MISSOULA — Tensions ran high when a group of young men showed up at a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Missoula waving Trump banners and the confederate flag, rifles slung over their shoulders.
But what could have escalated into confrontation and violence prompted a conversation, and that conversation resulted in what Black Lives Matter protest leaders described as an agreement based on “cooperation” and “mutual respect.”
On Thursday night, both sides commingled at times, even as emotions ran high during another day of demonstration. So far, the event has remained peaceful.
“There were definitely tense moments,” said Ward, who led the Black Lives Matter protest on Thursday night. “We’ve asked them to take down any political flags or memorabilia that would be offensive to the movement and they’ve been very cooperative. There’s mutual respect between both sides. We’re all unified as one right now.”
Ward declined to offer his last name.
While the two sides didn’t share much in common politically, they set aside their differences on Thursday to share a stretch of sidewalk outside the downtown courthouse.
One side – a racially diverse group of residents – has occupied the block for a week while protesting police violence and the death of George Floyd. Members of the other side, all white and young, joined them days later with rifles slung over their shoulder.
Some sat in the back of pickup trucks with various flags waving in the evening breeze. While their own views don’t align with the Black Lives Matter demonstration, they said they came seeking peace.
“I’m a pretty strict constitutionalist, and whether this (demonstration) lines up with my beliefs or not, I believe it’s important to preserve other people’s rights to peacefully protest and protect their rights,” said one man, who was armed. “I’m just trying to keep everyone safe.”
Asked what would prompt him to use his rifle, he said if there was “clear and imminent danger” and if someone’s life was being threatened. He said he was skilled to make that call.
The national Black Lives Matter movement has played out in cities across the country over the past week. In Missoula, the demonstration has been peaceful and city police officers have stayed clear.
But in other parts of the country, agitators have infiltrated the peaceful demonstrations, leading to acts of violence, looting and vandalism. The young men with firearms said they came to keep that from happening in Missoula.
Over the past few days, rumors have spread on social media that outside agitators were heading to Missoula to disrupt the peaceful demonstration. City officials and local law enforcement have attempted to quash those rumors, saying there was no police intelligence to support them.
“It falls to the hands of the citizens to uphold the Constitution in most cases,” the man with the rifle said. He declined to give his name. “A lot of cops and elected officials forget their oath.”
Another armed person offered similar views, saying he joined his friends to provide what he described as protection and to prevent others from ”wrecking the town.” He was reluctant to talk and wouldn’t give his name.
But when pressed, the young man expressed frustration with the protesters and some aspects of their political message. He said protest banners reading “F- Trump,” coupled with altered American flags, were troubling.
“I know what happened wasn’t right, but that doesn’t mean every cop is a bad guy,” he added, referring to the death of George Floyd. “My brother is a cop and I have respect for that. Just because one cop does something stupid doesn’t mean they (protesters) need to go blame every cop in every department.”
When the armed contingent first arrived, they came waving Trump banners and the confederate flag. The later stirred raw emotion in some protesters, given its history. It ran contrary to their message and fight for justice and equality.
But the armed young man saw the symbol in another way.
“That’s just my heritage from the past. Modern day, it’s just heritage,” he said. “They’re saying it offends them because it represents slavery. Today’s modern version of the flag doesn’t represent slavery. It represents heritage – the past.”
Asked whose past and he said, “Us white men.”
While the armed contingent ultimately put the flag away, many demonstrators, themselves largely young, shrugged the symbol off as a thing of the past. Jay Mattson, a young African American who has been protesting for days, said the flag didn’t bother him.
But it was important that the flag’s history and original meaning wasn’t forgotten, he said.
“We came to an agreement with them, so we’re cool,” said Mattson. “They’re here so outside people don’t come into the city and just riot. We’re here to have a peaceful protest. Politically, I’m not a Trump supporter, but I can let them do that. I don’t really care. It is what it is.”
Yet not all protesters saw things the same way, even while ignoring the symbolism flown by some members of the armed contingent earlier in the week.
Kaliyah Horvath, a 19 year-old African American woman, said she feels her generation is making a change and her movement has allies.
“A lot of people are now hearing our voices and hearing our message,” she said, saying the armed contingent hadn’t come to provide security but rather to intimidate. “But it doesn’t scare me. They’re not going to stop me from speaking my truth and spreading my message, so I don’t really pay that much mind.”