The Fire Next Time: Look Closely and You Might See Your Town, Too

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Over a stormy two-year period, The Fire Next Time (POV 2005) follows a deeply divided group of Montana citizens caught in a web of conflicts intensified by rapid growth and the power of talk radio. Many residents were losing their jobs in timber and mining, and blamed environmentalists. Throw into this stressful situation two disturbing elements of America’s hyper-antagonistic politics — right-wing talk radio and anti-government militia organizing — and the tension became volatile.

The Fire Next Time filmmaker, Patrice O'NeillFilmmaker Patrice O’Neill encouraged us to stream The Fire Next Time online in response to the recent violence on town halls about health care, so viewers could see how one community successfully dealt with rising tension and threats of extreme violence. Ever since the PBS broadcast of the 1995 film, Not in Our Town — about the response of Billings, Montana, to a rash of hate crimes — The Working Group (O’Neill’s production company) has been helping local communities deal with intolerance and violence by holding film screenings and community discussions. She wrote in with some thoughts about current affairs, and what we can learn from the film today.

O’Neill: People are riled up. They’re yelling at meetings, threatening local officials. Only strong partisans on either side are brave, engaged or committed enough to attend town hall meetings about contentious issues. Adding fuel to this volatile atmosphere is a radio talk show host who fires up his callers and listeners with scathing attacks on local leaders and citizens who disagree with his views. Does this sound familiar?


Health care rally held outside President Barack Obama’s town hall in Portsmouth, NH on August 11, 2009. Credit: aflcio2008, Flickr

A few years ago, POV presented our documentary about a Northwest Montana town that was deeply divided over local issues. When we started filming in 2002, I began to see some disturbing patterns that made me see how quickly democracy could break down when social and political divisions were combined with a heated media atmosphere.

O’Neill: As we begin the film, we urge viewers to “look closely and you may see your town, too.” As I watch the film today, it is with a sense of deep anxiety, because I fear that the perfect storm portrayed in the film is building now across the country.

But there is good news and some great lessons from a town that has already been through this. As The Fire Next Time was being screened in local meetings and on PBS, a dedicated group of Montana citizens took on the troubles in their town. After years of painstaking work with local government, civic institutions, conflict management leaders that included people on all sides of the issues, the people in the Flathead Valley have worked to improve their civic discourse and broaden the community engagement. The political divisions in this deeply independent region remain and the conflict over issues that these Westerners care so much about are still part of the landscape, but citizens in this area have taken key steps to re-humanize each other in the face of their differences.

Watch The Fire Next Time on the PBS Video Player through February 18, 2010. Look closely at this town now — not just for the warning their conflicts present, but for what we can learn from them about how to take action to avoid the dangers of unchecked burning conflicts.

Related Reading: If you are interested in holding a community discussion or town hall in your town, you might find these materials helpful.

Principles for Civil Dialogue: Turning Strangers into Neighbors
Helpful guide for fostering productive and civil discussions about contentious issues. (PDF, Jan. 2007)

Daily Interlake Newspaper: Keeping the Civic Conversation Civil
In this guest editorial, Ned Cooney talks about the group he and other concerned Flathead community members formed, Flathead on the Move, and the work that his group has done to foster communication and understanding in the valley. (Feb. 18, 2007)

Q&A: Resolving Community Conflicts
Melinda Smith is a conflict resolution expert who has worked in Kalispell to help the residents of the Flathead Valley to come to an agreement. She says, “The situation in Kalispell mirrors many conflicts throughout the West.” (2005)

  • Mark Richard

    FOREIGNID: 21041
    ‘Violence’ at the ‘Town Hall’ meetings? Let’s see. If activist twenty-somethings start throwing bricks around, as at the recent G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, that’s business as usual to our ‘Sixties-addled chattering classes. But if oldsters show up and get angry at ‘Town Hall’ meetings, panties start bunching up in newsrooms and faculty lounges all over the country. “It’s not hate or violence if my side does it”, etc.
    So documentaries like this will end up converting no one except . . . except for those naive, self-absorbed kids who show up chanting at left-wing rallies . . . unaware that they are unintentionally aiding greedy interests, too. The idea that ‘reform’ and leftist policies feed the greed of rivals with ‘big business’ for power, status, and access to resources is quite beyond the mentality of ‘filmmakers’ and public broadcasting. Yet the history of ‘the Left’ practically rubs noses into this reality. Breaking it down unsentimentally, a Michael Moore wants a world in which you can make millions for making movies or writing books, but not for synthesizing pain relievers in a lab – no wonder the insecure residents of Hollywood and Manhattan love him.
    Maybe Patrice O’Neal will stop pandering to the presumptively left-leaning audience for this stuff, and start challenging them on their own stated principles. I won’t hold my breath. The PBS mentality.

