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Hanging offense: At the Sunrise Saloon, a painting sparks debate

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Social media erupted last week in arguments about a painting in Missoula's Sunrise Saloon and Casino. The painting depicts three men hanging from a barn rafter. One of the bar's co-owners can be seen on video posted to Facebook describing the image as a depiction of the last hanging at the Missoula County courthouse. Missoulians calling for its removal contend that the hanged men are black, and that the painting conveys a racist message.

The conflict first rose to public attention in early June when 17-year Montana resident Yolanda Garcia posted a photo of the painting on Facebook. Garcia had been a Sunrise patron for years, and says she'd already taken issue with another bar decoration: a vintage whiskey ad featuring a black man above the motto "I knows de ropes." When a bartender drew her attention to the hanging painting, which is accessorised with a rope noose, Garcia sent a letter to the owners asking them to take both items down.

Two weeks later, on June 14, Garcia met with Sunrise co-owner Rick Zavarelli at the bar. She was accompanied by friend and state Green Party coordinator Danielle Breck and Montana Human Rights Network organizer Garrett Lankford. Breck streamed a portion of the exchange live on Facebook, including Zavarelli's assertion that he'd commissioned the piece based on a painting he'd seen at Missoula's now-shuttered OK Corral bar. Zavarelli declined to remove the painting.

"I honestly thought they would just do the right thing and take it down," Garcia says.

Garcia adds that the whiskey ad had been removed that morning—a fact that co-owner Kammy Zavarelli confirmed to the Indy. Beyond that confirmation, the bar's owners declined to comment for this story.

Garcia, Breck and Lankford initially announced a protest outside the Sunrise, but decided earlier this week to relocate the rally to Kiwanis Park. Breck explained the change in Facebook comments, writing that it would avoid confrontation and ensure the event "remains a celebration of [Missoula's] diversity." The rally is scheduled for 3 p.m. on June 24.

Lankford hopes the event, as well as future conversations with the bar's owners, will move Missoula forward on the issue of racism. The process won't be easy, he says. "But it's worth it."

Since the video was posted, Garcia says, she's received numerous threats from the saloon's defenders. She understands that it's Zavarelli's decision whether to remove the painting, but she also thinks the establishment should be respectful of its patrons.

"There was a time last week when I was crying every day, and I just wanted my life to go back to normal," Garcia says. "I don't know what I want from this. I guess what I want is for people to have a little more understanding."

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