Twenty years ago, when Billings was unifying and fighting back against local acts of intolerance, racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry and hatred, it was not thinking about how its actions might affect the broader world. Billings was simply but dramatically asserting its own community identity as an open and accepting city that would not put up with aggressive actions against any of its citizens, including the most harassed, ignored and marginalized.
Little did Billings know when it was declaring “Not in Our Town” that it was spawning a national “Not in Our Town” movement … that it had established a template for community action across the nation that would be both modified and replicated many times over.
Forty-six communities and 26 states attended the Not in Our Town national conference just completed in Billings last weekend - speaking volumes about what Billings has done for the country. Many other communities were not able to make it.
Good people all across Montana were proud of what Billings did 20 years ago. Recall the times. Extremism was raising its ugly head many different ways across our state. In addition to the skinhead, neo-Nazi and white supremacist activity like that in Billings, militias were rising up and the Freemen movement was taking hold. It even turned out that the Unabomber was shipping his explosive deadly packages from a haven in the woods of Montana.
Most Montanans were appalled by the extremist activity and by the bad image it was giving to the Treasure State.
An organization I chaired at that time, the Montana Anti-Extremist Coalition, helped coordinate recognition of the community courage of Billings by the city of New York, which was inspired by Billings’ efforts.
The Association for a Better New York, a major civic group in the Big Apple, brought back to New York a half-dozen folks from Billings, including Margie McDonald, Chuck Tooley, Randy Seimers, Wayne Inman, the Schnitzers, and Wayne Schile, as well as Gov. Marc Racicot. They were all honored by the Big Apple with its famed Crystal Apple Award in recognition of how Billings had helped inspire New York City and the nation about how to fight against intolerance, bigotry and hatred.
Over time the Billings story not only inspired the nation, but it also spawned the NIOT movement that is now giving structure and voice to the efforts to combat extreme hatred and bigotry throughout the nation.
NIOT was Billings’ gift to the nation, its gift to thousands of individuals and hundreds of communities where there are now NIOT leaders and activities. What these individuals and communities have done to this point, what they are doing now, and what they will do in the future, is the ultimate thank you, the ultimate “gift back” to the leaders and the people of Billings.
For Billings to have been a catalyst for this national NIOT movement is a tribute to Billings’ past story and actions. But challenges rise up every day. Billings’ past success and the national participation in the recent NIOT conference in Billings, are a reminder that we all must be eternally vigilant in the face of intolerance, hatred and bigotry. Right now Billings must overcome a new face of intolerance by standing tall and declaring it is a fully open and accepting community by adopting the nondiscrimination ordinance now before its City Council.
The flame of hope that was Billings 20 years ago should not be snuffed out by the actions of Billings’ leaders today. Like all of us, Billings still has to live up to its legacy each and every day. I believe it will.
Evan Barrett of Butte formerly lived in Red Lodge and Roundup. He is director of Business & Community Outreach and an instructor at Montana Tech.