What If Greg Gianforte was Black?

May 25th 2017

Kyle Jaeger

Thursday's special election in Montana got a lot more interesting after the Republican candidate, Greg Gianforte, allegedly assaulted a reporter at a campaign event Wednesday evening.

But while claims of Gianforte body-slamming The Guardian's Ben Jacobs lost him endorsements and raised the stakes of an already close election, the Gallatin County Sheriff's Department is also facing criticism over its handling of the case.

Jacobs called the department promptly after Gianforte allegedly grabbed him by the neck and slammed him to the ground for attempting to ask a question about the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of the GOP health care bill. Deputies showed up and "very briefly" interviewed Gianforte, as well as other witnesses, Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said at a press conference.


Hours later, the department announced that it had issued a citation for misdemeanor assault — and that Gianforte would have to appear in court before June 7.

People following the story commented on the department's cautious and restrained approach to the case, with some left wondering whether the same courtesies would be afforded to a black man accused of taking down a reporter.

Though misdemeanor assault carries less serious penalties than felony assault — and Jacobs' injuries weren't serious enough to warrant felony assault charges — the fact that deputies allowed Gianforte to leave the scene and are accommodating his schedule for a follow-up interview has called attention to the privileges white men possess in the criminal justice system.

There's no way to say for certain how this particular department or sheriff would have responded to a black politician accused of the same crime. Some have also speculated that Gootkin, who donated to Gianforte's campaign, could be motivated by politics to treat the case delicately — a claim that he denied in a press release.

That said, there's no doubt that racial disparities in policing exist in Montana and around the country.

According to a 2016 report from The Sentencing Project, black people are more than six times likely to be incarcerated than white people in Montana — though black people account for less than 1 percent of the state's population, while white people account for about 90 percent.

If Gianforte is found guilty, he could be fined up to $500, sentenced to up to six months in jail, or both.