BILLINGS, Mont. - When Wayne Inman left Portland, Ore., two years ago to become police chief of Billings, Mont., he thought he had put hate crimes in his rear view mirror. Only a month into his new job, an alarming feeling of déj`a vu swept over him. Leaflets published by skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan began circulating in this small city along the Yellowstone River.
"Montana is perceived as a homogeneous
frontier with few minorities and not a high level of law
enforcement because of its geographical size and low number of
police officers," Inman says. "I think they (racists) naively
believe that if they come to this state to harass and intimidate,
they can drive out minorities, and the quiet majority of whites
either won't say no or put up any resistance."
Never underestimate either your friends or
enemies is a creed Inman takes to heart. During the mid-1980s, he
witnessed the rise of racial violence in Portland firsthand as a
neighborhood cop. "At first, the community there paid little
attention to the skinheads because they just looked funny," he
Then, gangs affiliated with the Aryan
Nation, KKK and American Nazis marched in military formation past
the homes of minorities and mixed-race couples. Soon after, verbal
and physical attacks started to occur
"We knew that the goal of hate groups
is to "purify" the Northwest states so that they can create a
homeland," Inman says. "Their plan calls for eliminating people of
color, Jews, gays and lesbians. Our attitude was that responding to
these kinds of groups is not merely a police problem; it's a
problem for the entire community."
Ethiopian student Mulegatis Seraw was walking outside his home in a
middle-class Portland neighborhood when three skinheads, "out
hunting for a mud person," surrounded and fatally beat him with
bats and boots. Seraw's neighborhood was within Inman's
"That was Portland's wake-up call,
and it's too bad the community had to let it progress to that level
before something was done," Inman recalls. "But we soon had
outraged citizens marching to tell the racist right it would no
longer be tolerated. And it worked."
After coming to Billings in
1990, Inman found himself again confronting skinheads, the Ku Klux
Klan, and flyers attacking Jews and gays, and supporting the
creation of a white Christian homeland in the
John Abarr, 27, who admits writing some of
the leaflets, says the public has the wrong image of the
"It's not any different than the NAACP," he
says. "The Klan is basically a civil rights organization that
stands up for the rights of white people. The Montana Human Rights
Network likes to blow everything out of proportion."
In 1988, Abarr worked as campaign manager in
Wyoming for congressional candidate Daniel Johnson, author of a
document known as the Pace Amendment. It advocates the deportation
of all non-whites from the United States.
pretty much decided since I spent some time in California that it
(a pure white Christian nation) is just not gonna be. I mean
there's so many of them (racial minorities)," Abarr says, adding
that in Montana it's easier to achieve an all-white society. When
asked if he thinks the Holocaust happened, Abarr replied: "I
haven't really made up my mind exactly to the extent of what
happened. I'm not saying Germany was a paradise for Jews, but there
wasn't any plan to exterminate 6 million Jews. I guess I have my
doubts about the Hollywood version of what happened."
Recently, Abarr was identified as a leader of
the Young Republicans at Eastern Montana College in Billings. There
he helped organize a fund-raiser for Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.
Abarr insists he wasn't there to promote racism.
"I was promoting against political correctness,"
he says. After learning of Abarr's involvement in the KKK, both
Burns and the national GOP organization severed their relationship
Skeptics told Inman he was
over-reacting to Abarr. Billings was somehow immune, they said, and
paying attention to the KKK would only encourage more radical acts.
"I spoke out immediately because I knew that the progression of
hate starts first with a presence of bold racists," Inman says. "It
starts with harassment and intimidation but inevitably, if it
continues unchecked, it will end in personal injury, property
damage and death."
In Billings, a rally against
bigotry was attended by 600 people in May 1993, and a full-page ad
deploring intolerance was published in the Billings Gazette. It was
signed by over 4,000 local residents.
months later, vandals toppled headstones in a Jewish cemetery.
Within days, a synagogue received a bomb threat and not long after,
a Native American woman living with a white man received a death
threat and found a swastika painted across their home.
Simultaneously, skinheads seeking to intimidate blacks began
attending services at the African American Episcopal
Abarr continued to distribute hostile
literature directed toward Jews and homosexuals, and police chief
Inman became a target. His daughter is
Finally, in December 1993, tensions in
Billings crescendoed when a rock was thrown through a glass door at
the home of Uri Barnea, conductor of the Billings
Inman says, "That was followed by the
most outrageous event in the spree." Someone pitched a piece of
cinderblock through the bedroom window of 5-year-old Isaac
Schnitzer, who, luckily, was unharmed. The boy's window was
decorated with a menorah in celebration of
Coincidentally, the movie Schindler's
List was playing in local theaters. Billings residents were shocked
by the parallels - particularly when a poster was distributed
denying that the Holocaust occurred and offering a $50,000 reward
to anyone who could prove it was a hoax.
in Portland, I knew there was only one step left in the progression
and that was somebody getting killed," Inman
Inman called a press conference with the
Billings Human Rights Network, Tammie Schnitzer (the mother of
Isaac Schnitzer) and members of the clergy to condemn the KKK's
bigotry and violence. The Billings Gazette, which had been attacked
as a Jewish newspaper, printed a full-page picture of a menorah and
thousands of people taped it to their windows across the city.
A group of Billings attorneys filed a defamation
suit against Abarr on behalf of six individuals and organizations
named in his flyers. And one of Abarr's associates, in turn, has
filed a defamation suit against the Human Rights
"Hate groups operate very well in the
dark, behind the bushes. They don't like to act in public view,"
Inman says. "Billings had been in denial, and citizens realized
that if they do not respond, it is interpreted by the purveyors of
hate as acceptance of their deeds. But we were in their face,
telling them that if you harass one of us, you harass us all."
Abarr, when asked recently if he had any part in
the attacks, chuckled and said he was innocent. "No one has any
idea who did it," he said. "A lot of people are thinking that the
Schnitzers did it themselves. They are the only ones who have
anything to gain by it."
The KKK, he adds, has
no intention of going away. "There's a lot of support out there for
the Klan," Abarr says. "I think it will grow. I think it takes a
certain type of person to be in the Klan."
Inman, meanwhile, has resigned from the Billings
Police Department over an unrelated dispute with the local union.
His departure leaves a void at the top of local law
"I do see their influence (the
KKK's) growing in terms of hate activity," he says. "The
hate-mongers are still present. They are poised to begin spreading
the message again, should they find a willingness for someone to
listen. In this community, we could easily fall asleep. They could
be right back here again. We must give them the message that
Billings is not fertile ground. It is as though we have won a
battle but the outcome of the war has yet to be determined."
Since its founding in Helena in 1990, the
Montana Human Rights Network has added chapters in Thompson Falls,
Missoula, Hamilton, Dillon, Butte, Bozeman, Ronan, Kalispell, Great
Falls, Billings and Helena itself.
up when they're needed," says director Christine Kaufmann. The key
point, she says, is that "people must not be silent, and the
response must be fast."
The private, non-profit
network can be reached at Box 1222, Helena, MT 59624