Asta Bowen: Looking hate in the eye in Whitefish, Montana

(Photo by Grace Jensen) Samantha Francine stands her ground.

Here in western Montana it would seem we're a long way from the movement for justice and peace that has gained new thunder since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

We’re no strangers to injustice here, where societal woes too often land on Native American shoulders, and no strangers to inequality, where upmarket vacation homes overlook the many school kids in need of lunch assistance. And we have our share of political divides, tempered a little by the “live and let live” culture of the West — or maybe just diffused by her wide open spaces.

Yet even in our community, confrontation is upon us. Protests beget counter-protests, emotions run high, things happen.

What happened here was nothing like the incident in Buffalo, N.Y., where a 75-year old man fell and was badly injured because police shoved him backwards. There, when an officer went to the victim’s side, he was pulled back into formation. After those who had engaged with the man were suspended, their whole unit resigned in protest.

What happened here was also different from what we had seen earlier in Coral Gables, Fla. There, when marchers reached the police station, officers were waiting on the steps; a dialogue took place, followed by a prayer where the police joined protesters in taking a knee.

What happened here was much less dramatic. On a fine afternoon in the pretty ski town of Whitefish, a group was gathered to raise signs of support for Black Lives Matter. One large angry man descended on the scene, cursing in people’s faces and grabbing at signs, as the group chanted “Peaceful! Peaceful!” Within minutes a policeman had escorted the man from the scene.

But amid the commotion, one image burns bright: We see the intruder from behind, towering over a young black woman, as he gets in her face. Her sign, “Say Their Names,” has dropped to her side, but her feet are planted firmly. She has just put up her sunglasses, meeting his assault with a steady, silent gaze. Though the encounter lasts only a moment, the impression is enduring.

Her name is Samantha Francine, and she embodies the change we need. As we adjust to life under pandemic, it is time to accept that yet another plague is upon us, and that is the disease of dehumanization. We condemn first and ask questions later — or never. We judge on sight, we dismiss and damn; we polarize and partisanize until the rift has grown so wide there is no reaching across.

We'll use almost any story to justify our rage, like the claim that blood running from the ear of the old man lying on the sidewalk in Buffalo was a cleverly staged with tubes, or that the Coral Gables protest was illegitimate because A, it wasn't black-led, and B, the group had communicated with police in advance. (Organizer Oshea Johnson laughed and said he’s been black since birth, but yes; when the police called, they talked — and in a hopeful sign, are still talking.)

Samantha just held her ground, looked the man in the eye, and listened.

She explained why: "I grew up with a single white father who taught us from a young age that things were going to be different for us just because of the color of our skin. He would constantly remind us that 'no matter the threat, always look them in the eye so they have to acknowledge you’re human.' In this moment, those are the words that went through my head. When I lifted up my glasses, he saw me. I saw him."

From the news, it's easy to think that the revolution under way is only taking place in cities. But like coronavirus, this other plague is everywhere — most obviously online, in Twitter feeds and Instagram comments — but most dangerously, headed for our hearts. Mine too, I fear, which is why I am writing this, and why I am leaning on Samantha's stance for strength.

Swipe-and-judge is here, and it's going to take more than a mask to cure.

So let’s stop, plant our feet, look each other in the eye and listen to one another. Wherever we do so, be it Buffalo, Coral Gables, Whitefish, or our own back yard, that might be the revolution that really matters.

Asta Bowen | Writers on the Range

Asta Bowen is a contributor to Writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She is the author of “Wolf: The Journey Home” and a former columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She lives in northwest Montana.