Hell To Pay

Who will pay the price for the Missoula police riots?


Among the broken bottles and protest flyers that still litter downtown’s streets, you will find what’s left of the Missoula we thought we were. A community that for generations has prided itself on civic involvement, open dialogue and old-fashioned neighborhood unity has, in the past week, seen its pleasant self-image taken to task. Some would say, shattered into splinters. Over the course of two days, everything changed. Everything that we expected to happen, happened in reverse.

Black-clad bikers who we were warned so much about ended up sequestering themselves in the hills outside of town. Decent citizens got rowdy. And the police—both our own and from other towns—unleashed truly brutal violence on groups of unarmed civilians—not once, but twice—despite the fact that they were there to protect us. The whole order of things seemed to be up-ended. And it hasn’t righted itself yet.

The police are ignoring our phone calls. The bikers are long gone, having left scarcely a trace. And Mayor Mike Kadas is on vacation, believe it or not, having picked the Hell's Angels rally as a good time to take a trip to a far-off island which City Manager Janet Stevens says does not even have telephones. So it’s been left up to us to make sense of all this. And we have to wonder: Who will pay the price for this? Is no one accountable?

It’s natural, at this point, to try to retrace our steps. It all began a week ago, last Thursday, when the Hell’s Angels began arriving in Missoula for their annual rally. Uninvited and largely unwelcome, the Angels quickly became the subject of hype and fear-mongering in the mainstream media, and by the time the Harleys started to roar down Higgins Avenue, Missoula had girded itself for the worst. It was easy to see. Helicopters began circling the city, wasp-like, looking for trouble, or signs of it. Patrolmen doubled up, trailing bikers up and down city streets in fours, sixes, even eights. And entire teams of officers came from other towns to back up local forces, from Helena; Kootenai County, Idaho; and St. George, Utah. The nights got hot, and the streets got loud, and, looking back, it seemed inevitable that something would happen.

By Friday night, you could see it starting. As the bars closed that night, police prowlers grew thick along Front Street, where Hell’s Angels were hanging out. As the bars emptied, cop cars became more and more visible. By the time the Angels had left, the police were moving up and down Front in what seemed like a parade. It was then that cops on foot made the first display of force. With canisters of pepper spray drawn and police dogs barking, officers drove a wedge through the crowd of onlookers on the sidewalk, pushing half of the throng to the east, the other to the west. It didn’t take long for the animosity to rise within the crowd—jeering, shaking fists, screaming obscenities. There was lots of talk of Missoula’s “police state.” References to fascism were made. The lines had been drawn.

What happened the next day followed all too naturally. Due in part to the show of force the night before, a crowd of about 200 gathered to protest the police conduct. Beginning at the Missoula Police Department offices on Ryman, the protestors launched a march through the city center. On foot, astride bikes, and behind banners, they marched as far as Main Street, when police cars pulled up, cut off their ersatz parade route, and officers spilled out with their arms outstretched, trying to herd the protestors to the curb. What began as firm orders soon turned more aggressive. A cyclist tried to weave his way around a cop car and was pulled off of his bike. Minutes later, as marchers behind him tried to continue, at least one officer began using pepper spray. And when an officer in the middle of the scene got hit by a protest placard, he furiously wrested the sign from the woman holding it, as if it were a weapon, swinging it in arcs. The sign read: “Hospitality, Not Hostility.”

It was in this way that the fuse had been lit, set to detonate that night. By early evening, cop cars had lined the north curb of Front Street, facing off against the Harleys along the south. Barricades had been brought in to keep pedestrians from knocking over motorcycles, something police later said they feared would start a firestorm of violence from the bikers. But after the bars closed and most of the Hell’s Angels disappeared, so did the police. Suddenly, a sense of release seemed to come over the crowd. People filled the streets. Impromptu drummers played, and folks around them danced. A few others began clambering onto store awnings, which police later described as trespassing and destruction of property. A small group sat in a ring in the middle of the Higgins-Front intersection. The air could best be described as charged. The crowd was an uncharacterizable group of downtown regulars, drunken revelers, and curious onlookers. Estimates have sized the crowd at 500, but that number would soon halve itself.

As a pickup truck slowly crawled through the crowd, revelers drew themselves to it, clinging to the sides, jumping in the back, riding on the sideboards. Then, as the truck crossed Higgins and onto East Front, a young woman fell off and tumbled limp onto the asphalt. There was a beat of hesitation, as if no one quite understood what had happened, and then suddenly there was a flurry. People administered aid, grabbed cell phones to call an ambulance, and a few even sought out cop cars parked discreetly in the alleys in the hopes of getting help. But for just under 12 minutes, no one arrived. When the paramedics did pull up, close behind them were some 50 police officers, this time covered in riot gear.

What happened after that is difficult to document, except by anecdote, and by camera, and by what few public records have been released. But by all accounts, for the next 20 minutes, Higgins and Front were like crosshairs, marking the center of chaos, violence and a kind of undistilled rage that many Missoulians probably never thought would find life on our streets. Those 20 minutes, along with incidents that led up to them, are what photographers Chad Harder and Dan Engler have captured here.

These images mark the culmination of two of the most regrettable days that Missoula has seen in decades. Maybe ever. In that time, 63 people were arrested. Three went to local emergency rooms with injuries caused by cops. And Missoula began what may well turn out to be a long, hard stare in the mirror.

To be sure, those two days were filled with bad decisions. The media treated a biker rally like it was a kind of sideshow. Some citizens tried to protest police activity by provoking it. And most importantly, the police, when confronted with growing disorder, responded with even greater disorder. In a press conference Monday morning, Missoula Police Chief Pete Lawrenson said that during the Hell’s Angels rally he sought to prevent incidents that he feared “would have precipitated an act of violence unseen in this community.” That violence did come, but it came from the people who were supposed to have kept it at bay. Everything that we expected to happen, happened in reverse.

The events of last weekend will linger for a long time. And they should. Certainly, the city will never quite be the same. Where we go from here, and what lessons we take with us, remain to be determined. The stare in the mirror begins with these pictures.


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