Summer of hell 

As longtime Indy photographer Chad Harder recalls, shit went crazy the summer of 2000. Forest fires in the Bitterroot and elsewhere crammed the valley with smoke. The relentless heat prompted the Forest Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to close all rivers to fishing, floating, even swimming. Eventually, trailheads closed too. Missoula quickly succumbed to cabin fever.

The arrival of three disparate groups by mid-summer sent a frenetic tempo coursing through town. The Rainbow Family stationed their annual gathering up the Big Hole, and hippie drum circles formed on nearly every street corner downtown. The infamous Hells Angels staged a three-day rally at Marshall Mountain starting July 27, with whispers of murders at last year's rally preceding them. And at Sentinel High School, cops from nearly half a dozen states prepped themselves for the biker gang violence they felt was imminent. Officers from Utah had a particularly pressing agenda; Salt Lake City was set to host the Winter Olympics that fall, under the direction of Mitt Romney. The Hells Angels rally seemed a perfect opportunity to test their crowd control mettle.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news

Deprived of any recreational distraction, gawkers from across western Montana crowded the sidewalks. Police stood at what seemed like six-foot intervals all over downtown, their belts heavy with zip-ties, pepper spray canisters and guns. Helicopters buzzed overhead, and squad cars and police motorcycles sat everywhere. Missoula began to feel like a high school football game with the expectation of a rumble. Harder printed an 8.5-by-11-inch press pass to make his credentials more visible. By Saturday, July 28, the militarized hum of the city began to take its toll. Citizens held a peaceful protest at the cop shop, then marched down Higgins Avenue. The cops responded by breaking up the march, arresting locals and Rainbow Gathering attendees alike.

The crowd dispersed. Everyone went to the bars and began to drink. But the tension and the temperature were still high. Around 2 a.m., as the Hells Angels blazed out of town for Marshall without incident, thousands of onlookers gathered near the intersection of Front Street and Higgins. People were on the awning outside El Cazador, they were climbing poles, standing on Indy boxes. It was a total mob. A woman jumped on the back of a truck passing down Front, rode a few yards and fell, knocking herself out. The paramedics showed up.

The cops later claimed one of the paramedics was hit in the head with a beer can. The paramedic was never identified, never found, but the cops formed a riot line. As they advanced on the crowd, Harder— his press pass clearly visible— dropped to one knee and began firing off frames. The cops got closer. One raised a can of pepper spray. The sting hit Harder in the eyes. He ducked his face under his arm, but the cop continued to unload the canister on his head. Harder fled over the Higgins bridge, shouting to the scene behind him, "Don't do this!"

Harder fled to the Indy office and, the next day, to Glen Lake in the Bitterroot to wash the evening away. Scores of Missoulians had been arrested or at least pepper-sprayed that night, including a broadcast intern who had tried to get the events on film. Those who weren't downtown had a difficult time realizing the extent of the experience, so the Indy ran a stunning spread of photos.

The cover shot is particularly evocative. It shows a snarling young blonde woman being pressed up against a wall by the cops. The anger on her face is as red hot as the summer of 2000.

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