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Demonstrators, some armed citizens join forces on courthouse lawn
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Demonstrators, some armed citizens join forces on courthouse lawn

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One of several groups who first came to the Missoula County Courthouse opposite of Black Lives Matter demonstrators who have been protesting the death of George Floyd gave up their own flags on Thursday to coexist in the name of safety.

“It means that we’re having a conversation, and we’re getting together and putting differences aside and talking," said Ward Wilson, one of the people of color who has been organizing the demonstrations at the courthouse for several days running. "We’re doing it peacefully and coming together as a unified community instead of against one another."

There was certainly some friction on Tuesday when several people, all white, first arrived waving Trump flags, "Don't Tread on Me" flags and at least a couple of Confederate flags. And Thursday, several vehicles still circled the courthouse waving flags that protesters said represent a history of oppression, and several people carrying firearms did not join the Black Lives Matter demonstration. 

But the same day, some of those flags were taken down at the request of the protesters. Pickups that once carried the Confederate flag were now parked in front of the protesters, at the protesters' request, as a barrier against any perceived threats.

Demonstrators on both sides have been wary of a common bogeyman in recent days. Social media is rife with rumors about the "Antifa" descending upon Missoula to sow chaos and destruction. Missoula Police Chief Jaeson White and Mayor John Engen on Wednesday issued a video statement stating they've found no credible evidence of such "outside agitators" en route to Missoula, but the groups on the courthouse lawn are skeptical.

"Even if there is nothing coming, no violence, just being here and making sure that not only they’re safe, but our community and our buildings, too," said Derek Crowe, who had a pistol on his hip.

As Wilson gathered the Black Lives Matter protesters together and spoke over the megaphone, several people open-carrying firearms gathered with them and listened. When Ward and other speakers finished, those with firearms joined a Black Lives Matter chant.

Carla Lewis, whose two sons have been open carrying at the courthouse, said her group did not not identify as militia, but as concerned citizens whose goals are focused on protecting people and businesses downtown. The protesters have been referring to her as "Mama," as she wrangles the high school-aged kids into line from time to time.

Lewis said she doesn't want their group to overtake the message by protesters, and she respects the Black Lives Matter conversation that's happening right now because of Floyd's killing. Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer seen on video kneeling on Floyd's neck until he goes limp, has been charged with his killing, and three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

"Our thing is, and they don't like it, all lives matter," Lewis said. "But I understand Black Lives Matter, because of what happens. We don't agree with what happened, and that cop needs to do time."

Not everyone enjoyed the idea of unifying the two groups on the courthouse sidewalk. Mija, also a person of color who was concerned with the messaging on display Thursday, argued the Black Lives Matter movement loses ground when it allows armed persons to join.

"Missoula is so desperate for white-washed harmony, they’re going to believe that things are all good because they see this shininess happening between protesters and militia and cops," Mija said. "And it's not, it's a co-option of the Black Lives Matter movement. … They need to put their guns down. You don't shoot people who are looting."

Morenike, the 19-year-old who has been leading the protests from 10 a.m. into the night at the Missoula County Courthouse, said the prevailing effort must be peaceful to be respected. She's seen protests lose ground because of the destruction that sometimes runs parallel with the demonstrations in larger cities, and has worked in recent days to stop any efforts toward violence. 

"No one wants to be the same as other places," she said. "I want people around the world to know peaceful protests can happen. Cities can come together to protect each other." 

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