Many of us breathed a collective sigh of relief after the dust settled in Whitefish at the end of Dr. King Day last year. It’s been a year of intense upheaval, including the murder of a civil rights activist at a White Nationalist march in Charlottesville, Va. That scene could have been in Montana’s beautiful mountain town, but it wasn’t, and there are lessons that we must carry forward.
In some ways, last year’s national white nationalist uprising began with a threatened armed march by Nazis on Dr. King Day in Whitefish. The threat was part of the harassment heaved at prominent members of the Montana Jewish community by anti-Semites and organized by a national website, “The Daily Stormer.”
The march didn’t happen, supposedly because it was too cold. In fact, 500 tough Montanans had just stood outside for hours in the single digits for a “Love Not Hate” event on the same streets of the proposed march.
It wasn’t the cold that stopped the march, but the warmth of the shared human community that engaged in coordinated actions of love to support the Jewish people that had the deterrent effect for which we had hoped. From across religions and economic class, across mountains and borders, folks came together and acted.
In a time of hurtful words piercing our airways from podiums and pulpits, it’s easy to retreat into the comforts of home that some of us know. However, the comfort of home can only keep the noise out for so long — until the hurtful words are directed at you and your neighbor.
For a big state, Montana is like a small town. We lean on each other to pull a stuck car out of a snowbank and hold a spaghetti feed for a neighbor in need. So, when white nationalists attacked the Jewish people of Montana and the community of Whitefish, Montana stuck up for them, from the smallest kids to our highest elected officials. Beyond our state’s borders, support also poured in from around the country. The lesson is that, when our communities are under attack, we hold each other close and support each other, despite the physical distance that separates us.
We need to continue expanding the view of family and community beyond the comfy walls of home, the state line, and the borders to our north and south. We need to hear the cries of our fellow humans and recognize the attacks on us all. Then we must act.
Days after the failed march by armed white supremacists in Whitefish last year, over 10,000 people gathered in Helena for the Women’s March. On that day so many found inspiration and felt community. And, while we must find that hope, the reality of today leaves us no room for betting that love will simply win if we wait for the self-destruction of the haters. It’s the power of collective action, smart strategies, informed positions and persistent effort that will save the day.
Will Randall of Flathead Love Lives Here put it perfectly when he said, “Here in Montana, we might not have much say nationally. But we can make Whitefish a better town. And if we do that all around the country, I think the national narrative can change.”
We have the opportunity to share the lessons of Whitefish as we remember Dr. King this week. In communities across the state, Montanans of various backgrounds will gather to honor this hero to our nation, and the best way to honor him is to step out of those comfy walls of home and act.
I had the privilege of speaking at the Women’s March in Helena last year. I ended with an appeal that feels even more relevant a year later. Please, get in an organization and act with others. When your ears are pierced with hateful words, breathe and then tomorrow let us learn, teach, and take action together.
Rachel Carroll Rivas is the co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, a multi-issue state-based human rights organization. She grew up in Great Falls and is a mom, an environmentalist and a dancer. The Montana Human Rights Network is hosting MLK Day events across the state. For more information, go to www.mhrn.org/events. In Helena and Bozeman, events will feature Eric Ward and local activists talking about anti-Semitism as the foundation of white nationalism.