A stone ignites a community: Billings stood up to white supremacists

2013-12-02T00:00:00Z 2013-12-03T14:40:05Z A stone ignites a community: Billings stood up to white supremacistsStories By SUSAN OLP solp@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

A paving stone hurled through a child’s bedroom window 20 years ago did much more than shatter glass.

It wrote the first words of a story that has nearly become a myth.

Dr. Brian Schnitzer, father of then 5-year-old Isaac, whose window was broken on Dec. 2, 1993, has had countless people approach him over the years with the account of what happened that night and Billings’ response to it.

“I have met people from all over the world and they’ll tell me the story of ‘Not in Our Town,’” Schnitzer said. “And you don’t correct their version because it has no value to correct details. It’s the value of what it means to them.”

In its simplest form, the story of “Not in Our Town” is of a city that stood up for its Jewish residents against the bullying tactics of white supremacists. But the episode is part of a larger story that spanned more than a year and involved many people.

News accounts at the time tell how hate group activity in Billings was brewing in the fall of 1992. Then in January 1993, the Montana Association of Churches held an ecumenical service in downtown Billings and sponsored a march.

The event was held to boost interfaith unity and celebrate the work of Martin Luther King Jr., said Margie MacDonald, now a Montana legislator who was then MAC’s executive director.

When people returned to their cars, they found on their windshields fliers targeting minorities, homosexuals, then-Police Chief Wayne Inman, MAC and human rights organizations.

In addition to the Northwest United Skinheads, who had been circulating literature, police believed there were elements of the Ku Klux Klan and possibly the Aryan Nation at work.

MacDonald remembered eating cookies and drinking coffee inside First United Methodist Church when people came back in, shaking, holding the fliers in their hands.

“This is what kind of opened our eyes to the magnitude of it and kind of the brazenness of it,” she said.

She talked with pastors and others, including Ken Toole, president of the Montana Human Rights Network. Toole told them how the community could respond to an organized message of hate.

The group had an ally in Inman, who had come from Portland to head the Billings police force in September 1992. During Inman’s two years as assistant police chief in Portland, that city had seen a series of actions by white supremacists that ultimately resulted in the death of an Ethiopian student.

“White supremacists had targeted and beat him to death only because he was black,” Inman said in a telephone interview from his Eastern Oregon ranch.

“Police had been rather slow in addressing the white supremacists over the previous few years, and that was a wake-up call for the community.”

Inman was determined to keep that type of violence from happening in Billings.

The ad hoc group, which called itself Community Coalition to Oppose Hate Groups, continued holding community conversations and circulated a resolution to counter bigotry and hate groups.

The Greater Yellowstone Central Labor Council passed the resolution. So did the Yellowstone County Commission and the Billings City Council, among others.

The coalition bought a full-page ad in The Gazette, which included 1,000 names and hundreds of organizations.

On March 1, a gang of five youths, including at least one skinhead, beat a Billings teenager with a baseball bat in a racially motivated attack. During the assault, the gang yelled racial slurs at the victim.

The coalition sponsored a rally called Stand Together, Billings! at Rocky Mountain College on May 2 that drew 450 people.

“Our philosophy and our effort was to create an opportunity for the community to stand beside those people being targeted and make it clear that we would not sit back and let it happen,” MacDonald said.

Some suggested the problem would simply go away if it were ignored. And Inman got pressure from the business community and local politicians not to make a big deal of it for fear it would damage the city’s reputation.

“Based on my experience in Portland, I realized I had an obligation to try to get the community to rise up and resist this kind of hate and bigotry,” Inman said. “Initially I was rebuffed and criticized for speaking up about an activity that, of course, the Billings community did not understand.”

Over the months, more people in Billings began to see the situation as a community issue, not a law enforcement problem, he said.

“The pamphlets were not acceptable, were obnoxious, obscene, but they were protected and law enforcement really could do little about that,” Inman said.

MacDonald said she saw the events of 1993 as laying a foundation for what happened on Dec. 2 and after.

“I have always said that the whole process that happened in the spring empowered people and strengthened them so when something as egregious as the vandalism against a family, a young child, happened, people had courage to put menorahs in their windows,” MacDonald said.

In mid-October, the home of a Native American family had its house spray-painted with obscene and racist graffiti. Within days, the local painters’ union and community volunteers repainted the home.

The synagogue had received a bomb threat just before the children’s services on Yom Kippur. In September, tombstones in the Jewish cemetery had been desecrated.

Also that fall, a beer bottle was tossed through the door of the home of Uri Barnea, conductor of the Billings Symphony Orchestra and prominent member of the local Jewish community. The Barnea family reported the incident, but not until later did it occur that the incident may be connected.

Then on the evening of Dec. 2, Schnitzer was working in his basement while a babysitter watched Isaac and 2-year-old Rachel in another room. Wife Tammie was out at a meeting.

