What I Saw at the Black Lives Matter Protest in Billings
I heard the protest before I saw it. Voices, (if I were to guess) hundreds of them, could be heard chanting "Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!" and car horns were beeping in response--beep, beep, beep! Beep beep beep! When I rounded the corner from third street onto 27th Street, the magnitude of the movement came into full view: easily 1,000 people were gathered on the sidewalk and in the park adjacent to the Yellowstone County Courthouse. As one of my friends so aptly later pointed out on Facebook, this was easily the most well-attended protest Billings had seen in a long while.
At the press conference, last week the one called to address rumors of outside groups coming to Billings this Sunday (6/7/20) to violently protest, I was glad to hear there was no credible evidence to support the rumors, and that the Billings Police Chief said, "We're here to help facilitate their peaceful protest, not police anything. And keep people safe. We're not going to let anyone hijack this rally." Still, I was nervous.
I'd seen screenshots on Facebook of people who threatened to cause trouble at the protest, and stories with footage from across the country of protesters who'd been attacked by police officers. Not to mention, the stories of reporters who'd been arrested while covering protests and riots. I decided that if I were going to attend, I'd do my homework: research best practices for a safe protest, know my rights, and have my lawyer friend's phone number written on my hand in case I was one of the reporters getting arrested.
After taking some photos from the sidewalk, I weaved my way through the crowd and toward the center of the park to listen to the speakers and organizers who planned the rally. What I know is that there were opening remarks, and an Indigenous prayer, and remarks from an Indigenous leader, and a poem, but the cacophony of chanting and cheering made it impossible to hear specifically what was being said. Chants of "I can't breathe," "Hands up, don't shoot," and "No justice, no peace" created a din over everything.
While I can't tell you what people said, I can tell you what I saw: I saw people of many faiths and many races lifting their voices (and their signs) passionately in defense of their beliefs. I saw people with guns. I saw people with children. I saw people with dogs. I saw a man with a Samurai sword. I saw a man carrying a cross with a t-shirt that said "Jesus Lives." I saw people I knew and many I didn't. I saw police cars but no uniformed officers. I saw Trump flags. I saw American flags. I saw the first amendment being acted out in myriad ways and all of it was beautiful. I saw people protesting peacefully. I saw counter-protesters responding peacefully.
There was one thing I happened to overhear from a guy talking to his friend behind me: "I'm proud of our city today." I couldn't agree more.