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Cheers filled the sidewalks along Main Street as approximately 2,000 protesters marched peacefully from Bogert Park to the Gallatin County Courthouse Sunday afternoon, carrying signs with slogans including “Freedom from Police,” “Say their Names” and “Support Black Bozeman.” 

As they walked, protesters shouted “Black lives matter,” “Fight the power” and “No justice, no peace." They often sang, “Mama mama can’t you see? This is an emergency.”

At the conclusion of the march, the protesters filled the courthouse lawn, the lawn across the street and the sidewalks at least two blocks down Main Street as honking cars passed by. Most of the marchers wore face masks.

Volunteers handed out chalk, and attendees scrawled on the courthouse steps the names of black, indigenous and other people of color who died at the hands of police or white supremacists.

“This is the biggest action I’ve ever seen in Bozeman in my whole life,” said Benjamin Finegan, a member of the Montana Racial Equity Project who spoke at the rally.

At Bogert Park, volunteers wearing color-coded armbands handed out face masks to those in the crowd who didn’t have them and stood by to deescalate potentially dangerous situations. They also made sure attendees held appropriate signs, and ran a water and hand-sanitizer station. The crowd was encouraged not to interact with police, and to instead report problems to police liaisons.

Before the march, media coordinator Colleen Schmidt said she was nervous about how it would go, and whether the crowd would encounter counter protesters. "A lot of people maybe don't agree or aren't aware," she said. 

Schmidt said organizing the event was a massive effort that took the last several days. "People been working around the clock to train and deescalate," she said. "If there's any violence, it's not us."

Bozeman Police Chief Steve Crawford said it appears the march and rally was conducted without incident. No counter protesters appeared to attend. Crawford said police consulted with event organizers and stationed some officers along the march to keep people safe.

Protests against police violence have erupted nationwide in the last several days, and many have turned violent. The National Guard has been activated in 17 states, and in many cities across the country, curfews have been initiated.

Bozeman's march and rally was organized by the Montana State University Black Student Union and the Montana Racial Equity Project in response to the death of George Floyd. Floyd died Monday after a Minneapolis police officer, who has since been charged with third-degree murder, placed him in a knee-to-neck chokehold for more than eight minutes.

“[Sean] Reed, [Tony] McDade, [Ahmaud] Arbery, [Breonna] Tyler, and [George] Floyd are just the most recent, visible victims of racial violence in a long list of injustices that go back to the founding of this country on stolen land, built by people stolen from their own lands,” states an advisory from protest organizers. “We march for freedom. The freedom to walk Bozeman’s streets and trails without fear. The freedom to drive without being pulled over for no good reason, and to be able to come home safe to our families if we do get pulled over.”

The rally featured black, white and indigenous speakers, many of whom called upon the crowd to show up and fight for the rights of the BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) community every day.

"Your Facebook posts are not what Bozeman needs," said Judith Heilman, the executive director and founder of the Montana Racial Equity Project, during her speech on the courthouse steps. "What are you doing every day?"

Heilman was a police officer for many years, working her way up to serve as a detective on a homicide squad. She said years of experience being a black woman gave her perspective, and the notion that racism and bigotry doesn't exist in Bozeman or Montana is untrue. 

"All you white folks need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable," she said. "Black lives matter. Brown lives matter. Native lives matter. We all matter... Be in the corner of the people who are suffering."

Lyla Brown, another speaker, helped found the MSU Black Student Union. She said growing up in Montana was difficult, and she wished someone would have spoken up for her, especially in classes about American history, which she said were often taught from a white, colonial perspective.

Brown said she and a group of students founded the MSU Black Student Union just over two years ago, and she helped start a class so students could learn black history.

"Black history is American history," she said. "The silence was deafening. It still is." 

Jessica Brito, the Black Student Union treasurer, said the rally was just the beginning. "If we want to change Bozeman, it's not going to take just a rally with some signs. It's going to take knocking on doors." 

Brito encouraged attendees to sign up for a Black Lives Matter Day of Action, scheduled for Friday, June 5. The link is on the Bozeman Rally for Black Lives Facebook page.

"Thank you all for coming. Thank you for your support. But it is not enough," she said.

 

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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