City Council members acknowledge past prejudices; question presence of armed militia

Various elected officials weighed in Monday night on current events.

Emotions ran high during Monday night’s Missoula City Council meeting, not over a controversial hearing, but rather over an alleged crime that took place at the Courthouse last week and a confession by an elected official who rarely speaks up.

The hearing started with a caller expressing anger and remorse over an alleged crime that involved several members of an armed white militia who have infiltrated the Black Lives Matter protests and apparently detained an African American.

The incident has lit up social media and facts around the incident are expected to be revealed this week by officials. But social media has been active with talk of the incident that took place on June 5, even though social media isn’t a reliable accounting of facts.

With the pandemic in play, nearly all things – including City Council meetings and the Board of County Commissioners – play out over social media and digital platforms in a remote setting. The caller on Monday said the Missoula Police Department permitted the white militia to have its way with the law in detaining the young African American man.

No police officer intervened, the caller said.

Armed militia members keep watch over Black Lives Matter demonstrators in downtown Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

“It tells you everything you need to know about racism and calls to defund police when the police department seems more willing to trust a group of rogue militants with guns than a man they are holding against his will,” said caller Greg Martin. “Why is it that those armed white militia members somehow had more protection and trust than the unarmed man they arrested?”

Missoula Mayor John Engen said the Missoula Police Department is continuing to investigate the incident and the “young man who (inaudible) was assaulted on the lawn of the courthouse.” Engen said more would be known this week and the white militia members who “tackled the young man” were due to appear in Missoula Municipal Court.

“As always, there’s a bit more to the story than sometimes is broadcast on social media,” Engen continued. “We’ll try to provide as much clarification as we can and await that investigation.”

Earlier in the day, Engen issued a citywide letter touching on several points, including his support for the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and his detestation for white supremacy. He also noted his displeasure for the armed militia members who have occupied Broadway and infiltrated the Black Lives Matter demonstration.

Many, including several City Council members, have accused the militia of armed intimidation. State law doesn’t permit city officials to ban the armed militia members.

“What really moved me was the last sentence that said black lives matter and we have to prove it,” said council member Mirtha Becerra, discussing Engen’s letter. “I feel really committed to starting the dialogue to bring more diversity to the table and prove that’s an important issue to all of us.”

Most, but not all, City Council members touched on current events on Monday night, including council member John Contos, who generally votes on issues without issuing comment.

But in a break from his normal routine, Contos issued a sincere statement borne from past experience. If he can change, he summarized, anyone can.

“It’s hard to get away from the fact that we’re in some pretty crazy times right now,” he began. “I’ve kind of been moved by all of this too, especially with Black Lives Matter and prejudice and things like that. I think it’s on everyone’s mind.”

Contos said he grew up in El Paso, Texas, and held a prejudice toward Hispanic people. He said Hispanics comprised 80% of his city’s population.

“I grew up pretty prejudiced toward Hispanic people,” he said. “I got in a lot of fights with them. I really wanted nothing to do with them. I never really thought it was a problem because my friends were all white.”

A friend told Contos to read the Bible and to think more broadly. Contos said he did and it changed his thinking.

“I realized the problem wasn’t the Mexicans, it was me,” he said. “I had a form of love that was pretty selfish. I think by reading I understood I needed a more unconditional love for people.”

Contos said he was moved to share his story because he and his wife aren’t able to have children. They’ve adopted three children over the years and doing so wasn’t an easy process.

“We were way down the list for our first child,” he said. “We got a phone call on Friday the 13th, January 1989, saying ‘We’ve got a baby for you because nobody wants him. He’s Mexican.’ My wife and I jumped at the chance. I’d learned that unconditional love is extremely powerful. It breaks down all the walls. I wanted to share that. We can all change.”