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From ‘Not in Our Town’ to not enough action

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From ‘Not in Our Town’ to not enough action

Jul 27, 2023 | 6:58 am ET
By Darrell Ehrlick
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From ‘Not in Our Town’ to not enough action
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A rope noose hanging from a utility pole in downtown Billings. City officials confirm they're investigating the incident as a hate crime. (Photo via Facebook, shared by Lori Gendron, used with permission.)

To the  musicians traveling with Lyle Lovett’s band: No matter what the reason, no matter who put it there, the noose that suddenly appeared on a utility pole near your tour bus was cruel, bigoted and  shameful, and as Mayor Bill Cole of Billings said, it is something that is condemned, not condoned here.

Editor’s note: Original reports said that musician Gary Clark, Jr., was targeted, but that has since been clarified. He was not with the act. Accordingly, this column was updated to reflect that.

If you haven’t heard from others in Montana: We’re sorry and ashamed.

You are welcome here, and next time, I volunteer to stand outside your bus from your arrival ’till departure.

There simply is no excuse, no rationale, no logical explanation for why a rope, tied with the unmistakable hangman’s noose, would be randomly left around a downtown utility pole, especially just feet away from where  musicians of color slept.

For a moment, let’s say the noose was coincidental, I would still wonder: For whom was it intended? The meaning regardless, is the same – intimidation, fear, threats … all of it.

Montana has a long and ignominious relationship with ropes like that. Many residents are familiar with Montana’s “righteous” hangmen of the gold rush day, the Vigilantes, whose still secret code of 3-7-77 adorns most state law enforcement vehicles. The more accurate state history of nooses, though, is one of self-appointed residents literally taking the law into their own hands as posses, mostly in the eastern Montana. Those vigilante groups saved law enforcement the trouble of due process and justice by hanging dozens of men convicted by these “extra-legal” (the historically sanitized term) citizens who mostly targeted horse thieves.

And that doesn’t even take into account the equally vile practice in Montana of “sundown cities,” where any non-whites, mostly Natives, were ordered, chased, threatened or beaten out of many towns if they were not out of the city limits by sundown.

So, whether the the musicians knew any of this history or not, there’s good reason to report such a symbol to the police, and there’s even more reason for the rest of us to take note and take action.

As badly as I wanted to write the following sentence, I just couldn’t.

I wanted to say: Sorry. We’re better than this. This doesn’t represent who we are.

Except, I can’t.

And that pains me.

This isn’t hyperbole. I have been lucky enough to come back to the place I was born – the same location where several generations of my family have also been born. The community that nurtured me, supported me and which I truly feel in my blood, is a place I defend, promote and cherish.

Having lived through the “Not In Our Town” moment of the early 1990s, when Billings beat back a rash of neo-Nazis who targeted our Jewish brothers and sisters, it felt like exactly the kind of place that I, in turn, would fight to defend.

And while I will love my hometown and my home state, I am not sure that I can say much more other than apologize for what they experienced here. And while I can say it doesn’t represent the best of us, I can’t say for certain say it’s completely inaccurate.

For more than a year now, I have written columns reflecting on the hard turn to the right that Montana, like many rural states, has taken. I have said that we’re better than the legislative crap that has been shoveled onto the law books which bans abortion, vilifies librarians, targets our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, and delegitimizes Native Americans. I have yearned for a return of the live-and-let-live spirit that seemed as much a part of my birthright as the Big Sky. And, I have asked openly if we were better than this.

But as I tossed and turned thinking about this most recent incident – one piece of rope around one utility pole – I have to be open to the idea that while I believe that Montana and Billings are better than that, what happens if we’re not?

This isn’t pearl clutching by an equally fragile snowflake. In the past year or so, our town has been blanketed with “White Lives Matter” stickers and pictures of an avowed Neo-Nazi etching a swastika and other white supremacist symbols on one of the most sacred Native American sites in the area.

From ‘Not in Our Town’ to not enough action
A sticker from the group “White Lives Matter” near Pioneer Park in Billings (Photo by the Daily Montanan).

Unlike the community solidarity of the 1990s, these other troubling scenarios were met with mostly silence.

What used to be an outrage is now just something that’s, at best, noted.

I could speculate on the root causes for the change, or how such outrageous events have been normalized. I could assert justifiably that without more pushback, we run the very real risk of endorsing such action by our own inaction.

Instead of treating these events as discrete, random events, perpetrated by unknown people while pretending we don’t know exactly, for certain, absolutely, precisely what they meant, we need to talk about the events more, and acknowledge the very real, very ugly common denominator — overt racism coupled with a threat.

If you don’t believe swastikas and nooses are menacing or correlated with hatred, try putting them on your house or Christmas tree.

We fear that by talking about the events in a more open way, we will somehow be labeled “that town” or “that state.” So, our silence in not addressing this in a more systemic, head-on way instead confirms that we indeed may be both of those things.

From ‘Not in Our Town’ to not enough action
White supremacist carvings in the Four Dances area, south of Billings. A white supremacist group has taken responsibility for them.

The only antidote I see for the sneaky symbols that just pop up randomly is to counteract them in a deliberate manner. I urge our leaders, regardless of political persuasion, to do more by acknowledging that even though different groups or individuals are responsible for them, they have one common message.

The very reason for studying history, something that cannot be changed, is in the hopes of not repeating the same past mistakes. Let history guide our actions, as those who led us previously met the challenge of racism head on, and not with weary indifference.

Speaking of history, Montana has a proud history of pushing back, too – from the early integration of some schools across the state, to Dolly Cusker Akers, the first female Native elected to the Legislature, to running the KKK out of Butte to the Not In Our Town movement.

Truly, there are enough examples to follow and plenty more to teach so that the same children who are growing up now do not come of age in a state where nooses and swastikas are as common as the silence which accompanies them.

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