About 500 people gathered on the steps of the Civic Center before marching to the federal courthouse in Great Falls on Friday to protest police brutality and systemic racism in the United States in the local National Day of Action for Black Lives Matter protest.
The event was organized by Jasmine Taylor, who is running for House District 22 in Great Falls, Hannah Pate, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, and several others.
Protesters demanded justice for George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, as well as others, and also called for changes in law enforcement tactics in the second rally held in Great Falls.
Floyd, 46, died after pleading for his life as a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck.
Friday marked what would have been Breonna Taylor’s 27th birthday, but Taylor, an unarmed African-American woman, was fatally shot by police in Louisville on March 13. Many protesters held signs with her name.
Billy Gaines addressed the crowd as a featured speaker at the National Day of Action for Black Lives Matter protest in Great Falls on Friday June 5.
“As a black husband to my wife, a black father to my children, a black minister to my church and a black member of this community, and as a black man I’m fed up,” said Gaines. “I am tired and I am exhausted. I would like to watch the news and not have to see another black person beaten beyond belief or murdered.”
After organizers spoke, African-American attendees and other people of color were invited to address the crowd.
Damion Proctor, who said he was hesitant to speak, ultimately addressed protesters with his son, Logan, standing by his side.
“I’m inspired because I’ve been scared, and I don’t want to jeopardize his safety or jeopardize the safety of my family. I want to live like my friends live, safe, happy and protected,” he said, adding that he hopes his son will not have to grow up feeling afraid.
Trey Collins, a black man from Great Falls, said he couldn’t help but smile at the size of the crowd.
“This brings a smile to my face, especially in Montana where I would never think people would support our cause. Even in a small, rural, majority-white town, there’s still love here. People want justice,” he said.
Protesters also observed a moment of silence honoring Floyd. The silence lasted eight minutes and 46 seconds, which is the length of time the police officer kept his knee pressed on Floyd’s neck.
Organizers emphasized peace and urged attendees to follow laws and remain respectful.
When one white man tried to disrupt the rally, protesters chanted, “Peaceful, peaceful!” and the incident was diffused.
“I wish we had another opportunity to meet because that is not how I want to meet my people,” said Gaines about the man attempting to disrupt the rally. “This is not what we need in order to grow. And in order to change, we can’t do that in a flower bed of violence.”
A small group of people gathered at the fray of the rally, donning “Blue Lives Matter” flags in support of law enforcement. Some were armed.
However, the group claimed not to be counter-protesters.
A group carrying Thin Blue Line flags donning firearms stayed on the fray of the event, saying they were concerned citizens of Great Falls, citing rumors that antifa would be in attendance. Local law enforcement told KRTV and the Great Falls Electric that none of the rumors of antifa’s involvement in Friday’s event were credible.
“We’re here same as everyone else we had something to say and we’re here,” said one man in the group, who declined to be named. “We heard that a little group called Antifa wanted to show up and not in our town.”
“All it takes is a word an a whisper,” said the man.
“I’m just down here to see what they have to say and if stuff pops off we’re here to support and defend the police force, constitution,” the same man continued. “I serve my country I have every right to be here, just like they have every right to be here.”
“We don’t mind them peacefully protesting,” said another man in the group, who also declined to be named. “That is their right and that’s what the First Amendment was for. So we basically are going to come down here and we’re going to stop people from looting or smashing windows and protect the police force because they’re in turn going to have our backs any day.”
Friday’s rally in downtown Great Falls remained peaceful for the duration of the event, which eventually lead protesters to march to the Federal Courthouse on the west bank of the Missouri river.
“We were peaceful and then there’s these guys with guns saying that we’re the threat. That’s messed up. It gives me chills,” R.J. LaValley said of the counter-protesters.
Many residents were happily surprised by the large turnout
“I am amazed about how many people showed up today,” said Kristiana Sauceda, 18, who is black and moved from California to Great Falls three years ago. “This felt so different. It made me really emotional because we’re doing it right. We’re stopping hatred with love.”
Sisters Faith Ariegwe, 16, and Kierra Haggerty, 20, attended the march together, and both were surprised by the large crowd.
“It’s really heartwarming to see all races come together and make history. It makes me really happy because I thought we were alone for a long time,” Haggerty said.
Other attendees echoed Haggerty’s sentiments of inclusion.
“This is just amazing. It makes you feel like you’re part of this community, that we are welcome here and that we are protected here,” said Ashley Haley, who is a member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe and the tobacco prevention specialist for the Little Shell Tribe.
Event organizers identified several action items, including requests for the Great Falls Police Department and the city.
Organizers ask that GFPD:
Complete a review of the current policy and procedure.
Prioritize de-escalation training.
Continue education on racial equity and personal bias.
Reduce or end the presence of armed law enforcement in public schools.
Create an external review process for all incidents involving force and increase transparency and accountability for such incidents.
Organizers ask that the city of Great Falls:
Extend the deadline for Police Commission Board selections and work to bring greater diversity to the board.
Nora Mabie and Skylar Rispens are reporters for the Great Falls Tribune.