Inspired by the 1960s sit-ins, Billings NIOT members stage a series of eat-ins to support the owners of vandalized restaurants
By Cindy Konecny
In the late Spring of 2008 Billings, MT, was hit with a wave of hate-motivated vandalism. It began with hate graffiti spray painted on the building of Papa Eddie’s Grill and a brick thrown through one of the windows of the minority-owned business. The brick had a swastika and the words “scum out” painted on it and the same words and sign were spray painted on the building.
That same week four other minority-owned businesses were vandalized with the words “scum out” and “white power” painted on them. The Rimrocks set above the north side of the city were also tagged with over a 100-feet of white supremacist graffiti and a large Nazi flag.
The local newspaper offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the vandals and published a message against the hateful acts: “This vandalism is offensive to all citizens of Billings. This is a growing city that welcomes a diversity of residents and businesses. Such cowardly, mean-spirited attacks are an affront to all of us that live or work in this great city. People of goodwill must not ignore these attacks. We must speak out strongly to denounce racism, prejudice and damage to property.”
The Billings Police Department asked for the public’s help in its investigation. “We want people to be vigilant and watch out for [future incidents],” said Police Chief Rich St. John. After the vandalism of the Rimrocks, he said, “We’re not tolerating that, it’s just senseless.”
The board members of Not In Our Town Billings held an emergency meeting to brainstorm what NIOT could do to rally the support of the community for these businesses. Someone suggested that NIOT should take a page from the sit-ins of the 1960’s, and stage an “eat-in” at each of the vandalized restaurants. The idea was to support the businesses by inviting the community to join NIOT members for a dinner at each of the restaurants.
We advertised the eat-ins by first sending a message out to the NIOT Billings email list, then forwarding it on to as many people as possible. Eran Thompson, NIOT Billings chairperson, designed fliers, and wrote and distributed a press release to the local media.
The first eat-in at Papa Eddie’s Grill was a tremendous success. On a Tuesday evening, owner Eddie Laster typically fed about 15 or 20 customers. But the Tuesday night we scheduled an eat-in there, well over 200 showed up and were served. Local television station KULR-8 covered the event for the evening news and broadcast live interviews with Eddie and leaders of NIOT Billings. “We did this to show our community that we still stand strong,” Thompson said.
Every other Tuesday for the next six weeks, NIOT Billings organized eat-ins at the other vandalized restaurants. NIOT volunteers and board members handed out free brochures and NIOT pins, passed around sign-up sheets for attendees to join our mailing list, and sold brightly-colored painted hands with a heart in the middle of it to raise funds for future NIOT Billings activities. After the second eat-in, a local radio station signed on to the campaign to support the vandalized businesses and ran public service announcements advertising the events.
Michael Crummet, a board member of NIOT Billings, said the goal of the Eat-ins was not only to support the owners of the vandalized businesses, but also to give residents a chance to take a stand against hate crimes. “This is the positive response we want to have, as a community, to any sort of racist declaration.”
One Billings resident who attended the eat-in with family visiting from out of state said, “I’ve lived here a long time. We are not going to let our town become affected by anybody intimidating our city”.
Lindsay Sanders, a recent graduate from Billings Senior High School, also attended and read a poem she wrote in response to the hateful graffiti called “Sandblasting Our Bricks Clean”:
They paint swastikas just thinking,
that the skin they are showing
covering their lame brains
is better than ours covering our hearts.
That Hitler’s sign is only composed
of sharp, jagged lines.
Corners doing cartwheels,
as innocent as a child’s play,
while they undermine
the real connotation in the middle.
They paint that hate on our bricks
as though this was their town and their right.
As though we are just visiting and their
mentality has been brought in for questioning.
As though they could revive an idea
that was shot down with the KKK when
blood stained their white wedding sheets
they dressed in at night. When truth shone
the light that made their silhouette look so scrawny
under the blood stained white wedding sheets of the KKK.
They paint their selfish lines of graffiti
as though those drops could change our history.
The strife of the black man and the redemption
of the white. The forgiveness on one side upheld
by the acceptance on the other. The band made between
every Caucasian and colored brother. Matin Luther King
and Abraham Lincoln, Obama and Clinton, the blue-eyed Jesus,
and the blue elephant, Ganesha.
They paint against our skin color, differently churches,
neighborhoods and corners, sexual partners, and moralized martyrs.
In four sharp, jagged corners they cut away
our heritage, history, harmony and honor.
With gas masks and bricks, we see a test
presented in four sharp, jagged corners:
Yes you have come this far, but can you make it longer.
And so as Obama says, “yes, we can,” as the King pronounced,
"I have a dream,” and as we say now, “Not in our town.”
Not in our town will their paint stay and ideas flourish.
Not in our town will bed sheets be worn as robes.
Not in our town will we remain silent.
No, because in our town we are all Robin Hoods
fighting away spray paint and racial slurs for the greater good.
In our town I don’t have to be black to see mistreatment and I don’t have to be white to do something about it.
Together we will sandblast our bricks clean from
that paint. That symbol that they just thinking, not thinking,
not remembering, just remembering that this is our town
and we’ll fight to keep it that way.
“I just want people to know were not all like that,” Sanders said.