A Community Divided

Listening to the radio while driving through California's Central Valley recently, I was struck by the number of hate-filled talk shows that filled the airwaves. These guys made Rush Limbaugh sound sane. They talked about everything from how America is being controlled by an international Japanese-Jewish mafia to how citizens should purchase guns before the Second Amendment is taken away by a "liberal-biased" Supreme Court. Whoa.

Shock-jock radio is part and parcel of America's First Amendment protecting free speech, but it's also a powerful source of divisiveness in small-town America, where people spend a lot of time in cars. Almost a quarter of Americans get their news from radio talk shows.

Patrice O'Neill's excellent documentary, "The Fire Next Time," explores the effect of such radio on a Montana town. The film covers tensions that have arisen between the forces of economic development, environmental activism and anti-government extremism in the Flathead Valley. It shows how neighbors in a peaceful town can turn against each other when extremists are given the power to broadcast messages of hatred on the radio dial.

O'Neill is co-founder of The Working Group, which produced the community-building film "Not in Our Town," and conducts a national program to help communities deal with intolerance by holding film screenings and community discussions. O'Neill was asked by a citizen of Flathead Valley to bring her program to the town of Kalispell, and "The Fire Next Time" arose out of her two subsequent years spent in the Valley, gaining the trust of locals to discuss their issues on camera.

In 2000, as loggers and mill workers faced lost jobs and rising living costs, right-wing extremist John Stokes bought a local radio station and began broadcasting messages blaming environmentalists and government officials for their woes. He announced the addresses of local environmentalists on his station, leading to death threats against them. In a particularly emotional passage, the daughter of a local activist learns how to shoot a gun after the lug nuts on her wheels were loosened, almost causing her to crash. Local politicians were also targeted; the mayor of Kalispell had three nail-induced flat tires in the period of one month.

Stokes also began broadcasting his own version of hate speech. ("Jewish Holocaust survivors ... did nothing about the deeds or the actions that led to the slaughter of your people.") In the midst of the turmoil, the local anti-government militia group Project 7 was discovered, along with a cache of guns and a hit list that included the police chief and sheriff. The news served to intimidate some activist citizens of the Valley into silence, and furthered the schism between Kalispell's townspeople.

That's when O'Neill's group arrived.

O'Neill succeeds in getting people from both sides of the issues to speak to the camera -- including Stokes. The film's main message is that dialogue must continue in towns like Kalispell dealing with intolerance and violence; community members must not be silent but must act quickly to dispel ignorance. O'Neill speaks about "how quickly we can become enemies and be dehumanized, particularly if you have the power of media repeating that there's a reason why we're losing jobs. There is an enemy and they're identifiable and they're a person." The film also shows how people interested in uniting in peace can use the media -- in this case, a film -- to offset those messages of hatred.

Whether the two sides actually will achieve some compromise in the land-use issue -- and what that compromise will look like -- remains to be seen. Stokes' shock-jock radio continues, and will no doubt be fueled by this film. But hopefully, people across America who watch it will start viewing those on the opposite side of an issue as human, and not an evil enemy.

Toward the end, O’Neill films a small group of townsfolk who have declared their intent to remain neighbors, regardless of their differences. They agree to peacefully disagree and to keep trying to achieve common ground. In this era of polarized agendas, that's all we can hope for.

Below is an excerpt from the P.O.V. series' Q&A with filmmaker Patrice O'Neill.

So how did you come to make "The Fire Next Time"?

The story really begins for us about ten years ago when we did a film called "Not In Our Town." It's about people in Billings, Montana, who fought against hate crimes. It was a PBS special in 1995. People saw the story of what people did there and said, "We can apply this to our communities." We got a call a while ago from an ex-cop in Kalispell, Montana who said, "I'd like to start a 'Not In Our Town' movement. I'd like to use the film and see if people can find a way to get together, because I sense some danger in this community." And that's how we first came into the picture in Kalispell.

How did you get to Kalispell?

