The fight for racial justice in Montana, one year out
From Havre to Bozeman, the push for equity persists.
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.”