Thanks for The Gazette’s coverage of hateful graffiti and literature targeting our neighbors and friends in Billings, espousing KKK and neo-Nazi symbols as well as racist and anti-LGBT ideology. It was exactly 25 years ago this month that Billings’ churches, law enforcement, and civic leaders of all persuasions and backgrounds came together and determined that these ideas were not welcome in our community. Eventually, Billings’ efforts became nationally and internationally known as “Not In Our Town,” but at the time it was just ordinary people standing up for values we hold dear about this place and our aspirations for its future.
I want to share with you three principles that guided us in 1993 and would continue to serve us well today.
First, do not ignore these ideas and what they represent. Pernicious, and hateful speech will eventually escalate into hateful acts of bullying, intimidation and violence if ignored and allowed to fester. It was tempting then, and is now, to want to dismiss the significance of these acts. These ideologies impact our community, in particular our neighbors who are the targets of their poisonous messaging.
In 1993, Billings had a new police chief, Wayne Inman, who had come from Portland where, as a senior law enforcement officer, he witnessed firsthand what happened when a community thought it could ignore the hateful ideas and ideologies promoted by racist skinheads in the region. Portland leaders convinced themselves that if they ignored the growing presence of racist skinhead gangs, they would fade away. Eventually a young Ethiopian student, Mulugeta Seraw, was randomly beaten to death with baseball bats on the streets of Portland by a gang of “White Aryan Resistance” youth. Portland did come together then to stand against their ideas and take a much more proactive community response. This experience informed Inman's leadership when the same ideas began to appear in our neighborhoods.
The second principle that guided Billings was that the people who are being targeted are watching closely to see how the rest of the town is responding. They are looking over their shoulders, asking: “Am I on my own here? Will anyone stand up for me?” They are already a minority in the community, and have lived experience of discrimination and outright hostility. If the town is saying “It’s not a big deal, it’s just kids acting out, don’t pay attention to them,” the message to those who are being bullied and threatened is: “Your safety is not important.”
If the town says that what happens to diverse, minority communities within our midst — whether based on ethnicity, religion, race, gender identity or sexual orientation — happens to us all; and we will not stand by and permit that to continue, the whole community is strengthened and relationships are built up.
The third principle in 1993 was to focus the energy of the community not so much on the perpetrators, but rather on their targets and find significant ways to publicly stand with them. So at every step of harassment and intimidation, more support is manifest fo those who are being targeted. That is not to say it’s not important for the perpetrators to be identified and brought to justice. But the creative, nonviolent jujitsu of making every action generate even stronger support for the targets of hate undermines the impetus and the energy of the perpetrators and their insidious message.
Coming together as a community models a valuable teaching moment for a new generation of our young citizens. All kinds of wonderful and surprising fruits will come from stepping up to this issue.