When a brick was thrown through a 5-year-old Jewish boy’s bedroom window in 1993 because it was decorated with a colorful menorah, Margie MacDonald inspired the community to take a stand.
MacDonald, the then-executive director of the Montana Association of Churches, prompted church members to display menorahs in their windows to show the community’s solidarity and also to send a message to hate mongers: Not In Our Town.
People listened. They placed menorahs and pictures of menorahs all around town. Eventually, the wave of violence and hatred that had wracked the community subsided.
Twenty years later, MacDonald, now a Montana legislator, is just one of the key players whose efforts inspired the national Not In Our Town Movement who is participating in the organization’s National Leadership Gathering, which kicked off Friday.
The gathering is a long time coming, too. The last one was held eight years ago in Bloomington, Ill.
On Saturday, MacDonald, along with six other original leaders, sat on a panel to discuss their experiences with intolerance and the parallels between past and present and perhaps most importantly what can be done about them.
The discussion came after the viewing of two documentaries — the original “Not in Our Town” film and the premiere of the latest film, “Marshalltown.”
Both the viewing and the panel discussion, which former Billings mayor and organizer Chuck Tooley moderated, took place at the Babcock Theatre.
Speaking beforehand, MacDonald said she was glad to see that Not In Our Town had become woven into the community narrative.
But MacDonald said she’s not naive. Not even for a second has she thought that what they did years ago defeated hatred or bigotry in Billings.
When asked if there was still work to be done, she repeated the question, almost in disbelief that it had even been asked.
“Is there still work to do? Clearly.”
“We need to look forward and carry what we heard in 1993 into the future,” she said.
A showing of the 1993 footage from local TV stations KULR-8 and Q2 segued lightning round introductions from the panelists, which included Sarah Anthony, Uri Barnea, Janice Little Light-Hudetz, Wayne Inman, Brian Schnitzer and Randy Siemers.
Then-Billings Police Chief Wayne Inman, who now lives back in Oregon, introduced himself by relating the hatred Billings faced to the hatred he dealt with as a police officer in Portland, where he worked for 28 years before coming to Billings.
Later, the panel fielded questions from the audience, many of which either directly or obliquely referenced the nondiscrimination ordinance.
One person stood up, looked around and pointing to the empty seats, asked how to keep momentum moving forward. "How do we not let it die?" the person asked.
Schnitzer, whose son's window was smashed in by a piece of a brick, responded by saying maybe the person was concentrating on the wrong thing, suggesting to the person that they focus on the filled seats instead.
Inman offered a police perspective, saying that sometimes it takes a lot before a community "wakes up."
"The short answer is, we're going to continue to see incidents and then we're going to continue to see responses. Maybe that's just life."
Siemers answer to that question: "unleash the power of our youth." Following applause from the audience, he continued: "And don't necessarily expose them to the excruciating process to pass a nondiscrimination order," he said.
Another person asked if they faced any resistance back in 1993. The answer: yes.
Inman said more than once people suggested that he squash it. Whenever someone made that suggestion he said he would pose the question: How would like to be known as the community that didn't say no to hate?
"They usually backed down," he said.
schnitzer said the Jewish community at the time also suggested that his family not make waves
Tooley said the National Leadership Gathering has been a huge success.
“We’ve been getting terrific feedback,” he said.
Folks from 26 states and 46 cities traveled to Billings for the event. On Friday, Gov. Steve Bullock said that number included more than 15 state representatives.
Inman spoke of the gathering’s vibrancy the night before the panel.
Inman said the effort put forth by 22 West High School students to create the “Who are you? Who are we?” art exhibit at the Western Heritage Center “reaffirmed what we did 20 years ago was the right thing.”
The event proved visible the “seeds” they planted years ago, he said.
Inman said he has been blown away by the number of people who remember him.
“I didn’t realize that I knew so many people,” he said, of coming back to Billings. “Even after 20 years people remember me, and I appreciate that very much,” but he wanted to remind everyone that the movement was a community effort.
Inman also stressed the importance of the phrase “silence is acceptance.”
The governor had given a speech a little earlier to kick off the weekend in which he called for continued vigilance in protecting the equal rights and dignity of others.
Participants in the gathering also watched a welcome screening of the documentary Friday titled Waking in Old Creek.
The documentary profiles the town of Old Creek, Wis., where a white supremacist opened fire inside a Sikh Temple, killing six people and injuring others.
Brian Murphy, whom MacDonald called a hero, entered the temple first and was shot 15 times. Somehow Murphy survived. He made a point to be in Billings this weekend.
“If anyone thinks that you don’t have a problem in your city, then you’re wrong,” Murphy said on Friday. “It’s always there.”
“By doing this it reawakens and reinvigorates people to look, to look around and report things, to stop them and to change attitudes.”
“History repeats itself, doesn’t it?” he asked.
This weekend Not In Our Town also officially launched Gold Star Cities, a program which aims to share ways by which different cities are successfully combating hate in their communities.
The leadership gathering concludes Sunday afternoon after another screening at 8:30 a.m. and various other events scheduled throughout the day.