When I moved to Billings a four years ago my boss invited me to a meeting of Not In Our Town. I went, but I wasn’t really that engaged. They were arranging festivities for MLK Day. The events were stirring, kind of, like when you force yourself to go to church, and the preacher says something you know you ought to care about, and reminds you of something you felt more strongly in the past.
Just a dissonance. The old civil rights movement was over. And MLK rhetoric did not seem to address the racism involved in our criminal justice system. Nobody said Mass Incarceration. Nobody said stop-and-frisk. People were aware that racism was real, but the days events were about unity, and everyone caring together, but not demanding any change.
Back then I was an outsider. I was supposed to be here for a single year of AmeriCorps service. It didn’t go that way. I finished up and got a little job and stayed here for thee more years. Now I’ve spent more time in Billings than I have anywhere else since I was a little kid. As I spent more time here I came to realize the need for (and the courage of) an entity like Not In Our Town.
I have this laundry list of encounters with blatant racism. It’s such a casual occurrence, and because of the way I look, which is basically like a police officer (I’m six feet tall, sort of athletic, starting to go bald and I keep my hair cropped very short) people often are surprised that I find their speech offensive.
Sometimes it’s just dumb young people. I had a roommate tell me we should just fence all the Native Americans in on the reservation. And another told me that “our Indians are just shitty”. And a third was trying to defend the stars and bars on his arm.
It’s more frustrating is when it’s from people who should be are leaders. People with authority who casually use the N word in the workplace. Or people who teach little kids acting like all Indians are drunks. Or the way someone talks about a black coworker. People say something abhorrent, and there’s this expectation that I’ll agree and then we’ll vent together.
At first I would ignore it. How could it be real? Did I really hear what I thought I heard? Plus, I was a guest here. Why should some guy from the west coast get to come in and tell people what’s what? What good would scolding do? But somewhere along the way I started getting in people’s faces a bit…
The Ferguson non-indictment was a big moment for me. I was watching the speech on TV at the gym, and just getting madder and madder. Finally I had to get off the treadmill, away from the TV. On the way home I decided I needed to at least go wave a sign in protest. Which is just so not how I
am was. I tried to get people I knew, a few locals from AmeriCorps to come out and join me. But they straight up victim blamed. I tried everyone, and then I kind of put out a beggarly query to the local ACLU and NIOT. I didn’t see a reply. So I just told Facebook that I was gonna go wave a sign for an hour at the court house, and if some other people showed up, I’d stay longer.
When I got out there it was just myself. But after about 15 minutes there were 10 or so people. And by the end of the night there were 30-40. NIOT and ACLU had just called people out. (Later I found a reply on my Facebook page.) I felt completely energized. This a problem that’s been real for so long, and is so out of control, and now people are willing to come out and be pissed about it. That dissonance between an MLK celebration and the urgency of now, it was bridged for a minute.
I think the other thing I realized was that putting yourself out there, and just saying the way we are, the laws and norms we’ve created, saying that it is wrong, nets you a lot of resentment (Some pretty nasty comments in response to my quote in the Billings Gazette). And NIOT has been contending with that resentment for 20 years.
Not In Our Town is not simply back patting on MLK day. They are keeping a frustrated movement from petering out. And maybe now they have the cultural language to broaden that movement.
Also you should read Ta-Nehisi Coates on how Blue Lives Matter.