Headwaters

Unity

In the Flathead Valley, two women find solace, support, and joy in shared experiences of oppression.

Clare Menzel, Whitefish Montana, ski, author

CLARE MENZEL

Curled up together on a porch in Whitefish, Sami Francine and Tanya Gersh have the giddy energy of newly-minted BFFs. The evening marks three weeks since the now-famous photo was taken of Sami, 28, standing her ground when confronted by a belligerent white man crashing a peaceful Justice for George rally in front of Whitefish City Hall on June 3.

The brutal ugliness of white supremacy has also profoundly impacted Tanya, 47, who faced a relentless storm of anti-semitic threats beginning in late 2016, when the founder of neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, incited his followers to harass her and her family. Last summer, she won a $14 million lawsuit against the extremist—she hasn’t seen a penny of it.

Their experiences with white supremacy are dissimilar but not unrelated, and the connection they sparked is a powerful one.

 


TG: Pain is lonely. Being bullied is really lonely. The photograph of that confrontation at the protest really, really brought pain to me. My heart broke for Samantha at that moment. I think I Facebook-friended you the second I found out your name. Being confronted, being hated, just because you are who you are is something I have a lot of experience in.

SF: I realized, she’s going to get this. To have someone who could relate, and be a companion, and a friend, I was like, yes!

TG: I think you will always be a hero to me. Your instant, don’t mess with me stare, your confidence. There was a lot of pain for me before I had the bravery to do that.

“We understand the power of our relationship.”

SF: You’re going to make me cry! I feel like I’ve known Tanya my whole life and we just met. There was a soul connection and sharing in that unfortunate oppression. I can say things to her that I haven’t been comfortable, or able, to say to anybody else.

TG: When Sami walked into my office, there was a sense of relief that you were here.

SF: But our stories, our lives, everything is different. I’m from Whitefish, but my African-American skin has always been at the forefront of how people treat me. Always. When I was little, it was, “She’s so cute, I love her curly hair,” and they’d touch it. I remember one of the girls at nursery licking my cheek, thinking I’d taste like chocolate. But the first time I was called the n-word was when I was 7.

TG: I grew up in Sun Valley, Idaho, and I was made to feel special because I was different. I know now that I was incredibly naive. What a blessing to grow up in a place where it’s, “Oh, you’re Jewish? Tell me more.”

SF: My dad prepared us when we went to school: They’re going to treat you differently, they’re going to look at you differently. I wasn’t even driving yet when he told me, if a cop pulls you over, you put your hands on the dash and you don’t move. You learn that. You always made sure you were as respectful as possible. My brothers and I were the most hard-working, we always went above and beyond. We always felt like we had something to prove. Every day. And when we failed, we weren’t just kids, we were the Black kids.

TG: My faith in people has completely changed, my trust in people has completely changed. It was like a complete loss of innocence. I used to wake up every single day, just naturally happy. Now I have to wake up and choose my happiness. Some days, I miss myself. I miss me. Isn’t that funny? But Samantha and I were talking about how everything happens for a reason. If I didn’t get a purpose out of this, it would have been a lot more difficult to heal. If I wasn’t speaking up right now, I think I would be sick to my stomach.

SF: The People of Color in my community, we’ve sat back for so long. My brothers have different experiences as African-American men—like, they weren’t allowed on people’s property to date girls—but there are so many similarities. I’ve made it clear: I love my community. I’m doing this for the little Sami, who was afraid and ashamed of herself. I’m doing this for her. I’ve tried to change myself to make white people more comfortable with me, but it didn’t change anything. But now, owning my power and loving who I am, now that I have my voice, I’m going to do everything in my power to say as much as I can for as long as I can.

“It would have been safer—so much safer, like, so much—for us both to check out. Both of our families asked us to stop speaking up. Like, enough, you could be in danger, I’m worried.”

TG: Amen. It would have been safer—so much safer, like, so much—for us both to check out. Both of our families asked us to stop speaking up. Like, enough, you could be in danger, I’m worried. White supremacy has been flagged by the FBI as a terrorist operation. They’re considered terrorists because they’re organized, they’re communicating, they’re plotting, and they’re physically dangerous to people. Sam and I are the perfect example of the word unity. We understand the power of our relationship, and what it means. Us, together, is a symbol.

SF: I am going to run for city council in 2021. I want to keep this conversation going. Right now, this movement happening across our country and our world is important and People of Color need to be at the forefront. If you’re not, use your privilege and support to help People of Color keep going. We have to take this moment…and make it something that continues to blossom.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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