In the beginning, there were the trucks, and the trucks brandished the American flag, Donald Trump’s flag and the occasional Confederate flag flying together in blissful ignorance of an unholy union. Their owners sometimes yelled, but mostly stared in pride, confident in their superiority.
Their presence incited verbal outrage from Missoula’s Black Lives Matter protesters. Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd murdered brutally and publicly due to his racial bias and the unchecked power of his occupation. The center could not hold; the fissures of racism and classism that plague our criminal justice system have been so plainly exposed that even #BlueLivesMatter folks have been unable to justify why Louisville officers would perform a no-knock search on Breonna Taylor’s apartment and shoot her eight times.
In other words, how dare they try to turn the unnumbered losses the black community suffers into a partisan pissing match?
Eventually they quieted, staking territory nearby, and while some have touted unity between BLM protesters and Trump supporters, it has more so resembled passive acceptance for the sake of peace.
Then the lines blurred. The self-proclaimed Montana militia appeared across the street, then at the end of the block, then among protesters. First they were defending businesses against the threat of Antifa, then they were loitering with Trump supporters, then they were “protecting protesters” from unspecified outside threats. By Friday, they numbered 50.
Let me be candid: this is a group with diverse affiliations — some brandished BLM signs, others fraternized with Trump supporters, still others self-identified as libertarians. Some organizers embraced their presence; many expressed fear at the show of force.
And so, as Missoulians lay face down in tribute to George Floyd, militiamen monitored the premises, rifles pointed downward.
I hope the irony is not lost. Armed white people have claimed the title of citizen protectors, eerily reminiscent of the murders of Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other undocumented lynchings. Regardless of their politics, the members of the militia are untrained, biased and placed in an emotionally charged setting.
That said, the Black Panthers used guns as part of their activism. While one could point to the fact that these weapons hold different connotations in the hands of the oppressed, it’s also true that shootouts with police and within the party were a source of the group’s decline, though it was largely brought down by FBI intervention.
When a white supremacist charged at protesters on Friday, the militiamen were the first responders, tackling him without escalation. But had he shot, the presence of 50-plus guns coupled with the dozen armed police could have sparked a shootout.
The future of the BLM protest in Missoula is ambiguous — numbers have dwindled, perhaps due to weather, fear of another outside attack or anxiety around the presence of a citizen militia. The uncomfortable reality is that protesting is dangerous, especially for people of color, and interrogating methods of self-defense is increasingly relevant. This means keeping an emergency contact, filming aggression or, for some, being armed, but the mythology of more guns equals less crime has been dismantled; firearm assaults are 6.8 times more common in the states with the most guns.
The great irony of the Montana militia is that they enjoy a surfeit of justice. It’s impossible to imagine black people with military-style weapons treated with similar civility by law enforcement. When people carry guns in protest they are increasing the likelihood of violence.
Americans’ freedom to protest has been curtailed across the country. For Missoulians to protect our right to assembly and the lives of our most vulnerable community members now and in future movements, we must disarm.
Audrey Pettit is a rising junior at Barnard College of Columbia University. She is a Missoula resident and attended the protests in Missoula.
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