Montana organizes to fight the hate groups
by Todd WilkinsonBILLINGS, 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 says.
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 regularly.
"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."
In 1988, 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 jurisdiction.
"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 West.
John Abarr, 27, who admits writing some of the leaflets, says the public has the wrong image of the Klan.
"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.
"I've 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 with him.
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.
Then, four 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 Church.
Abarr continued to distribute hostile literature directed toward Jews and homosexuals, and police chief Inman became a target. His daughter is gay.
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 Symphony.
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 Hanukkah.
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.
"Just as in Portland, I knew there was only one step left in the progression and that was somebody getting killed," Inman says.
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 Network.
"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 enforcement.
"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.
Groups "spring 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 (406/442-5506).
* T.W. © High Country News