We had a gig this weekend at the Gardiner Brewfest. It was early in the day-long event so it had a low key vibe. Technically it felt like we did our job and we were assisted by a marvelous sound engineering team but it was sunny and hot and people were in the shade a long way from the stage. It was a long distance concert and so not nearly as fun as our Wednesday night shows at the Wonderland Cafe. There people are right with us and they’re on vacation and ready to have some fun. We ask where they’re from and what they’ve seen. Bears! Buffalo (bison)! Elk! We take regional requests and everyone gets in the spirit of the night. That is our kind of show. Come and see us if you are in the area.
After our set we hung around and had a beer and listened to the next band. A former co-worker of mine had come down to catch our set so we sat and chatted with him in the grass while listening to the next faraway band. After a while we realized our dogs needed saving and so we had to go. I wanted to see the headliners (they were our kind sound team) but three dogs need more attention than I could previously have imagined. It’s always something.
And then it was something. Gardiner is the most diverse place I’ve lived in Montana. There are tourists from all over the world here to see the most famous national park anywhere. And there are also seasonal employees from all points of the compass. Park concessionaires recruit and hire staff from all regions of the US and the world to fill housekeeping, hospitality, and maintenance positions. There are people of every color and diverse cultural backgrounds, languages, accents walking the streets of Gardiner.
Burt and I loaded our instruments into our former but now borrowed 1994 Subaru Legacy and headed up the hill to Jardine. Just at the corner we noticed an altercation between a white man and two black men on a corner in downtown Gardiner. I yelled stop but Burt was already slamming on the brakes. I jumped out of the car as I dialed 911. Now my cell phone is having a hissy fit these days. Sometimes people can hear me and sometimes they can’t. Now I can’t be sure if this screaming match between these men was racially motivated. Here’s what I saw: A white guy screaming and gesticulating wildly. He was stationed on the steps to a porch. He had a couple of friends on the porch behind him. The black guy standing was street side just inside a pole fence on grass acting like he wanted to tangle. His body language said, “Bring it.” There was another man outside the fence. I’m not sure if he was trying to get his friend to exit the property or if he had his back. There was another man, older and white, on the opposite side of the black men.
As I approached the white guy was threatening the black guy. I was screaming the address as best I could into my phone and I yelled at the white guy, “Get back on your porch. Leave him alone.” Nobody was happy to see old white chick get in the middle. Glares all around. One of the ideas of my martial arts school was if you could protect yourself or somebody else, you are not just saving your own life, but you are also saving your attackers life. You are giving them a chance to not harm you and maybe there life will end up differently. So there I was yelling into the phone and yelling at the white guy cause he was the one going bonkers when the white guy does what I ask and goes to the porch. And he comes back with an axe. As he brandishes the ax he yells, “This is Montana and I’m white. I can kill you and nothing will happen to me.” Okay. This is a racially charged incident. No doubt now.
The man on the other side of the black guys is saying, “It’s not worth it. Get out of here.” And I am yelling, “Get back!” to the axe man. He turns towards me. The 911 dispatcher is yelling at me to leave. The dude is on one side of a fence and I am on the other. He’s 20′ away. We make eye contact. I am not one bit afraid. His racist, stand your ground, all too true statement has made me feel invincible. I meet his stare and he can’t face me. He looks away and turns towards the porch, swings the ax into a porch column and puts it down. Burt is now out of the car. The guy comes back towards us and the black men have crossed the street. The dispatcher is yelling leave, the police are on their way. The guy starts yelling at Burt for looking at him. Burt tells him it’s a public street and he can watch if he wants too. Since the danger has passed and the cops are headed over I slip into the car and we make our getaway.
Soon after a park ranger came to the gNash to take our statements. Gardiner is the wild west. Law enforcement here is a patchwork. We were told that the white guy was angry at the black guys for cutting through his property. His rental property. Apparently it is very common for local workers to take this shortcut. We also learned that none of the parties is a resident. They are all seasonal workers and they’ve had words before. The ax was hidden by the time law enforcement showed and the guy’s buddies denied he ever had an ax. Our word against theirs. Today I learned that nobody has been charged.
I find myself ambivalent regarding prosecution. If our intervention prevented a tragedy than that’s enough for me. And maybe it did. On the bigger, global scale I am pissed. Montana is a stand your ground state and that asshat was almost certainly right that he could have murdered that black man and gotten away with it. Maybe not after that indiscreet announcement of his intentions and bias but I agree he could have claimed he was reacting in fear and that he thought his life was in danger and the jury would have bought it. Black vs. white has a miserable record in this country. And, hell, in Montana you can shoot a fleeing white person in the back and still successfully claim self-defense.
It’s important to me to bring this up but it’s a little awkward. Please remember when I waded in there was no ax. I just saw some men heatedly arguing and thought I can stop this. My own bias led me to believe it was a race based altercation. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. How could I know from my car? The ax and the vile racist utterance came out within moments of my arrival. It confirmed to me that stopping was the right thing to do. If only because I got to say to that guy in my actions NO, WE ARE NOT ALL LIKE YOU. It is our duty to call out racism and to do what we can to stop it.
Someone on Facebook metioned it’s probably easier to confront an ax wielding asshole than your sweet 80 year old neighbor. I think that person was correct. Personally I’m going to try and channel the power I felt in the heat of the moment into pushing back and educating friends and family.