I think when you first start watching this film, you think it's going to be a scary movie. In a lot of ways, it is. But what I tried to do is tell this story as it was revealed to me. And the spark really was a call from a former cop who said, "I'm worried about the atmosphere in my town. I'm worried about racist voices that I hear on this radio station." And I heard her and I tried to respond to her, but I didn't really get the wake-up call until the national news media broke a story about a domestic terror cell that had just been uncovered in the town, with a huge cache of weapons and an assassination list that included many of the cops, judges, prosecutors and their families in the town. I don't think anybody knew this was going on under their noses. We went to Kalispell for the first Hands Against Hate meeting. It was called right after the domestic terror cell was uncovered.

I think at that point, even though people in the town had become fearful, people decided they had to respond. I really thought that I was going into this community to show how people can organize and respond to the threat of violence. I thought it would be a simple little story -- maybe a website story. And then I found this whole series of conflicts. So I started to peel back the layers and I thought, maybe we should come back one more time.

By the second trip I was hooked and realized that this was a much more complicated story, a challenging story and that it needed to be followed over a period of time. That's what I tried to follow over several years. How do we get underneath this conflict and find out what's really going on? What are the causes? What's making people so angry and what's making them afraid?

How would you describe "The Fire Next Time"?

"The Fire Next Time" is a story about a deeply divided town. Over several years we look at how conflicts can become so volatile that they become dangerous. The center of the conflict in this community is the land -- and deep world-view divisions over how the land should be used and who it's for. But there are many conflicts. There are conflicts over the role of government, over the schools, over race, over identity. There are all these swirling things and in the middle of that there's a spark. There's the power of media. What happens when the media sparks anger and sparks fear? And what happens when anger allows us to dehumanize each other? How is fear used to silence people who know there's a problem, but then think, 'I'm just going to go to work and deal with my own life?'

I think all of us are so busy and so involved in our own lives. And we want to do something but we don't know how. I think in "The Fire Next Time," you see what happens when people stop listening to each other, when they stop hearing each other. And how quickly we can become enemies, particularly if you have the power of media repeating that there is a reason why we're losing our jobs, that there is an enemy and they're identifiable and they're a person. This buildup of anger and fear can happen very quickly.

I think this could happen in any town. So I want "The Fire Next Time" to be a warning. If we all do just a little something, if we all just take a few steps, maybe we can stop something really bad from happening before it's too late. The question is, how do we see the warning signs? How do we know that we need to pay attention? How do we know that maybe if we disagree with someone, we still need to listen to them, we still need to hear them? How can we have honest disagreements and still be neighbors and still be fellow citizens? I think that's a deeply challenging problem for the whole country.

What do you want viewers of the film to come away with after watching it?

I hope people see "The Fire Next Time" and decide to pay attention. I hope that they don't see this as an isolated problem in northwest Montana. This is a problem for the whole country. How do we deal with the warning signs and the dangers? What do we do now to deal with a fire next time?

What happens in Kalispell is that there are partisans on one side or the other who are very active and they're very loud. And the people in between may feel one way or the other, may sympathize with one side or the other, or both many times, but they're silenced. They're silenced because they don't want to be involved in the yelling, they don't want to put themselves out there. They don't feel partisan in the same way. But their disengagement is creating this volatile chasm.

So how do you get those people who care about their community but maybe aren't so partisan involved in this discussion and this debate? That's who I hope sees the film, that's who I hope becomes engaged by "The Fire Next Time." I think "The Fire Next Time" offers an incredible opportunity for communities to deal with their own conflicts, to look at this film and say, here's what happened here, what warnings signs do we see from this film that we might see in our own communities? What can we do to prepare? What can we do to ameliorate some of the danger and deal with some of these divisions? How can we listen to each other in a new way so, so our divisions and these conflicts don't become really volatile?

And I hope that's what happens -- that people take it into their own communities and interpret it in their own way, depending on what's happening there. There are so many communities, particularly in the West, that are growing rapidly, and people feel an incredible sense of loss and anger over what's happening to their towns. How do they deal with that? How do they grapple with it? I think there are important lessons to be learned from this community.

For more from filmmaker Patrice O'Neill about "The Fire Next Time," visit P.O.V.'s official website. "The Fire Next Time" premieres Tuesday, July 12 at 10pm on the P.O.V. documentary series on PBS. (Check local listings.)

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