Montana House fails to denounce white supremacist groups
House Republican Rep. Derek Skees of Kalispell questioned the existence of white supremacist groups in Montana at a hearing this week on a resolution condemning violence from white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.
“Could you please name me one white supremacist group in Montana?” Skees asked the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, a Democrat from Helena, during the hearing.
During the testimony on House Joint Resolution 12, proponents shared their experiences with white supremacy in Montana and said the resolution was necessary to make a statement that Montana does not tolerate hate or white supremacy.
This week, bills aiming to bolster racial equity in the judicial system and denounce violence by white supremacist groups were voted down by House Judiciary Committee Republicans.
HJ12 would have labeled white supremacist neo-Nazi violence as domestic terrorism. House Bill 552, carried by Bozeman Democrat Rep. Ed Stafman, would bar the state from seeking criminal convictions or issuing sentences based on race, ethnicity or national origin.
Both efforts failed on a 12-7 party-line vote.
Tobin Miller Shearer, associate professor of history and director of African American studies at the University of Montana, said the existence of white supremacy groups is not up for debate. He spoke with the Daily Montanan in a telephone interview after the meeting.
“It is an act of willful ignorance to say that white supremacist groups are not alive and active in Montana,” he said. “Our debate should be what are the most effective strategies for undermining and overcoming white nationalists and their engagement in domestic terrorism.”
Republicans on the committee largely avoided directly talking about problems stemming from white supremacy. Instead, they focused on poking holes in proponent testimony and shifting the conversation to groups like ANTIFA and Black Lives Matter.
In December, Rabbi Laurie Franklin said Missoula police had to protect her congregation’s outdoor Hanukkah ceremonies because people were making anti-Jewish threats on local social media.
“As a rabbi in Montana, I have to watch my back, even on my own front porch because … there are individuals and groups who hate Jews, hate people of color and valorize violence,” she said during testimony.
But the problem has been around long before December.
A 1994 report by the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about white supremacist activity in Montana found evidence that Montana was once selected “for the development of a white Aryan homeland to be used as a base of operation” for white supremacist extremist groups.
“The rhetoric and activity of these groups is diverse in nature,” the report found. “Some are specifically anti-Indian. Others are rebellious against governments in general and laws that govern their conduct. Some reportedly engage in paramilitary training and have a potential for violence.”
And they are still a problem today. A 2020 report analyzing data from the Southern Poverty Law Center found that Montana has more hate groups per capita than any other state.
Montana’s hate groups include anti-Muslim groups like Act for America and Last Chance Patriots and white nationalist groups like the American Freedom Party and the International Conservative Community. It also lists the Proud Boys as an active hate group in the state.
In the early ‘90s, Travis McAdam, director of combating white nationalism and defending democracy for the Montana Human Rights Network, said skinheads and Ku Klux Klan members terrorized Jewish, Black and Indigenous communities in Billings.
In 2016 and 2017, he said, “a white nationalist mobilized a Nazi troll storm that targeted the Jewish community in Whitefish with both online and real-world threats of violence.”
More recently, he said white supremacist groups had distributed anti-Semitic and racist literature in the Flathead, Missoula, Bozeman, Livingston, Billings, Helena, and other communities.
Hate groups have put “overtly racist” literature into books in the campus library’s African American Studies section, Miller Shearer said.
Identity Evropa, a white nationalist group, focused on recruiting college-aged men, has also been on campus.
“They’ve posted pictures of themselves with their symbols on our campus to prove that they were here recruiting. So, I’m just sort of flabbergasted that someone would be in denial about the fact of their presence,” Miller Shearer said.
The 1994 report on white supremacy in Montana suggested elected officials take “every opportunity to denounce activities and rhetoric of white supremacists, which are based on bigotry, hate, and racial prejudice; and they should proclaim policies supporting religious tolerance, racial equality, and cultural diversity.”
Minimizing the existence of white supremacist groups as Skees did legitimizes their efforts, Miller Shearer said. “Any time elected officials downplay white nationalist groups who are engaged in acts of domestic terror … they end up legitimizing those groups, simply by trying to disassociate them from that history and present practice of violence.”
