On Saturday, Dec. 12, about 150 people gathered in Pioneer Park in Billings for an event called We Are All Sisters. The idea was to show our support for the Muslim community in Billings after some of the people within that community had been harassed.
It was a small but meaningful gesture for most of us, in the spirit of Not In Our Town, to show that we are not going to allow these people to suffer from the attitudes of an angry few who probably didn’t give a second thought to Muslims just a few months ago. People who probably couldn’t tell you the first thing about what it means to be a Muslim.
But there was a conspicuous presence at this gathering, and I’ve been trying to understand this presence ever since, to comprehend the purpose, but also the effect, in a way that makes sense. As I approached the gathering, I noticed an old friend of mine, huddling next to a tree, about 20 yards from the rest. I went over to ask her what was going on, and she pointed and said, “I’m scared.”
I looked in the direction she was pointing, and there stood a man with a scarf wrapped around the lower part of his face. He wore jeans and a camo jacket, and stood in a sort of parade rest, his legs spread slightly, arms tucked behind his back, emphasizing what was prominently mounted on his hip—a pistol.
My first reaction was a swear word, and a feeling of disgust. But in the way we are all trying to normalize what has become extremely odd behavior in today’s society, I found myself doing what the rest of us did. Which was to try to act as if it didn’t matter. I joined the crowd, saying hello to people I knew, and there were a lot of them, which was nice. It gave us all a sense of shared strength.
But the presence was very much there. Some people mentioned it directly, some people cried, some actually approached the man and talked to him. I was proud of those people, thinking I certainly didn’t have that much courage. One woman welcomed him and asked him to join the rest of us, to which he mumbled something about needing to get to work. I tried to find some comfort in the possibility that this might mean he would leave soon, although I didn’t believe his answer for a second.
But the main thing I thought about later was how this scenario fits into the dynamic of our recent experiences in America. What would have happened if this man suddenly decided that he was going to shoot as many of us as he could? Thinking about the whole notion of a “good man with a gun” stopping this man was absurd. The temporary, on-the-spot solution that people arrived at was to move, which we did. But we went from a situation where many people stood about 10 yards from this man to a situation where we were gathered about 30 yards from him. If he had decided to start shooting, he could have emptied an entire clip before most of us had a chance to turn around.
If any of us had a gun, would we have stood facing this man, High Noon style, just in case he drew? That would have looked absurd, and of course it would have just heightened the tension. We were sitting ducks, and those of us who stayed and tried to ignore the fact that he was there knew we were sitting ducks, and decided to assume nothing would happen.
It turned out to be a great experience. Most of us stopped thinking about the guy with the gun. I didn’t even notice, but I read later that the police asked him to leave, and he complied. A Muslim man who has lived in Billings for over 40 years spoke, and although he didn’t say anything particularly profound, it felt important to hear him. To hear his fear, but more importantly, his message that he and most of his people are not to be feared.
The sad part of the whole experience was that the man with the gun accomplished what he set out to do, or at least what I assume he set out to do. Based on the rhetoric from recent events, I would guess that he was there to either protect the rest of us from these scary Muslims, or to let these scary Muslims know that at least one person in Billings was prepared to fight back if they start their shenanigans.
So he scared the hell out of a few people, he got his picture in the paper, and he perpetuated this growing sense of helplessness that many of us feel about the issue of guns. He was not doing anything illegal, which is scary enough in itself. But he was, as so many people seem to be doing these days, missing the point. Which is that most of us want these people who have chosen to live in America to feel as if they have nothing to fear.
I can’t even imagine what it must be like to live in a place for years without any incident, and then suddenly realize that, every single day, you face the prospect of being insulted, or as has happened in other parts of the country, physically assaulted because of the way you look.
Here’s the definition of terrorist: A person who terrorizes or frightens others. The sad truth is that, in a sea of people who had gathered out of a sense of love and support, a cause that we managed to achieve despite this presence, there was only one terrorist in the park that day.
Russell Rowland is a Billings native (West High ’76) who earned an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University. He is the author of three novels, “In Open Spaces,” “The Watershed Years,” and “High and Inside.” The latter two were finalists for the High Plains Book Award. He is currently working on a book called “Fifty-Six Counties: An American Journey,” which has him traveling to every county in Montana and writing about the issues around the state. You can also visit his website.