The nationwide protests against police brutality in response to the alleged murder of an unarmed black man last month in Minneapolis have reached the Flathead Valley, with nightly demonstrations underway in Whitefish and a protest planned for Saturday evening in Kalispell.
The Kalispell Police Department issued a statement on Wednesday saying it was approached “by a local group expressing their support for local law enforcement while expressing concern for events nationally” that has organized a protest for Saturday, June 6 at 5 p.m. near Depot Park. An image promoting the protest has been widely shared on social media with the hashtags #blacklivesmatter and #justice4george and has sparked responses both in support of and opposed to the gathering.
Kalispell Chief of Police Doug Overman said his department is coordinating with other law enforcement agencies throughout the Flathead Valley to ensure Saturday’s demonstration and encounters with potential counter-protesters remain peaceful, saying, “you’re going to see a uniformed response.”
“We have a plan and this is what I want to reassure people,” Overman said. “With all of the information we have, we are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. We will be heavily staffed, and that includes our partners in the valley, and we are prepared to respond.”
Overman said his office has received “a high volume” of contact from local residents who are concerned about anyone who would be “causing harm to our city” on Saturday.
“The citizens of Kalispell have made it very clear to me that they’re not going to allow that to happen,” Overman said. “I fully anticipate folks downtown exercising their second amendment rights.”
“We’re not encouraging armed people to be downtown,” he added. “But we’re not naive to the fact that they might be present.”
In the statement released Wednesday, KPD also responded to rumors that an organized group of protesters from outside the area was headed this way. In the statement, KPD wrote, “we have no direct information that any outside groups are planning an event in the Kalispell area.” Overman added that his office has been communicating with state and federal officials and that there is no intelligence indicating outside groups will have a presence at this weekend’s protest.
As for law enforcement’s role in the demonstration, Overman said his officers “will specifically target agitators” who deviate from peaceful protest “on either side.”
“When emotions get high like they will be on Saturday, that’s probably not the best moment to try and have a dialogue,” Overman said.
In Whitefish, a growing number of people have been gathering nightly outside of City Hall in recent days, and two people have been cited after confronting protesters. One of those citations was issued to a man whose interaction on Wednesday night was captured in a video that has been widely viewed on social media. In the video, which had been shared more than 3,000 times as of Thursday morning, the man can be seen verbally confronting demonstrators with a string of expletives and swatting down signs. He has been charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct. A woman was charged with disturbing the peace earlier this week.
Whitefish Chief of Police Bill Dial said his department has been in contact with organizers of that protest and that they have “been very cooperative” with his office. Dial said his department will continue to have a presence at the protests for the remainder of this week.
The nationwide protests stem from a video of the Minneapolis Police Department’s interaction with George Floyd on May 25. In the video, an officer is seen kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd later died and the officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder. Three other officers who were present at the time also face charges related to the incident. All four officers have been fired.
Asked what he thought of the video, Overman called it “very disturbing” and noted that his department has ongoing conversations about appropriate force during an arrest and “conversations about the national narrative.”
“I think one of the things that gets lost is people bring a lot of policy suggestions and training suggestions,” he said. “This comes down to hiring and recruiting the right kind of people. We have a difficult job but there’s a built-in humanity that you need in people (to become a police officer), and I really feel proud that we have that here.”