so this is to create that awareness that we are humans, too, and it’s really, really important for Bozeman.”
Some protesters called the event “necessary” for the Bozeman community. “I think a lot of people think that Montana is tone deaf or is not susceptible to this kind of thing,” said protester Michelle Kolodin. “When that happens, we just exacerbate the problem further. So I think it was really awesome to just see how much of a turnout we had and I look forward to continuing to educate myself and others around me to be allies in this movement.”
Protesters were visibly armed with nothing but signs and chants, and the event was largely peaceful and “relatively … without incident,” according to Bozeman Police Chief Steve Crawford. “We had some extra resources available should there have been a problem, but we did not elect to have a high-profile visible presence,” he said.
Crawford said one of his greatest concerns was the large gathering of people in a setting where social distancing is not always possible. Rally organizers asked attendees to wear masks and socially distance whenever possible, but the populous assembly challenged the 6-foot guideline throughout the afternoon.
Acknowledging the complexity of the issues nationwide that have left cities burnt and looted, Crawford stated that the Bozeman Police Department’s top priority is the safety of the community, which he emphasized includes those who participate in protests.
Speakers said the rally is merely the beginning of the movement in Bozeman, and that more work on behalf of racial equity must follow. The Movement for Black Lives, a national movement, announced that it would recognize June 5 as a national day of action for American justice. Montana Racial Equity Project and MSU BSU are formalizing a plan for another act of solidarity in Bozeman and will announce details when they become available.