Twenty years ago, hate reached a boiling point in Billings.
A 14-year-old boy was beaten with a baseball bat. Swastikas and the words “Die Indian” were spray painted on a Native American family’s home. Bricks were thrown through church windows. A bomb threat was sent.
But the people of Billings came together, they formed coalitions and they fought back. In the end, they succeeded.
Their efforts made headlines across the country and formed the basis of what would become the Not In Our Town Movement.
This week the now-national organization came back to Billings where it all began for their national leadership gathering.
The event kicked off Friday, with people coming from across the country to participate in three days of workshops, panel discussions and the viewing of three documentaries.
West High School students Emily Kaskell, Beau Linnell and Sarah Unsworth weren’t even born when the events that spurred the movement took place.
So when their teacher came to them with the idea that they would put together an exhibit chronicling its early beginnings, they were skeptical.
“I had no idea how it was going to start,” Linnell said.
Nonetheless, they dove right in, working tirelessly and learning along the way.
Their hard work paid off Friday as the public — even Gov. Steve Bullock — laid eyes on the exhibit for the first time at the Western Heritage Center.
Linnell expressed his satisfaction with the finished product, saying “It came together better than we could have imagined ... it’s given me a lot of pride.”
He then excused himself to go snap a couple selfies with the governor.
The exhibit features a display of mirrors and lights at the entrance, which Kaskell said are intentionally disorienting to challenge self-perspective.
Inside the exhibit, various artifacts from the 1993 event are juxtaposed alongside other student artwork.
One such display includes laminated cards featuring the hateful drawings and messages from the era held up by windshield .
“It really opened our eyes,” Unsworth said.
The group said they each put in about 20 hours of work to make the exhibit happen.
Julie Dial, the executive director of the center, worked with the high school and the students to bring the exhibit together. A partnership was also formed with the Billings Public Library and MontanaPBS.
Dial said the idea came back in December only a couple months after learning that Not In Our Town was coming to Billings.
Each of the 22 students who started with the project in January saw it through to completion, she said. And for that, she’s proud.
The exhibit is located in the Western Heritage Center and will be there until December 20.
Wayne Inman, who was the Billings police chief 20 years ago, traveled from Oregon for the event this weekend.
As he looked on at the artifacts hung on the wall, he said the exhibit “reaffirmed what we did 20 years ago was the right thing.”
“The thing to remember that’s so important is that silence is acceptance.” Back then, “Billings wasn’t silent,” Inman said.
Yet there’s still work to do.
Linnell said he sees it in his high school. When a girl was being bullied in school his freshman year, he said he’d follow her around to make sure people left her alone.
And now, with the knowledge gained from helping build the exhibit, he said he is “100 times more aware.”
“There’ll always be challenges and always be hate in the community,” Bullock said. Calling for action against hate, he said, “We shouldn’t have to wait for a brick to be thrown through a window.”
The event continues tomorrow with breakfast at the Northern hotel, and it will conclude with a special viewing of two documentaries at the Babcock Theatre.