Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins says, when he saw the video of George Floyd’s death in police custody last month, he knew it would lead to an outcry. However, he says he didn’t expect the massive nationwide response that has followed.
“I think the life that it took on was because we watched this guy die,” he said.
Collins has a unique perspective on the protests for racial justice that sprung out of this case. He and his wife came to Montana about 25 years ago as refugees, fleeing a civil war in their home country of Liberia. He says, while most of the community has been supportive, they have also experienced racial bias.
“As a community, we need to know that these things are happening, and these things have been happening from time immemorial,” said Collins.
He says his family’s first home in Montana was spray-painted with racist slogans like “KKK” and “Go back to Africa,” and that people tried to set his car on fire. More recently, he believes he has been pulled over by law enforcement in situations when a person of a different skin color wouldn’t have been.
Collins said, in many cases, people who experience incidents like this don’t want to talk about them.
“Some people say, ‘Well, this isn’t happening here in Helena,’” he said. “You haven’t experienced it. I can tell you, there have been people who’ve experienced whatever they’ve experienced.”
Over the weekend, Collins took part in a protest outside the Montana State Capitol, in memory of George Floyd and supporting the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
“The message we’re trying to get to our community went across,” he said. “They were telling the community, ‘We need to look at ourselves.’”
Earlier this week, the city announced it will hold work sessions to take a close look at the Helena Police Department’s procedures. Collins says it’s something he’s received a lot of letters and emails asking for.
“We are looking at this, we do intend to take this serious, and we want to assure them that we’re not taking it lightly,” he said.
Collins said it’s vital that everyone in the Helena community feel that they are included. He asked that people who haven’t experienced discrimination rally around those who have.
“These things are happening,” he said. “Until we address them, a part of our community is not safe – a part of our community feels unsafe. We’re all here for one another.”