A peaceful protest in Whitefish last week turned ugly when a visibly angry man confronted demonstrators, yelling at them while standing only inches away from their faces.
One of the protesters, Samantha Francine – who's an African American Whitefish woman -- was taunted by that man. She shared her story with MTN News after a picture of her staring down the man down went viral.
"The words of my father that he used to speak to us as children when he would talk about keeping us safe and all of that stuff,” Francine said. “He used to tell us whatever the threat, look them in the eye so they have to acknowledge that you're human. “And in that moment, I felt that I heard that and I lived it. I made sure to take my sunglasses off to look at that man and I did it."
Francine was one of hundreds of people protesting in Whitefish for the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of Minnesota man George Floyd. The man yelling at protesters was later identified by Whitefish Police as 51-year-old Jay Snowden. According to police, Snowden was later charged with one count of disorderly conduct.
Francine told MTN News that she's still processing the entire experience.
"It was a surreal experience I really can't describe it," she said. "I don't really know if I felt fear. I still haven't really processed it enough to give a definite answer."
Francine grew up in Whitefish and while she's experienced many positive things in the resort town, she told MTN News that she often met with painful discrimination.
"The first time I remember being called the "n word" I was seven years old," said Francine. "I wasn't invited to all of the birthday parties because some parents were uncomfortable with my presence."
Francine added that she struggled with her identity in a predominantly Caucasian community. She even changed her appearance to try and fit in more.
"I started to make myself less African American I started to straighten my hair, you know, chemically straighten it regularly. Dyeing my hair. I tried dyeing my hair blond one time," she said. "I went through periods of where I would try to starve myself so I would more thin, less curvy. “And then, when people would talk about the African American community in a negative way I wouldn't speak up or I would agree in a sense so they would feel more comfortable around me."
Following Floyd's death, she knew she had to be a voice for her community to enact change. "So, I do want to be a part of the community," Francine said. "I do want to be out so that there is somebody to look up to, an example. Someone you can recognize and identify."
Francine says the best way to start change is to start with a conversation.
Peaceful protesting will continue to take place in honor of the Black Lives Matter movement every night from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. outside of Whitefish City hall for the next two weeks.
Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld issued a statement on Tuesday saying the city of Whitefish condemns actions of hatefulness and bigotry and stands by Francine.
Below is the full statement released by Mayor Muhlfeld.
The citizens of small towns like Whitefish, Montana have joined in recent protests around the nation and the world -- of people rising up to use their voices to express anger against racism, and larger issues in our society including police violence and the unnecessary use of force.
The City of Whitefish and the Whitefish Police Department are proud to serve our citizens and condemn any actions that reflect racism and bigotry. When this community has been faced with threats of discrimination and violence in the past, we have acted together to protect human rights. We take this responsibility seriously and will continue to act to protect and serve all citizens.
Recent news stories have vividly shown the anger of one individual within a sea of protesters chanting "Peaceful! Peaceful! Peaceful!" We condemn the actions espousing hate during the peaceful protest in Whitefish last week. And we are proud of local Samantha Francine, who remembered her father's powerful words: "No matter the threat, always look them in the eye so they have to acknowledge you're human." Samantha recently wrote, "When I lifted up my sunglasses, he saw me. I saw him," and she continued to remain peaceful. Samantha, thank you for your courage, your wisdom, and your calmness.
We also applaud our own police department for calmly diffusing the situation and charging the individual with disorderly conduct. Our officers clearly demonstrate what it means to serve and protect -- and they continue to uphold our community with the highest of ethics. Excessive force by police officers anywhere should be condemned.
Let me be clear, the hateful actions of a few are not representative of our community's core values and principles. Ideals of tolerance, nondiscrimination, and inclusion have consistently been reiterated through official city ordinances and proclamations, as well as in our own positive community dialogue and friendly nature.
We have a strong inclusive community here, where neighbors help neighbors, people look you in the eye and say hello when you're walking down the sidewalk, and we welcome people from all walks of life. As a community, we need to look inward and remain open to ongoing dialogue on how we can make positive change to these issues. The City of Whitefish is dedicated to protecting the First Amendment rights of all individuals to peacefully protest on those same sidewalks -- and we continue to ask all who are involved to respect each other's rights and to remain peaceful.
These are some of the most challenging times we have recently faced as a nation and as a community. We are outraged by the criminal acts against people of color, as well as violence against our indigenous peoples and peaceful protesters across the nation.
The City honors its responsibility to promote equality, tolerance, nondiscrimination, and diversity within our community and beyond. And it is through respect, kindness, and thoughtful dialogue that we will continue to become a better community and nation.
Here in Whitefish, Montana, we recognize the dignity of all persons -- and continue to take action against intolerance, shining light on hate whenever we witness it.
There is still much work to be done.