The high-pitched hiss of a microphone split the air in front of the Missoula County Courthouse Friday evening. Jay Mattson spoke to a kneeling crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters, telling the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old who was lynched in Jim Crow-era Mississippi in 1955.
Mattson could relate to Till’s story. He had nearly been shot because of the color of his skin. Mattson was stopped by police in Athens, Ohio just two weeks after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, who was shot by police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014. The officers were looking for a burglary suspect, and took Mattson into custody. He was slammed into the ground at gunpoint and detained.
“I had that moment where I went from a human being to just a statistic,” Mattson said.
Mattson, along with other speakers and protestors, gathered for the eighth straight day of protesting the death of George Floyd. Protesters holding signs saying “I can’t breathe,” and “defund the police,” hugged the sidewalk in front of the courthouse.
Bo Henderson, a student at the University of Montana, came to the protest for the first time Friday. Henderson was there in full support to elevate the voices of those who have dealt with injustice.
“As a white man, I’m here to amplify the voices of those who know what it’s like,” Henderson said. “I’m so ignorant and I am here to learn and educate myself.”
The atmosphere of the gathering was both solemn and energetic. Childish Gambino’s “This is America” burst from a speaker while organizers handed out popsicles and water to fight the heat.
Linda Ferris and Nadia Adams, members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, held signs saying “skin color is not reasonable suspicion,” and “silence is violence.” The pair came to show support for the movement because of their experiences as Indigenous women. Adams said that growing up, she was taught to be aware of how people treated her because of the color of her skin. Ferris, a mother, is concerned for the future of her children.
“It scares the hell out of me to think my sons could be profiled because of their skin color,” Ferris said.
Armed citizens were also present. Some were situated to the right of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) group, while others freely mingled with the large crowd of protesters. Mattson said that when some armed citizens first showed up a few days earlier, they were there under the assumption that the BLM protesters were Antifa.
Antifa, the anti-fascist group that has taken much of the blame for destruction in contrast to the protests around the country, had been rumored on social media posts to be coming to Missoula. In a video statement on June 3, Mayor John Engen, along with Police Chief Jaeson White, confirmed there was no credible proof of Antifa coming to stir up violence.
Minimal police presence allowed the protesters to move about uninhibited. Toward the waning hours of the evening, the large group became mobile, moving from the courthouse to the Higgins Street Bridge, and then returning through Caras Park.
Chants continued, including one of “Happy Birthday” for the late Breonna Taylor, who was killed when Louisville police entered her home on March 13 in an attempted drug sting and shot her eight times. She would have been 27 years old.
Mattson and other organizers plan to continue their presence for as long as they need to. The overwhelming show of support from local Missoulians has continued to grow day by day, he said.
“I had a love affair with Missoula from the first time I got here, the people are amazing. They took it to another level to show this much support,” he said. “People really care. They’re having a good time.”