On June 3, in Whitefish, Mont., an all-too-common scene emerged: an angry white man yelling profanities at peaceful protestors.
When the man became confrontational with Samantha Francine, 27, though, she did not back down. In fact, she raised her sunglasses so that he would have to look her in the eyes.
The man, identified as Jay Snowden, was removed from the scene and charged with disorderly conduct the following day.
Floored by her bravery, Ms. writer Sarah Montgomery spoke with Francine about what happened that day, her experience as a Black woman in rural Montana, and what—and who—keeps her going.
Sarah Montgomery: Can you tell me, from your perspective, what happened that day?
Samantha Francine: That was the second day I had been out protesting. There were about 40 people standing with us. It was a beautiful day. There was a lot of support coming from all around. There are always a few negative people, but that comes with the territory.
Prior to Jay Snowden approaching the group, he had been circling in his truck [and] yelling at us. When Jay saw me, I knew he was going to approach. He was screaming all sorts of profanities at me and reeked of booze.
In that moment, surrounded by all the love and support, the words of my father went through my head, “No matter who or what the threat is, always make sure they have to look you in the eye so they have to acknowledge you’re human.”
At that moment, I took off my sunglasses and made him look at me. Jay has very blue eyes; I saw him see me. He then realized I was not going to back down and he continued his tirade [with other protestors]. After that encounter, it was not long before the police got involved and escorted him away. We went back to our peaceful protesting.
SM: What motivated you to attend the Black Lives Matter protests?
SF: After the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and then George Floyd, my silence was deafening to me. I am a woman of color and though these three murders were not the first to take an emotional toll, I felt like if I did not finally stand up, I was going to explode. I was angry, sad, scared, broken and felt so alone. When I had heard about this awesome group of teens standing up for Black Lives, I knew I could not waste one more second sitting by idly.
SM: Can you tell me more about your life in rural Montana as an African American woman?
SF: I love my community, but the lack of diversity has always been apparent. I grew up with a single white father and my two brothers. My father talked about how life was going to be different for as along as I can remember.
I remember being called the “N” word for the first time when I was 7 years old. I remember being ashamed of my body and hair because no one looked like me. I always kept quiet about the racial jokes and slurs my friends made around me because I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable. My brothers and I spent much of our adolescence hiding who we truly are and what we wanted to be.
This is the first time in 27 years I have truly found my voice as a woman of color.
SM: In a Facebook post, you said that your father taught you that “no matter the threat, always look them in the eye so they have to acknowledge you’re human.” Can you expand on how your family and upbringing prepared you for that moment?
SF: Again, my dad was raised in Chicago … around people of color. Though Montana is absolutely majestic, the lack of diversity was always going to be a problem for my brothers and me. My dad did his best to celebrate our differences, however people around us were not as excited. We missed out on birthday parties and events because some people in the community weren’t comfortable with us. We had teachers who blatantly treated us differently than the other kids in class.
To this day, I get followed around local shops. Some people have always seen our color as a threat, even when we were just children. My dad made sure that we knew from a young age, that no matter what, we had to stand up for ourselves. We’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember.
SM: You say that the moment has changed you. Can you elaborate on that?
SF: I have found my voice and I will no longer be silent. I believe change has been a long time coming and I want to give my all to be apart of that. I want to be heard loud and clear, and I will keep my message focused on love and peace. I really do believe the world is changing. People are uncomfortable. Darkness is being brought to light. We all have a choice, what side of history do you want to be on?
SM: It was reported that you took a gift basket to Snowden’s wife. Can you tell me more about that decision?
SF: I cannot take all the credit for that. My girl, Marcela, texted me when all this started to blow up and we found out his wife was getting hate. We knew as women, we needed to make sure she [Snowden’s wife] did not get buried in that hate. We decided to bring her a gift basket with just a few things that would hopefully bring her some peace. We were able to connect through a friend of a friend and bring something to her place of work. The basket was really well received, and she reached out on Facebook a few days later to thank us again.
SM: Who is a woman that inspires you?
SF: Michelle Obama inspires me. She is such a proud, strong woman of color. She approaches everything she does with such grace and sophistication. Her message is clear, and she just exudes such beauty in every way. I hope that as I continue to grow into the woman I want to be, I can emulate some of her qualities.
SM: What would you like people seeing that photo to know?
SF: I have not always been this version of myself. It has taken a long time for me to find my strength the way I did that day. Change is very possible, but it takes a lot of hard work. I hope that when people see that photo, they see a strong woman of color. I also hope that it makes them want to stand with their communities. I could not have done that without the support of the people around me. It is time to celebrate our differences and come together. We are better together.
Editor’s note: this interview has been slightly edited for clarity.