How 10,000 Menorahs Helped A Town Defeat Hate | Not in Our Town

How 10,000 Menorahs Helped A Town Defeat Hate

Our earlier post outlined recent acts of anti-semitism in two Montana towns, and what people can do. Now we want to share five action principles that have worked all over the world.

You can be a catalyst for change in your town. 

The message of Not In Our Town is straightforward. Each of us has a role to play in standing up to hate, and if we work together, on the ground in our local communities, we can overcome acts of hate and intolerance.

Twenty years ago, the citizens of a different Montana community were also facing white supremacist organizing and there is some good news to report: the people of Billings, Montana overcame these threats, and learned how to combat hate. Here's a short version of the story, and below, we've outlined five principles that made their actions effective.

Not In Our Town: Billings, Montana.

The Story of Billings: 10,000 Menorahs help a town defeat hate

In 1995, Not In Our Town told the story of the people in Billings who stood up to white supremacists when a Black church, a Native American family and a Jewish family became the targets of intimidation. Townspeople of all races and religions found common ground against attacks to their neighbors. Religious and community leaders, labor union volunteers, law enforcement, the local newspaper and concerned residents united in action and spoke loudly against hate and intolerance, proclaiming in no uncertain terms "Not In Our Town." 

It all started with a story that helped provide a model for how to stop hate groups. When a brick was thrown through the window of a 6 year old Jewish boy who had displayed a menorah for Hanukkah, it was a signal that violence in Billings Montana was escalating.  

Local churches, human rights and labor organizations, businesses  and the local newspaper urged residents to place menorahs in their windows as a sign of solidarity. At first, there were attacks against some of those churches. But people persevered and that holiday season, 10,000 people put menorahs in their windows to show they would stand together against hate and bigotry.

Tammy Schnitzer in a scene from “Not In Our Town: Billings, Montana.” A brick was thrown through her 6 year old son’s window where a menorah was displayed for Hanukkah.


Five Ideas to Guide Community Response to Hate

The community of Billings, Montana came together in solidarity when faced with hate and tolerance in their town.

What we have learned from the Not In Our Town movement is that with practice, we can defeat hate by working together in local communities. The people of Billings and members of other communities have created a model for how a community responds to hate. The model has been replicated over and over, across the US and around the world.  

  1. Silence is Acceptance. The police chief in Billings, Wayne Inman, an early adherent to community policing, convinced the townspeople that, despite the dangers of taking action, the only way the white supremacists would go away is if there was a consistent and united message showing that the community would not stand for hate. There was retaliation against some who stood up at first, but instead of backing down, the community redoubled their efforts - they kept showing up - at the urging of the police chief.
  2. Respond Quickly to the Need and to People Who are Targeted. No matter who the target is, response must be swift and clear. In Billings, when skinheads appeared at a small Black church, intimidating the congregation, members of other denominations showed up for services at the church, and the skinheads went away. After a Native American family’s home was plastered with racist graffiti, 30 members of the Painters Union showed up to paint the house, and 100 residents were there to cheer them on.  
  3. “I’ll Walk With You.” Learn to Practice Anti-Hate Action by showing people who have been harmed that they are not alone. A response to each action of hate, supporting all who are harmed, is the only way we can defeat it. One powerful example occurred in Brooklyn, NY, when hundreds gathered after a Muslim imam and his co-worker were killed. After the attack, New Yorkers who were not Muslim wanted to make sure their neighbors felt safe on the streets, so they launched an “I’ll Walk With You” movement. Using an online connection point, people who felt unsafe to walk to the subway or travel on public transportation could find a neighbor to accompany them. After a Black student was threatened on a Texas college campus, hundreds of her fellow students showed up to walk her to class. These are just a few of the many examples of local, positive and powerful responses to hate.
  4. Make Your Stand Against Hate Broadly Visible. Billings was starting to practice their stand against hate, and to see that it could work, when a brick was thrown through the window of a 6 year old Jewish boy who had displayed a menorah for Hanukkah.  Margaret MacDonald, now a state senator from Montana, worked to mobilize the Council of Churches, human rights and labor organizations, and local business to place menorahs in their windows as a sign of solidarity.
  5. Don’t Back Down. There were attacks against some of the Billings businesses and churches that placed Menorahs in their windows, but the police chief urged them to think of the greater danger of backing down, and the townspeople redoubled their efforts, showing up when and where acts of hate were committed. All of these efforts lead to an end to the white supremacist presence in Billings. Hate, racism and anti-Semitism are still a danger in every town, but people can express the core values that keep bigotry from infecting their cities.

We Can Stop Hate Together

Safe, swift, tangible action shows that hate will be resisted and that we won’t let our neighbors live in fear. Practicing response to hate means that when hate manifest itself, communities respond together.

Hundreds of communities have found inventive ways to take action, and here at Not In Our Town, we have been documenting and sharing their methods for over twenty years. Collectively, we are getting better and better at doing this, but now the threat is increasing rapidly, and we have to do more. Please think about how you will stand up for each other in the coming year. Join the Not In Our Town movement, and share our video and a message of hope with your family, your friends, your community.

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