A new display at the Western Heritage Center and a three-day Not in Our Town National Leadership Gathering are two ways that Billings residents are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the town’s stand against prejudice and hate.
The National Leadership Gathering will take place on the weekend of June 20-22 in downtown Billings. On June 20, the Western Heritage Center will unveil its NIOT display, which was created by a class of 22 West High students. It will be on display through Dec. 20.
A brief history lesson
Before looking at how the community will celebrate this anniversary, it may be useful to remember the events that took place in 1993. After all, a whole generation has grown up without knowing the details of these events. And according to Chuck Tooley, the head of the National Leadership Gathering’s steering committee, even those who were present when the events occurred may not remember all the details.
“So many people around the country only remember the menorah incident at the end of the year,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize that there was a whole year of hate crimes that led up to that.”
Tooley said he first noticed the hate activity on Martin Luther King Day of 1993. Those who had just taken part in a multi-congregational celebration of King’s life noticed fliers underneath the windshield wipers of their cars.
“On the front side, these fliers made accusations about African-Americans, Martin Luther King, Jews, homosexuals and our police chief, Wayne Inman, of all people,” said Tooley. “On the opposite side, they were signed by ‘the knights of the Ku Klux Klan.’”
Following this event, there began to be an influx of acts against minorities.
A pair of skinheads showed up at the predominantly African-American Wayman Chapel and unsettled the congregants by glaring at them throughout the service. Dawn Fasthorse, a young Native-American mother, awoke one morning to find that her house had been spray painted with swastikas and anti-Native American phrases such as “Indians Suck.” A beer bottle was thrown through the storm door of Uri Barnea, a Jewish man who was then the conductor of the Billings Symphony Orchestra.
The only thing stronger than the hatred was Billings residents’ response to it. Members of churches across the city came to sit with the members of Wayman Chapel during Sunday services in order to provide moral support and reassurance. The painters union heard about Mrs. Fasthorse’s house and more than 20 people came to repaint it free of charge. Mr. Barnea’s storm door was repaired.
The hate crimes came to a head during Hanukkah season when a piece of cinder block was thrown through the window of young Isaac Schnitzer, who had placed a menorah in his window to celebrate the holiday.
“This was deeply disturbing to our community,” Tooley said, “because it was an attack on the safety of a small child - which was unconscionable. So this event had a galvanizing effect on us.”
On Dec. 5, Margie MacDonald, the director of the Montana Association of Churches, passed out line drawings of menorahs to members of many churches throughout the city. She asked that these congregants place the drawings in their windows to show solidarity with the Schnitzer family. A few weeks later, The Billings Gazette printed a full-page picture of a menorah and asked readers to do the same.
“Each of these hate crimes only firmed the resolve of the people of Billings,” Tooley said.
A movement is born
The actions of Billings’ citizens began to gain nationwide attention when ABC News came to report on the events. Shortly thereafter, California filmmaker Patrice O’Neill of the nonprofit film company The Working Group came to shoot a documentary for PBS about the events.
“One of the scenes in the documentary was footage of the Universal Athletics sign on 24th Street West that said ‘No hate. No violence. Not in our Town,’” Tooley said. “When they were editing it and putting together the film, they thought, ‘Let’s call it “Not in Our Town.”’”
More documentaries about standing up to hateful actions across the country followed and The Working Group decided to create a nonprofit organization – also called Not in Our Town – that helps others find ways that they can fight hate in their own communities. It is this nonprofit organization that is sponsoring the National Leadership Gathering at the end of the month.
According to the Steering Committee for the National Leadership Gathering, the three-day event will serve two purposes. The first is to give participants ways to share their experiences and learn new methods to fight hate and violence with nonviolent strategies. The second is to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Billings’ historic stand against hate crimes.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock will attend the opening reception of the event on Friday evening. Ron Davis, the director of Community Oriented Policing Services at the Department of Justice, will play a major role in the gathering. Patrice O’Neill will also attend.
Before the main gathering begins, there will be a pre-gathering from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, June 20, at Rocky Mountain College. This gathering will give tips to educators on how to combat discrimination in their schools and classrooms.
The gathering will officially begin at 6 p.m. Friday with a reception at the Western Heritage Center. Music, food and drinks will be provided, and guests will have the opportunity to look through the NIOT display at the Heritage Center.
Saturday and Sunday will feature a mixture of keynote speakers, breakout groups and panel discussions at the Northern Hotel.
On Saturday evening at 7:30, the “We Remember” event will take place. During this event, the original “Not in Our Town” film will be screened at the Babcock Theater. It will be followed by the Working Group’s newest film, “Marshalltown.”
After both films are aired, a panel of key players from the events 20 years ago - including Dawn Fasthorse, Margie MacDonald, Wayne Inman, Brian Schnitzer and Uri Barnea - will take part in a question-and-answer session. The films and Q&A are free of charge to the public.
The registration fee for the three-day event is $250, but Billings residents get a large discount. They can attend the three day event for $100 or just the Saturday event for $50. To register, visit niot.org/gathering/2014.
Tooley is most excited about the “We Remember” event on Saturday night “because it provides an opportunity to look back and remember what happened 20 years ago.” He is also looking forward to the public unveiling of the NIOT exhibit at the Western Heritage Center.
Tooley hopes that all Billings residents can take the time to partake in some of the events offered during the NIOT gathering “because it reminds us of who we are and what we can accomplish if we work together.”
As you walk into the Western Heritage Center’s NIOT display, you will be greeted by a video featuring West High junior Emily Haskell.
“We ask you to open your mind and journey into the past, into yourself, and out into the community today,” she says. “We ask you to reflect on your beliefs as we show you multiple perspectives of events from Billings’ past and begin to imagine the community we’ll create together.”
The West High project, known as the Community Storytelling Project, is a joint effort between School District 2, the Western Heritage Center, Montana PBS, and Billings Public Library. The goal of the project is to give West High students an understanding of Billings’ history as well as a knowledge of technical abilities like operating video cameras and conducting interviews.
While there is quite a lot to see and read at the exhibit, a few displays are especially powerful:
• The “Hate Speech” display discusses the rise of hate speech in Billings during 1992 and 1993. Windshield wipers are mounted on the wall. Visitors can pull replicas of Ku Klux Klan fliers from 1993 out from under the wipers. One has a picture of a Klan member and reads: “America for Whites. Africa for blacks. Ship those apes back to the trees. Ship those niggers back.”
• The “Student Perspectives” display features written reflections from students about what they learned while working on the project. “This project has lifted a veil of ignorance that racism is dead,” one writes. “Discrimination has simply changed its forms.”
• As one enters the second room in the exhibit, one’s attention is immediately drawn to the large spray-painted mural inspired by the graffiti on Dawn Fasthorse’s house. However, this mural communicates a message of peace and coexistence instead of hate and prejudice.
• The main feature in the second room is a movie featuring the testimonies of multiple people who took part in the events that led to the creation of Not in Our Town.
Next to the video screen is a quote from American anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”