Again skirting the validity of white supremacists in the state, Skees asked McAdam, “If this is such a horrible thing and it’s affecting all these people … why didn’t we have a single law enforcement group come before us today?”
McAdam said the lack of local law enforcement did not mean it wasn’t a serious threat and said it is an issue that federal law enforcement agencies have taken a stance on.
Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigations recognize white supremacy as domestic terrorism.
In its 2020 threat assessment that came out in October, the DPHS said, “white supremacist extremists will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”
Former Acting United States Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said in the report, “I am particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years.”
Both Skees and Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, questioned why Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA were not included in the resolution.
“We have a long history of white supremacy and neo-Nazi that goes back into the days of the Ku Klux Klan,” Hinkle said. “However, nowadays, we do have ANTIFA that’s been burning our cities on the news consistently all year long.”
Miller Shearer said the comparison is moot. “There’s no evidence of linking ANTIFA members to killing anybody. We have lots of evidence of linking white national groups to killing people.”
The committee heard testimony on a resolution that would designate ANTIFA as a domestic terrorism group earlier this session but have not taken executive action on it.
While individuals affiliated with ANTIFA have been linked to fights and property crimes across the country, “the threat of lethal violence pales in comparison to that posed by far-right extremists,” according to an SPLC article.
In regards to Black Lives Matter, Miller-Shearer said, the group is committed to non-violence, which has been displayed during their many peaceful protests across the country. “We have no evidence of the official Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, attacking a federal building as just happened here in D.C.”
But the discussion, not the vote, is what has some organizers and lawmakers upset. During the debate on the resolution, House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, interrupted and muted Dunwell many times and would not let her redirect questions to experts — a common and accepted practice during hearings.
At the end of the hearing, Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen, D-Helena, said the way Usher and others treated Dunwell was completely inappropriate. “She was cut off multiple times. I’ve not seen that happen to any other speaker … I would just appreciate it if we would just treat folks with more respect.”
In response, Usher said, he has the “power of mute” to stop people from talking when they don’t listen to him. “I will take what you said into consideration and try to be more respectful,” he said. But he added, “also respect is earned, and [Dunwell] has definitely not earned mine.”
House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena said the way Dunwell was treated was “disrespectful and malicious” and said Usher owes her an apology.
Cherilyn DeVries, an organizer with Love Lives Here in Flathead County, said she was disappointed with how the conversation went.
During questioning, Usher shutdown attempts by Dunwell to redirect questions to McAdam, who has expertise in combating white nationalism.
By not letting Dunwell redirect, DeVries questioned if Republicans even wanted to have a meaningful conversation. “If they actually wanted to hear and know about this topic, there was an expert right in the room for them, and they completely ignored that and went after representative Dunwell, which was deeply disappointing.”
Proponents of HB 552, titled the Racial Justice Act, said Wednesday it would help correct the disproportionate number of Native Americans in Montana’s jails.
Since 1972, prison populations have risen nearly 580 percent, said Sam Forstag, who testified in favor of the bill on behalf of Montana’s American Civil Liberties Union.
While Native Americans make up around seven percent of Montana’s population, they represent a quarter of the state’s prison population, he said. “There are inequities built into our criminal justice system, and this act would do good in terms of resolving those inequities.”
Steven-Bear TwoTeeth, who testified on behalf of the Indigenous Organizers Collective, said a judge once said to him in court, “Oh, that’s how you natives are, right?”
Even if the judge was joking, TwoTeeth, who is part of the Ojibwe Tribe, said he faces discrimination in his school halls, by law enforcement and in the halls of the capitol. This bill, he said, would help protect natives from discrimination.
The bill would allow defendants to seek justice for things like a judge or attorney using racist language toward them. It would also take into account if a person of color received a harsher sentence than their white counterpart for a similar crime.
Some questioned whether the government could be effective at combating racial injustice.
“I think solving the problem of systemic racism isn’t going to be a government action. I really believe that solving systemic racism is going to be a matter of the heart of the people in our country,” Hinkle said.
Pushing back on the point, Stafman said, “this is a system we have created. We can’t leave that to the heart. We must make sure that within the system we created that that discrimination isn’t something that is used to destroy people’s lives. And this is [bill] gives the remedy for that.”
This story originally appeared online at the Daily Montanan and is republished here by permission.