  • Colin Gardner

    FOREIGNID: 21063
    Mark Richard,
    I am pretty far out to the left by your terms, but I seriously enjoyed reading your post because you bring up some issues I am passionate about. I also watched the film and I understand your frustration when you make the comparison between “’violence’ at the ‘Town Hall’ meetings” and the recent G-20 protests in Pittsburgh. I agree that many television outlets easily mock “oldsters” who get angry during these meetings. I do not agree with those “oldsters” beliefs and how they express themselves, but also do not like seeing them being mocked. The thought makes me cringe. I have always been taught to respect “oldsters” even if I do not agree with them. But in turn, I have also been taught that “oldsters” are a beacon for decency, for order. They should provide a good example for those “activist twenty-somethings” who cause problems through violence and hate. The fault and responsibility for a better world, in the end, rests on everyone.
    Regardless, you also bring up another good point about how some people dismiss “hate or violence if [their] side does it.” I think that people tend to cater to those who share their point of view. I do not share your point of view, but I do cater to an honest opinion. I want to hear more about how different people view the world, and I want to know where you are coming from. There is no cotton in my ears.
    You also stated that O’Neill panders to the leftists and PBS. Have you noticed that news stations almost always market toward their watchers? Conservatives who watch Fox News, or liberals who watch MSNBC feel warm and fuzzy being reaffirmed on how they feel about the world. Is this constructive? Pandering is the name of the game in almost all news outlets, it seems like debate has given way to entertainment. However, I honestly do not think Patrice O’Neill was doing any pandering. I will tell you why, but I want to bring up some other points.
    You also brought up Michael Moore. Why focus on one person? I am a “leftist” that’s for sure, but I do not feel like he expresses my views. I do not like being equated to a celebrity personality whose true views are skewed by the television. Why should a leftist or conservative be so focused on people like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Keith Olbermann? We should have our own views, and question why these people are in business? Would they still do their shows if they did not get paid? Do they do it for ratings or to make the world better? These are important questions to ask.
    Before I get to why O’Neill is not pandering to the left I have to tell you about my own experience with the media. Have you ever been a part of a national news story? I am not sure if you live in Kalispell. I used to work at an organization that was highlighted on the Nightly News on NBC. I felt like their representation of what our organization did was very truncated and slightly misrepresented. Think about what this does to all situations around the world. We get truncated and slightly misrepresented news all of the time. How do we fight this? Perhaps this is how you feel about O’Neill’s work?
    So what is the point of my response to you? I agree that violence and hate is not the answer. But you are quick to use the very tools that you are criticizing. This documentary was about violence and hate in Kalispell, not about the G-20. I do understand that the left perpetrates hate and violence also, but the films purpose was to focus on Kalispell. I honestly do not think Patrice O’Neill was attacking conservatism in her documentary, or anyone else. I think the goal of this film was to expose how communities respond to hate, and violence. I think we can both agree that communities that become infested with violence and hate should stand up to it, whether it is in Kalispell or Pittsburg. I would like to see a “Not in Our Town” documentary on violent left-wing protests also. Violence is unacceptable in any realm, left or right. I think we both have shown that constructive dialogs are possible.

  • Jason Miller

    FOREIGNID: 22143
    In re: to Mr. Richard:
    Violence as a form of political expression either at a town hall meeting, or at the G-20 meeting is wrong. Violence in and of itself distorts one’s message, and is counterproductive to the protest in the first place. I once went to an Iraq war protest that was rather liberal for most people’s standards— except for the anarchists who started a counter protest. Anything that was said during the protest was clearly not acceptable to them. I suspect that it is these same anarchists, who are essentially on the fringes of society—a society that they reject every part of–are the same ones who perpetrated the violence at the G-20 meetings. This is unacceptable, and does not represent the view of the majority of the protesters who did not resort to using violence. As soon as the anarchists became violent by throwing rocks, I knew that it was time to leave the protest, not only because I feared for my own safety, but because I knew that as soon as these people who did not represent myself or the actual message of the protest, would negatively affect what we were trying to do.
    There is a major difference between the anarchist protesters and those who make spectacles of themselves at town hall meetings—while the anarchists are on the outside of society looking in, the tea baggers are part of mainstream America, they are part of society, everyday people like you and me, and therefore, they should be above the yelling and name calling at town hall meetings, or the racist signs and comparisons to Hitler at their protests. If these tea baggers were true Americans they would not subscribe to this version of hate and ignorance, instead they would peaceably assemble, as is their right to do so. Hate and violence is wrong no matter who does it, be it anarchists or tea baggers, Democrats or Republicans, or anyone else for that matter.
    Criticism of Patrice O’Neal and PBS is unwarranted, and is in fact, childish, and in it’s own way, helping to spread the ignorance and hate that the author rallies against. The comparison between Patrice O’Neal and Michael Moore holds no water. Michael Moore’s first goal is not to promote a particular political agenda but rather to make money and promote himself, just like that is the first goal of Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the like. Politics comes second. Ratings (or box office hits) and making money comes first. Therefore, Michael Moore could more easily be compared to Bill O’Reilly instead of Patrice O’Neal even though Moore and O’Reilly’s politics are on the opposite sides of the spectrum, because their first goal is to promote themselves and their products and to make money. Patrice O’Neal did not make “The Fire Next Time” in order to make money or promote herself, but rather to tell a story about a particular town in America that has conflict. She should not be thrown under the bus in this instance.
    For anyone who believes that PBS should be criticized I urge them to watch Stephen Colbert’s segment about Sesame Street, which can be found here:
    Stephen Colbert can say it better than I, and while he is talking about a particular show on PBS, the same argument can be applied to the channel on the whole. Note: Stephen Colbert uses satire to get his point across.
    I will be the first person to admit that not one politician or political party has all the answers. On one particular day or another, I can find equal dissatisfaction with both major political parties. And while I don’t have all the answers I do know this: violence and intimidation and hate speech, whether it’s used by the protesters at the town hall meetings, protesters at the G-20 meeting or anywhere else, is unacceptable. Both sides need to put aside their ideological sound bites that make them unable to listen to one another and start working together to solve the major problems that each and every one of us face on a daily basis.

  • Ronald Becker

    FOREIGNID: 24639
    The Taliban will kill you for disagreeing with them. The Religious right will kill doctors that practice abortion. Politicians practice doing what is politically advantageous even in the face of being morally wrong. Fear and violence have become powerful political tools as practiced by the likes of Glen Beck and Roger Moore.
    My hope is that people will tire of fear politics and violence and punish the perpetrators. We desperately need bipartisan solutions and not party politics as usual.