Ja’Ton Simpson, a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement in Missoula, begins his interviews by posing questions.
“How much do you know about black history?” he asked.
He doesn’t do this to change the subject, but in an awareness that race is present in every interaction — no matter how formalized, no matter how apparently objective.
Simpson said this need to excavate a white stranger’s intentions comes from a sense of “double consciousness,” a term originally coined by W.E.B DuBois that signifies the internal conflict felt by colonized or subordinated groups. In DuBois’s case, it was the psychological challenge of reconciling being black with being American.
For Simpson, it’s not so much about being surrounded by white people in his daily life – Missoula is 91% white and 0.6% black according to the 2010 Census – but in constantly gauging the authenticity of his interactions.
“As a black man in America, you have to go through each of those interactions with both sides of your mind ready,” Simpson said.
This need to guard oneself against racial discrimination and attacks, those both casual and institutional, results in a public health phenomenon first researched by Professor Arline Geronimus: weathering. To put it plainly, weathering is a genetic process where chronic stressors that impact people of color increase their general health vulnerability. Public health officials have proposed that weathering is a leading cause for people of color’s heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.
As such, Simpson has chosen to assume a “fundamental baseline of respect and dignity” until he is proven otherwise.
Yet the murders of young black people like Latasha Harlins in 1991, a 15-year-old shot as she tried to pay for an orange juice, or the more recent killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 – shot as he walked home from a convenience store – prove that sometimes mutual respect for one another’s humanity does not exist.
These so-called modern lynchings of unarmed black people have factored into Simpson’s mode of being since he was a young boy watching the Rodney King riots.
So when 28 years later excessive force by law enforcement resulted in George Floyd’s murder, Simpson practiced what he’s been perfecting his entire life. He manages his feelings of grief, frustration, and anger by channeling it into constructive channels.
This time, he started with the protests organized by the University’s Black Student Union at the Courthouse. There, he could “experience the pain of watching all that unfold, especially when you can’t help but think, wow, that could have been me,” he said.
Both Simpson and Floyd are fathers to young children; both live in predominantly white towns. And in Missoula, a quick glance at protesters gave a sense of their demographic makeup. They too were mostly white adolescents and young adults displaying their alliance with fists raised in unison.
Simpson acknowledged that “some of [the protesting] could be a performance,” but that people with privileges should feel encouraged to take on more responsibility to support Missoula’s marginalized groups, and showing up to protest is a good place to start. In fact, new data from the New York Times shows that June and July’s protests have the largest white showing of any Civil Rights assemblies in American history, with many cities’ protests overwhelmingly attended by white demonstrators.
But racism did not come into being this summer; Simpson has been involved with anti-racist work on an interpersonal and institutional level since he started college at the University of Montana in 2001. And as he’s participated in Montana’s various activist communities, he has observed gaps in communication between them.
“There has not been a foundation to always go back to besides the BSU. That seemed like a way for us to develop something so that we can have a directory or some type of a platform for us to at least be aware of each other and to know each other and support each other in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Because it’s just been sporadic before then,” Simpson said.
This is where Simpson envisions his role in the Missoula movement: linking student leaders, local organizations, and the city government together to support and expand on each other’s work, eventually forging a network based on anti-racist principles. He believes his knowledge of black history combined with his work as a senior consultant at the Advanced Technology Group (ATG), where he focuses on crafting scalable solutions for diverse businesses, has prepared him to address the larger, more uncomfortable problems in Missoula.
“I know that there is work to be done and I’m not going to rely on someone else to do it. I can make good trouble, as John Lewis liked to say,” Simpson said.
Simpson is referring to the Civil Rights leader and Atlanta congressman who died on July 17, one who called on young people to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America.” Lewis explained good trouble as disrupting the status quo when the status quo is unjust.
For Simpson, a large piece of this is accountability for Missoula’s racist history and modern institutions, including Fort Missoula’s internment of Japanese and Italian Americans during World War II.
“We have to treat this as a community, unique as it is, and address our own issues, like is there accountability when you know, we’ll take, for instance, that situation at the courthouse,” he explained.
Simpson is referring to an incident during the June Black Lives Matter protests where a group of armed individuals who claimed to be protecting Missoulians against violent riots restrained a black teenager and turned him into the police. Police released him shortly after, finding no verifiable threat.
“Is there accountability for armed people acting as security that end up in this situation?”
Yet he doesn’t envision accountability as necessarily good or bad, it all depends on the behavior. But Simpson believes that Americans must reckon with the racist and classist systems they have operated in and benefited from.
He also advocates for accountability for those who call the police when no crime has been committed, “whether it’s some type of a penalty or a fine that will discourage people from being racist and involving the police,” he said.
Indeed, just calling the police can put black Americans at risk. According to a Harvard study, black people are 3.23 times more likely than white people to be killed in police encounters.
Simpson believes that introducing institutional, social, and individual accountability will lead to better education – public education where the teachers and curricula accurately represent black narratives. This anti-racist ideology will lead to good trouble on every level, he said.
“So it takes everyone at every level with all the resources that they have to continue to generate change and cause that good trouble to dismantle everything related to racism and hopefully rebuild a better structure on a more anti-racist platform,” Simpson said.
Yet while the Black Lives Matter movement is still charged with momentum, protests are ebbing, and some black activists are wondering if the movement was only a trendy activity for their white allies, according to the New York Times. Many leaders are concerned it will lose the public focus needed to produce lasting change, only to spark up again when yet another life is lost.
Simpson does not think nonstop protests are essential to maintaining the movement, so long as those white protesters integrate anti-racism into their daily lives. To Simpson, being anti-racist is just like brushing your teeth or drinking water – you do it regularly for the rest of your life.
“This is something that you practice. It’s a habit. You have to develop that habit if you don’t already have it,” Simpson said.
And if just one person adopts this practice, it can “extend to the community and every network that you go to – at the dinner table with your family, hanging out with your friends,” Simpson said.
According to Simpson, there’s nothing stopping Missoula from becoming the community that models anti-racist accountability, education, and action – a community intent on stirring up good trouble.
“Why not have Missoula be that place and lead with that kind anti-racist intention? Yeah. How cool would that be?’
Those who want to learn more about Simpson’s activist work and his performance art can follow his Instagram. On August 17, he held a socially-distanced spoken word event entitled Witness & Listen at the Stave & Hoop Speakeasy. He plans on hosting future protests and events that promote anti-racist art.
Audrey Pettit is a rising junior at Barnard College of Columbia University and an intern at the Missoula Current. She can be reached at email@example.com.