Reporters Notebook: Missoula protesters harassing local media serve as hypocrites

While protesters gathered peacefully Wednesday morning in downtown Missoula, a small group of individuals worked to interfere with the media, urging others to avoid interviews.

The Missoula Current had several interviews interrupted when members of a self-appointed “press control” demanded to know what outlet the reporter – that being me – represented.

Despite being informed of where I worked and what I did – and the fact that I’ve been doing my job for 25 years and for six different papers – they urged protesters not to talk, suggesting I was disguised as a right-wing agitator.

While I don’t have any hair and I shave my head by choice, I’ve never been accused of being a member of the militia. The very stereotypes most demonstrators came to overcome persisted among some members of this small but persistent group.

“Excuse me, you don’t want to continue to have a conversation with this guy,” one demonstrator interrupted, telling Nita Vandegrift – the kind woman I was interviewing – to quit talking. “This person isn’t press. They’re probably disguised to get stuff for a right wing press or something.”

Vandergrift was standing with her grandchildren when the individual interrupted. The grandchildren didn’t get a chance to speak, as the interruption quashed the interview. History won’t know what they were thinking.

While the majority of the demonstrators came to speak freely in their call for change, members of the press control took it upon themselves to ensure that right wasn’t enjoyed by all.

The group followed me around in an effort to quash interviews and block photos, telling those in the crowd not to talk whenever I drew near. A reporter from another news outlet that was present – a local television station – said she experienced similar treatment earlier in the week.

Later in the morning, another member of the press control attempted to block another interview, this time with Lawrence Amijo, who helped launch the Missoula demonstration last week on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Amijo was talking about the change he wanted to see as an African American when the person interrupted, drawing very close.

“Can you just pause for a moment,” the individual told Amijo as he was talking. “I’ve gotten warning about this person not being safe. I would just like to get that out there.”

Amijo continued his interview regardless, saying his family has experienced a cycle of injustice for generations. He doesn’t want that for the children of his children. I was glad he followed through with his thoughts, as it was good to hear his perspective. It was also good to meet him.

But it didn’t end there. As I was standing in line with demonstrators trying to get photos, three more members of the press control closed around, again demanding to know who I was and what I was doing there, never mind I was on a public sidewalk at a public demonstration in a public square.

My irritation began to show.

As we finally began to talk on more constructive terms, these three individuals said they feared for their lives and were working to “protect” other demonstrators. They said other demonstrators in Helena had been “doxed” by a right-leaning publication, though I never got the publication’s name.

They also suggested local militia members had threatened their lives.

“There were militia members over there, on this side, and I have a video of a guy saying he was going to bring the Three Percenters militia,” one member of the detail said. “They claim they’re defending from Antifa, ‘quote unquote.’ I don’t know where these rumors came from.”

I told them I understood their fears, but quietly, I didn’t understand their desire to run interference and harass members of the local media.

The events of Wednesday morning marked a first for me. I left disappointed, knowing that while so many fight for change, some continue to practice stereotypes and quash the rights of others who are looking to perform a basic task, one that’s protected by the First Amendment.