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Local Black Lives Matter demonstration draws large crowd

Daily Inter Lake | June 12, 2020 9:28 AM

Several hundred people gathered outside the Lincoln County Courthouse on June 11 for what Libby police officials described as a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration and associated counter protests.

Word of the event spread quickly through social media in the days leading up to the demonstration. Even before the scheduled 5 p.m. start time, local church groups gathered to sing songs on the courthouse lawn, militiamen pledging to provide security began arriving and demonstrators supporting President Donald Trump busied themselves setting up shop across California Avenue.

Bearing signs with variations of “Black Lives Matter,” “I can’t breath” and “Treat racism like COVID-19,” the demonstrators drew vulgarities and insults bordering on the obscene from passing motorists. Pickup trucks circled the block to roll coal on the demonstrators.

The display added Libby to the list of cities and towns that have played host to some form of public demonstration in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Floyd, a black man, died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes last month. At the time, Floyd was suspected of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill.

The death sparked protests in Minneapolis and soon elsewhere in the country. In several instances, rioting and looting overshadowed demonstrations. In a few of the nation’s most prominent cities — New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. — law enforcement personnel clashed violently with protestors.

“My heart is troubled with the unrest and division in the country right now,” said Libby resident Susie Rice, who carried a sign promoting love, respect and unity. “I just need to speak and this is how I can do it. I don’t think any of us out here expect to change opinions. I doubt that will happen. But we can say what we think.”

She paused to wave as a car honked and passengers cheered the demonstrators. Standing nearby, Jeremy Huisentruit said he came out to show support for equality and protest against police brutality.

“I think everyone has the right to express their side as long as it’s peaceful,” Huisentruit said. “That’s what we’re here for, a peaceful protest. I just believe in freedom of speech.”

Across California Avenue, Dave Patterson, Clay Benefield and Keiton Julson stood beside a Trump banner. They had come to show their support for the president in a reelection year.

The trio said they supported the Black Lives Matter movement. But they opposed antifa, a group partially blamed for the violence that has marred similar demonstrations and protests across the country.

“We don’t want any of that antifa stuff,” Patterson said.

Members of the Montana Three Percenter militia group also turned out in force, “trying to keep the peace,” said Robert Viergutz, the group’s commander and a county resident.

“There’s just too much violence right now,” he said.

Armed militia members strolled among the Black Lives Matter protestors throughout the evening. They were discouraging confrontations between the demonstrators and counter protestors, Viergutz said, and acting as a reserve for local law enforcement.

Others came to support the embattled law enforcement community. Still more came as part of collaboration between local churches.

A Confederate battle flag, predominantly used by the Army of Northern Virginia while on campaign against the U.S. Army during the Civil War, was on flown at the edge of the demonstration.

But both Lincoln County Sheriff Darren Short and Libby Police Chief Scott Kessel praised the demonstrators for a peaceful public display. Personnel from the two agencies ringed the courthouse a little ways back from the demonstration. Later, though, they mingled with members of the various groups.

“We’re here to make sure this stays calm,” said Short, who described the officers and deputies as peacekeepers.

Kessel said his department prepared in case the situation became disorderly, but he did not expect an outbreak of violence.

“We’ve given some warnings out today,” he said. “With the local people, you can go over and say, ‘come on, guys, knock it off.’”

By 7 p.m., the protests had largely petered out. Still, as of 9 p.m., a handful of people still stood vigil over both sides of California Avenue.

Look for more coverage in the June 16 edition of The Western News.