At a Billings City Council work session Monday night, Billings Mayor Bill Cole opened the meeting by reading a statement condemning recent acts of “deplorable, despicable, degrading” vandalism that carried racist and anti-gay messages.
He said the hatred “has no place in Billings or any other community,” and he invited other council members to sign his statement, which will be posted on the city’s website.
Police Chief Rich St. John also spoke, saying the Police Department is working hard to identify and arrest those responsible for the crimes. He said he is working closely with the FBI and also consulted with a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Cole’s statement and St. John’s update came after private individuals mounted their own responses to the recent acts of vandalism at a church and two public schools. One of the most public responses was that of former mayoral candidate Danielle Egnew, who distributed dozens of her “Lead with Love” placards around town — after removing her name from the one-time campaign signs.
Egnew said she was inspired to distribute the signs because she was distraught by the lack of response from city officials to the wave of anti-gay and racist graffiti, as well as a dump of anti-gay pamphlets at Grace United Methodist Church, which was also sprayed with graffiti.
“I kept waiting for some motivating message from the powers that be, from our government, but there was nothing,” Egnew said.
After receiving a flood of emails and phone calls from people wondering what the city was going to do — “You run for mayor and everybody thinks you’re still in the loop,” Egnew said — she decided Saturday night that she had to do something.
First she posted a video on her Facebook page, expressing her sadness over the demonstrations of hate and urging people to embrace her “Lead with Love” movement. Then she started cutting the bottoms off 150 left-over campaign signs (she lost in the primary last summer), and letting people know they were available.
Egnew said she was not picking on Mayor Cole or anyone else on the council, but she was upset at the general lack of leadership. Cole did attend a meeting of Not In Our Town on Jan. 28 at Grace United Methodist Church and St. John and a local FBI agent attended a meeting of the Billings Human Relations Commission last Thursday.
A draft of the minutes of that meeting were posted in an email to council members from a member of the commission.
The recent incidents started on Jan. 23 or early on the 24th, when someone spray-painted Nazi swastikas, penises and profanity on the exterior of Lewis and Clark Middle School and Senior High School, as well as on houses and cars on Burlington Avenue.
On Jan. 25, someone left a stack of pamphlets — titled “Stop the Fags” — at Grace church, 1935 Ave. B, which has been out front in its support of the LBGTQ community. Then, a day after the church hosted the Not In Our Town forum, vandals struck again, spray-painting a swastika and a “No gays” message on church property.
Egnew said she took action because people have been frightened by recent events and need to know that they are supported by the community. She wants her “Lead with Love” campaign “to remind people to see the world through a lens of compassion and love first — to change how we think, how we act and how we speak about the world.”
It’s not just empty talk, she said: “Love is a heavy motivator, it really is. Mothers have lifted cars off their children because they love them.”
In addition to Egnew’s efforts, Angie Buckley, the church council president at Grace, teamed up with a friend to make “Speak Peace Not Hate” signs, which they intended to distribute around their Pioneer Park neighborhood. Buckley said her friend did so, but she couldn’t. She wanted to distribute them Saturday, she said, but her church pastor, the Rev. Sarah Beck, was out of town and Buckley spent all of Saturday doing “church stuff.”
And Not In Our Town, on its Facebook page, posted rainbow flags, which it urged residents to download and display.
Earlier this year, Penny Ronning, a member of the City Council, tried to get her colleagues to put reconsideration of a nondiscrimination ordinance on its to-do list for 2018, but she couldn’t get enough votes. She said Monday that she didn’t know if recent events would bring anyone around to her way of thinking, but she hoped so.
The NDO, which would have extended civil rights protections to the LBGTQ community, was rejected by the council in 2014. A lack of city leadership and a strong response to hate activity leads to the kind of events witnessed lately, she said.
“It grows exponentially,” she said of such activity. “It doesn’t grow slowly.”