The double-paned window in Isaac’s room was decorated with symbols of Hanukkah, including a menorah, a dreidel, a Star of David and the words “Happy Hanukkah.”

Schnitzer thought he heard a noise. When he went upstairs, he found that Isaac’s bedroom was cold, and when he flipped the light switch, he realized the light was broken.

“I found a little piece of a paving stone between the two beds,” Schnitzer said. “We happen to have some paving stones by a water faucet outside and they picked up a portion of one and threw it through the window.”

Splintered glass was scattered on Isaac’s bed and in the room, though no one was hurt, he said. Police were called. The officers initially classified the crime as simple vandalism.

“They suggested we put bars on the window and get a dog,” Schnitzer said. “We found ourselves having to force the issue more.”

Linking that incident to the previous ones directed at the Jewish community helped it come into focus as a hate crime.

MacDonald read a newspaper article in which officials advised Tammie Schnitzer to remove the symbols from the window.

“For some reason it popped into my head that would really be the wrong thing to do,” she said.

Instead, she called her pastor, the Rev. Keith Torney, and suggested First Congregational United Church of Christ pass out paper menorahs for members of the congregation to place in their windows.

He agreed, and they invited people to take part “but we didn’t want to make them feel guilty if they had concerns,” MacDonald.

They also shared the menorahs with other congregations. From there, the Billings Coalition of Human Rights worked with businesses to distribute paper menorahs.

Then The Gazette illustrated an editorial with a small menorah. That gave then-region editor David Crisp the idea to publish a full-page color image of a menorah. He pitched the idea to publisher Wayne Schile, who gave him the go-ahead.

“I got John Potter to draw it and went to the ad department and scheduled it and then wrote some text for it,” Crisp said. “And then I guess it was the following Saturday that it came out, and I thought it was pretty cool. They always said there were 10,000 menorahs out there. There were a lot.”

Crisp, who is now editor of the weekly Billings Outpost newspaper, wrote on his blog that some people in Billings think the town doesn’t deserve all the credit it got for what it did.

Looking at how other minorities, Native American and Hispanics have been treated, he said, they might have a case.

“But I just kind of thought what difference it did make: it was a gesture when a gesture mattered,” he said.

Vandals broke windows in some houses and businesses where the paper menorahs were displayed, but people continued to show them. Rick Smith, store manager of Universal Athletics, posted a message on his sign board: “Not in Our Town! No Hate. No violence. Peace on Earth.”

Word of the town’s actions started to spread beyond Billings, through news reports and by word of mouth. Patrice O’Neill, CEO and executive producer of the nonprofit media company The Working Group, read about what happened in The New York Times.

“We thought ‘this is an amazing story, we have to do this, we have to tell this,’” O’Neill said in a telephone interview from her office in Oakland, Calif.

She and business partner Rhian Miller came to Billings, interviewed key players and produced a half-hour film that was aired on PBS in 1995. They titled the film “Not in Our Town,” after seeing the sign and talking to Smith.

They knew they had a powerful story. What they didn’t know was the impact it would have with people across the country and that it would become their identity as a company.

O’Neill and Miller did a screening of the film in Healdsburg, Calif., and invited a broad section of the community. They didn’t know how the conversation after the film would go.

“They immediately wanted to discuss issues in their community,” O’Neill said. “A powerful conversation ensued.”

From there, more town hall meetings took place. The Working Group produced more documentaries about the results that came from other communities working to make differences in their own towns.

Today, the company, which also runs the nonprofit Not in Our Town, works with NIOT groups around the country and internationally. It held one national conference in 2006, and plans to hold a second one in Billings in June.

Over that time, O’Neill said, she has learned a couple of lessons.

“One is that it shows that each of us has a role to play in making our town safer and addressing larger issues of hate,” she said. “And you could see in Billings that there were leaders, but the real success of this story emerges from so many people in the community deciding that they had to take action and they had to take a stand, even if it was something small, straightforward, like putting a menorah in their window.”

A second lesson, she said, came from Inman’s response to the growing problem of hate speech in the community.

“He said, ‘If we do nothing in the face of an attack on our neighbors, then we’re accepting it,’ ” O’Neill said. “That sent a message to the entire community.”

For Schnitzer, the story that he lived has become widely known and sometimes distorted. A made-for-TV movie used its essence and then embellished it, and a recent song titled “Not in Our Town” has another take on it.

He likens the Billings story to the story of the Danish king during World War II. In the time of the Nazis, the story goes, Jews in Denmark were forced to wear the yellow Star of David, so the king, in a show of support, appeared on horseback wearing the star himself.

While some elements of the tale may be true, doubts remain about its accuracy.

For him, it’s the same with the Billings story. Even if all the versions circulating two decades later aren’t true, the message continues to inspire.

“The myth has value,” Schnitzer said. “So arguing the particulars is unimportant.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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