Hundreds turn out on all sides for Black Lives Matter rally

| June 16, 2020 8:43 AM

The roiling national debate over inequality and the use of police force touched down in Libby with all of its varying fault lines for about two hours Thursday evening.

Advertised on social media just a few days prior, the Black Lives Matter demonstration on the lawn of the Lincoln County Courthouse brought out church groups, counter protesters, casual onlookers, political agitators, local militiamen, reporters and photographers.

Longtime resident Susie Rice felt compelled to speak out in support of equality. Jeremy Huisentruit wanted to stand up for justice. Serena Pape and Ron Masters sought to show support for the embattled law enforcement community.

For Dave Patterson, Clay Benefield and Keiton Julson, it was a chance to publicly back President Donald Trump in an election year. Freddy Moore wanted to “tick off the libs.”

Abigail Coblentz attended as part of a collaboration of local churches. Playing a ukulele while walking along the protest line, she hoped to bring the presence of God to the demonstration. Robert Viergutz, state commander of the Montana Three Percenters militia, wanted to keep the peace.

Officials with local law enforcement, also out in force, did not keep an official count on the size of the crowd. But Lincoln County Sheriff Darren Short estimated between 200 and 250 lined both sides of California Avenue.

Near the courthouse, demonstrators held signs and placards proclaiming variations of “Black Lives Matter,” “I can’t breathe” and “Treat racism like COVID-19.”

“My heart is troubled with the unrest and division in the country right now,” Rice said. “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 as a car honked and passengers cheered the demonstrators.

“My faith drives me out here as well,” she said. “Underneath the pigment, we’re all the same.”

Word of the event spread like wildfire on social media in the two days leading up to the demonstration. Fierce debate raged on a local Facebook page. Many vowed to come out in opposition.

And they did. Across the street, Patterson, Benefield and Julson stood by a Trump banner. Aside from presidential politics, they said they supported the Black Lives Matter movement.

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

The trio referred to the group blamed for partially causing the wave of riots and looting that has marred protests in Minneapolis and elsewhere. Trump has taken to social media to castigate antifa activists as behind the unrest.

“We’re here just to protect the town,” Julson said.

They all agreed that “you wouldn’t have seen this in Libby 10 years ago.”

Standing across the street and holding a sign reading, “Momma, I can’t breathe,” Tony Johnson offered a similar sentiment.

“It’s the injustice of George Floyd. It’s been building up for a longtime nationwide,” he said. “[It] goes back a long ways. It keeps happening too often.”

Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis sparked off the most recent wave of protests largely seeking an end to racial inequality and to reform policing. A white police officer was caught on camera pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Floyd, accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill, became unresponsive. He later was pronounced dead at a hospital.

In a few of the nation’s most prominent cities looting and rioting overshadowed peaceful demonstrations. In others, the police response to demonstrations eclipsed all else. Law enforcement clashed violently with protestors in New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Confrontations and violence occurred in less well-known cities, from Spokane, Wash., to Brockton, Mass.

It was the images and headlines coming out of those communities that brought Viergutz and the Montana branch of the Three Percenters militia to the event. Although several Black Lives Matter demonstrators expressed their unease with the armed men, Viergutz, a Libby resident, described their presence as apolitical.

“That’s why I’m trying to keep the peace down here — there’s just too much violence,” he said. “I just want to show people we can all come together. Hopefully, every other place can look upon [Libby] and say, ‘Look, we can calm down and do this.’”

Viergutz said the clusters of armed individuals walking in and around the protests planned to take action only if called upon by law enforcement. Otherwise, they were there as an armed deterrent, he said.

Rocke Gifford, who identified himself as a member of the group, offered a blunter explanation of the militia’s presence.

“If they force us, you know what the end result will be,” he said. “If any of them hassle [local law enforcement], if it comes right down to it, force equals force.”

Gifford said he had spent the previous night guarding a local veterans’ memorial.

Short, the county sheriff and a former Libby police officer, said he collaborated closely with his city counterparts in preparation for the demonstration. Deputies ringed the courthouse a ways back from the demonstration while Libby police officers stood among militia members and protestors.

“We’re just here to be peacekeepers,” Short said. “We’re here to make sure this stays calm.”

Short said law enforcement had been monitoring the discourse on local social media in the lead up to the event. Authorities checked out individuals who posted extreme comments on sites like Facebook, Short said. Most, though, turned out to be not from the area, he said.

Libby Police Chief Scott Kessel said the demonstration played out as he expected.

“I expected Libby was going to be what it is: local people expressing viewpoints,” he said. “The only reason we’re here is to make sure it stayed civil. I did not expect any problems. That being said, we were prepared.”

Kessel said his officers gave several warnings during the event, but it largely unfolded peacefully.

“Being able to stand out here and exercise your First and Second Amendment rights, this is still Libby, you can still do that,” he said. “In other areas, they’ve lost sight of that.”

That exercise extended beyond the Black Lives Matter demonstrators and Trump supporters across California Avenue. Serena Pape stood near a thin blue line flag. She came out to show support for the law enforcement community, she said.

Police departments across the country, as well as other federal and state law enforcement agencies, have come under scrutiny following clashes with protestors and the handling of looting.

“It doesn’t happen all the time, but when a situation happens nationally, it brings attention to them here,” Pape said.

Nearby, a single Confederate flag waved in the breeze. In the wake of Floyd’s death, NASCAR banned the display of the image at its property. The U.S. Marine Corps likewise has banned the image, which was predominantly used by the Army of Northern Virginia in its campaigns against the U.S. Army during the Civil War, from its installations. Initially used to honor Confederate veterans in the years after the war, the flag was later adopted by the Dixiecrat party and segregationists.

For Coblentz, who wielded a ukulele instead of a poster or firearm, the demonstration was an opportunity to worship. She was part of a church gathering involving several houses of worship in Libby that started up prior to the demonstration. She wanted to “change the atmosphere.”

By 7 p.m., the demonstration had largely petered out. Still, a handful of demonstrators and Trump supporters lingered until after 9 p.m.

“It’s our right to speak our mind,” said Huisentruit, a Black Lives Matter demonstrator, earlier in the day. “I think it’s awesome. I’m glad everybody showed up. Everyone’s got the right to do this.”

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A Black Lives Matter protester holds a sign near a Confederate battle flag flapping in the wind along California Avenue. (Derrick Perkins/The Western News)

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Supporters of President Donald Trump wielded banners and a variety of firearms across the street from the Black Lives Matter demonstration. (Derrick Perkins/The Western News)