When the protesters arrived at Depot Park, they were met by high-powered rifles, carried by men who said they were there to keep the peace. What followed was more than four hours of peaceful protest and a sense of cautious optimism on a rainy Saturday night in downtown Kalispell.
More than 1,000 people demonstrated to support the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement, a significant turnout in Flathead County where the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the population is 95 percent white. Protesters kneeled for more than eight minutes in memory of George Floyd, the unarmed black man whose killing was caught on video in Minneapolis late last month, and chanted slogans from “no justice, no peace” to “black lives matter.” They waved signs and crowded sidewalks for more than a block in downtown Kalispell, and their presence inspired a cacophony of car horns, squealing tires, thick black exhaust and emotional reactions, both in support and opposition to their cause, from vehicles driving by on U.S. Highway 93.
But the uneasy dynamic between emotional protesters and heavily armed citizens hung in the humid air all night. The armed group of mostly men arrived at Depot Park hours before the protest was scheduled to begin, with many circling the Flathead County Veterans Memorial in an effort to protect it from an attack from an “outside entity.” At least some of the people who came armed were connected with the Flathead Patriot Guard, a group founded “to fight radicalism and protect what’s near and dear to us such as our families, local and small businesses, veterans memorials, historic landmarks, law enforcement and civilians alike.”
“The group is designed to make sure that this event, this protest, is conducted as safely as possible for the protesters,” Josh Williams, representing the Patriot Guard, said. “That’s our whole goal of being out here. We want to ensure safety for the entire community. We don’t want to cause fear. We don’t want to cause anxiety.”
Members of the Patriot Guard coordinated their appearance with organizers of the protest, and an hour before the protest was to begin, leaders of the guard gathered more than a hundred people, many of whom were armed, around the Depot Park gazebo to talk about why they were there. Williams offered support for the protest and implored those carrying guns only to work to keep the peace, and two of the protest’s young organizers spoke to the same group and explained their mission — a peaceful protest in a place where expressing ideologies like Black Lives Matter can feel daunting.
Asked if he worried that the show of force could be intimidating to the protesters whom he and his group said they were protecting, Williams said it was something “we definitely took under consideration.”
“However, just as it’s their First Amendment right to be out there protesting, it’s our Second Amendment right to be out here and (have) all the things that we choose to use to protect our communities, our families, our homes,” he continued. “We are hopeful that the show of force is more of a show of community, not necessarily that we’re trying to intimidate.”
There were no significant confrontations between the protesters and the “peacekeepers,” but the presence of so many guns, displayed prominently in accordance with Montana’s open-carry laws, left many in attendance feeling on edge. Some groups of armed men approached protesters to begin a dialogue, but even that sometimes did little to create an understanding. In one instance, a group of three armed men struck up a conversation with two women who were protesting. They listened to each other but one of the women, Jessica Maldonado, had a difficult time overlooking the weaponry, at one point showing her trembling hand to the men to make her point.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of people and everyone has been open to having a dialogue, which I think is the most important thing,” she said. “But I think it’s really scary to be around this many guns.”
The large protest crowd came out of a conversation between two 17-year-old Kalispell girls who later recruited a handful of other friends to try and organize a small gathering. When one of them started a Facebook page called “I Can’t Breathe,” the event took off and turned into Saturday’s showing.
“We don’t see anything like this in Montana, especially when it comes to racial injustices,” Anja Parmer, one of the organizers, said. “And I think it’s important to bring that to light because everyone here is kind of scared to protest about things like that, just because of where we live. I just got it in my head and thought I want to make a change, and I think this is a good way to do it.”
“A lot of racism is systemic,” co-organizer Alexis Meredith said. “There’s hundreds of years of oppression toward people of color, even if I don’t understand it completely because I don’t have to worry about walking down the road and fearing for my life (or) fearing for my life if I get pulled over. That’s exactly what white privilege is. Because a lot of people of color, they do have to feel that, and they do have to deal with years of injustice.”
Some protesters delivered additional messages throughout the evening, advocating for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People and LGBTQ rights, calling for police reform and vocalizing their displeasure with President Donald Trump. As the evening wore on, a small group of protesters and armed men faced off in front of the Veterans Memorial, chanting opposing slogans — a la “black lives matter” versus “all lives matter” — and raising each other’s blood pressure, but no physical confrontations occurred.
The Kalispell Police Department had several uniformed officers on hand for all of it, and they stepped in to diffuse a handful of verbal skirmishes. Little understanding seemed to be struck when those with opposing views did engage during the protest, which one attendee compared to the crowd at a football game where both sides cheered their own without attempting to reach a middle ground.
But the original message, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and racial equality, was delivered strongly. The large contingent included representation from throughout Northwest Montana and persevered through rain that persisted throughout the night. And there was at least one family who left the protests with some optimism. Valeri McGarvey held a sign that read “Mennonites for Black Lives Matter” and attended the rally with her husband and her parents, David and Barbara Walden.
The Waldens said they took a young McGarvey to a rally in Boulder, Colorado led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the late 1960s and have watched for more than 50 years as African-Americans have continued to be forced to fight for equal rights. They said the protests of 2020, though, felt like different. And Saturday in Kalispell, at a largely white protest in a largely white town, felt important.
“I’m not an optimistic person, but I’m optimistic about this one,” David Walden said. “It’s so widespread. It’s ubiquitous. Everybody seems to be aware of what’s going on and getting involved one way or another.”
“Look at the color of this crowd,” Barbara added. “They’re here because a black person was killed, because they care about black lives. It’s amazing to me.”