BILLINGS — Around 1,000 people attended the Justice for George Floyd rally on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn at 1 p.m. in downtown Billings Sunday, and according to Billings Police Lt. Brandon Wooley the event remained peaceful and no arrests were made.
"There’s been some controlled marching. But law enforcement hasn’t had to intervene besides just giving a good, safe pathway for protesters to walk and maneuver. But no arrests or anything like that so far.” Wooley told Q2 around 3 p.m.
The peaceful protest was organized to remember George Floyd, the African American man who died while in the custody of Minneapolis police on May 25.
People were lining up around the area of North 27th street and 2nd Avenue North about a half hour before the protest started. As more people filled in, the group packed the courthouse lawn and started taking up space across the street in front of City Hall.
Pastor Tracy Starr was a part of that crowd. He is an African American pastor at Many Hands Ministries in Billings who has lived in town for 14 years. He was blown away with the large turnout of support.
"Having the support behind me, I can not tell you. I’ve been crying all day. It’s amazing," Starr said.
Starr said he is married to a white woman and has raised children in Billings. He said the protest was about more than just the death of George Floyd, the demonstration was meant to tell shine a light on all forms of injustice experienced by marginalized groups.
“I love it here in Billings Montana. And I just want the world to know that we don’t support the madness that’s going on. We support equal rights. We support treating everybody the way you want to be treated and then we can all love," Starr said.
It seemed like there were almost two events going on at the same time during the demonstration. At 1 p.m. a group of speakers took the microphone on the courthouse lawn further from the street. A portion of the crowd gathered at the speakers and a portion stayed on the sidewalk near the street waving their signs, chanting and encouraging passing cars to honk in support.
People in the crowd started up chants saying "I can't breathe," "black lives matter" and "What's his name? George Floyd," among others.
A different group of people also attended the protest. On the southwest side of the intersection of North 27th Street and 2nd Avenue North, local militia members, local biker group members and other Second Amendment advocates set up and observed the protest.
Many were openly carrying firearms and assault rifles. A member of the Billings chapter of the Horde MC biker group said he was there to protect businesses and property from possible looting if the protest were to get out of hand.
“We're here to just defend local businesses, make sure there’s no looting going on. Make sure everyone is having a nice, safe time here. That’s why we’re here today," said Horde MC member Jacob Ayers.
Ayers said the Billings Horde group has helped support local charity events in the past. He said the group rides in the yearly Road Dogs Toy Run to bring Christmas presents to Billings kids and supports Eyes For Everett, helping the family of a Billings boy who needs eye surgery.
Ayers said the people with his group at the protest were mostly from Billings with a couple members coming in from Montana-based locations like Helena.
"We’ve been watching the news seeing all the destruction that’s going on and we don’t want any part of that in our community,” Ayers said.
Billings Police Lt. Wooley said there were no issues or altercations with people openly carrying firearms at the protest.
George Floyd and anti-police brutality protests have erupted into violence over the past few weeks in larger cities across the country. A lot was unknown for people attending the protest in Billings and many brought their children along.
Tanya Kuntz is a Billings mother who brought 7-year-old Jada and 8-year-old Marley to the protest.
“Quite honestly, I took one day and I sat down with a friend of mine and really talked it out, because (violence) is a very, very serious, very real thing and it can happen at any moment. I think this is history. I think it is really important when you have a voice to stand up and unite," Kuntz said.
Jada was wearing a miniature police uniform. Kuntz said Jada wants to become a police officer when she grows up. Kuntz thought it was important to teach her daughters to stand up for what they think is right.
"So I think it’s important, it’s almost like schooling. You can’t learn enough. The more you learn, the less fear there is. There is so much that people that don’t know and it’s the unknown that makes you scared, and I refuse to be scared,” Kuntz said.
Members of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Tribes of Indians were also at the protest. Montana is home to about 78,000 Native American people, making up about 6.5 percent of the state's population.
Josiah Hugs is a member of the Crow Tribe and attended the protest with a group of Natives practicing "wellbriety" or sober living. The group of about 10 wore shirts printed with the phrase, "indigenous and black solidarity against police brutality."
Hugs said he's been living in Billings for about 20 years and has experienced racism in the community.
“When I was younger, I just thought there were a lot of mean people. You know, from store clerks to running into people at gas stations or whatever. But it wasn’t until later on that I got into my twenties where I was like, whoa I’m feeling prejudice, I'm feeling racism here. People are being prejudiced against me. So I’ve felt it ever since I’ve come into this community, definitely. Not from everybody, but it’s definitely alive and well in Billings, Montana," Hugs said.
Another member of this Native American group was Phillene Whiteman, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe originally from Lame Deer. She shared her experience with racism in Billings.
“I grew up in Montana. My addiction brought me to the streets of Billings Montana. I was the person you guys avoided downtown. I got into recovery through the wellbriety movement through Josiah and this group. And I experienced a lot of racism ... And this racism, we experience it. We walk into a store and we instantly get followed. We are stereotyped in this community. And this has to stop because we’re part of this community too. We bring to the community and we bring to the table," Whiteman said.
On several occasions, the group of protesters got down on their stomachs with their hands behind their backs - the same position George Floyd was in when he died.
Over time, different members of the protesting crowd on the sidewalk would run by and encourage more chants. North 27th Street had its right-hand northbound lane blocked off for construction, leaving one northbound lane for cars. Eventually more and more people spilled into the blocked lane, prompting Billings Police to close North 27th street at 1st and 4th Avenues North.
As the crowd spilled onto the street, it began to march. It moved northbound on North 27th Street, made a left onto 3rd Avenue North and two more lefts to get the group back where it started. The group continued walking around the block starting at about 2:30 p.m.
Around 3 p.m., Mother Nature decided to open up the sky and drench the protest in heavy rain. Some people flocked to cover underneath the awnings of downtown businesses. Others decided to keep up the protest's momentum, marching in the rain and sometimes laying face-down on their stomachs in the middle of the street.
The crowd began do disperse around 3:30 p.m.