I encourage the City Council to support the celebration of Billings’ remarkable national and international reputation as a community that will not stand by and tolerate the persecution of its citizens. It was an inspiring and powerful witness when Billings citizens, civic leaders, churches, businesses, and organizations took a public stand to say “Not In Our Town” to extremist hate groups that were targeting Jewish, Native American, African American, gay and lesbian, and other minority groups in our town.
Throughout the many months leading up to the shocking incidents that occurred during Hanukkah of 1993, it was clear that the Ku Klux Klan was seeking to isolate individuals and groups from our community who have so often throughout history stood alone in the face of ugly and threatening attacks.
Our law enforcement and civic leaders made it very clear that they would not single out just one or two select groups of citizens being subjected to these attacks. We would not countenance this behavior toward any of the groups so often subjected to malicious harassment because of their faith, the color of their skin, their national heritage, or their sexual orientation. Our approach was not to focus on the perpetrators, but rather to make it clear to them that whoever they targeted would be surrounded by the support of the wider community.
Gays, Methodists, Native Americans
Thus, placing menorahs in the windows of non-Jewish homes was an opportunity to stand with Jewish families whose homes were vandalized. That remarkable witness was preceded by lesser known, but equally significant incidents that included Billings citizens worshiping with a small African Methodist Episcopal congregation that was subjected to threatening and disrespectful visits by “skinhead” hooligans.
It also included a Native American family whose small home in Billings South Side was spray painted with swastikas. Labor unions, churches and human rights groups organized to paint over the graffiti.
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And it included gay and lesbian couples in the community whose homes were being leafleted with threatening messages in their mailboxes and on their doorsteps.
Beginning in January 1993, white supremacists circulated leaflets attacking people for their race and sexual orientation. It is apparent that the perpetrators seemed to be playing on anti-gay sentiment to dissuade the leaders of our community from taking a courageous stand against hateful rhetoric and attacks on citizens in our community.
Billings inspired heroes
When three synagogues were fire bombed in Sacramento in 1999, and when minorities were shot or attacked in states as far away as Maine, New York, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan, the story of Billings Not In Our Town stand has inspired those communities. They have used what Billings citizens stood up for in 1993 as an example to heal and transform violence into a stronger and safer community. We are very fortunate to be able to host some of these heroes with extraordinary stories to share this coming June, and I strongly hope and believe that Billings will present a warm and hospitable welcome that it demonstrated 20 years ago.
I also hope the City Council will see the tremendous advantages to our entire community of memorializing that story by donating to make the city of Billings a lead sponsor of the event.
In this day and age, Billings' history as a community that embraces and welcomes all people of good will helps us also project the fact that Billings continues to be a great place for the best and the brightest to raise a family, start a business, or pursue a professional career in a wonderful state.