Missoula 2017: A year of protests, rallies and political activism

Less than a month into office, President Donald Trump issued an executive order suspending refugee admissions into the U.S., dealing a blow to those with a more inclusive view of America.

While the issue would face lawsuits from a number of states and months of court battles, most of Montana sat on the sidelines, seemingly indifferent to the issue. But in Missoula, the president’s order served as a slap in the face, and it sparked what turned out to be a year filled with protests and political activism.

From student sit-ins at the University of Montana campus aimed at climate change to rallies against the Republican tax reform bill, the divisive issues facing the county throughout 2017 found their way home.

While Walter Cronkite used to sign off from his evening newscast saying, “And that’s the way it is,” we can sign off on 2017 saying the same thing. And though time will tell if the citizen action sparked by this year’s politics will have any affect down the road, those who experienced it can tell their children they didn’t sit idly by while the world changed around them.

An estimated 500 people converged on Caras Park to protest President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending refugee admissions into the U.S., including the president’s effort to restrict those from Muslim majority nations. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Jan. 19: “No hate in our state”

Facing bitter January temperatures, an estimated 500 people gathered in Missoula on a Sunday afternoon to join dozens of other marches across the country in protest of President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending refugee admission into the U.S.

While the rally wasn’t intended to be “overtly political,” several took aim at Trump and members of Congress, including Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who cosponsored the Syrian Refugee Verification and Safety Act.

“We can no longer just talk about diversity, understanding, peace and love,” said Betsy Mulligan-Dague, executive director of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center in Missoula. “It’s time for our walk to reflect our talk. It’s time for us to follow through and be the change.”

University of Montana students and members of Reinvest Montana occupy the main lobby of the UM Foundation to urge the school to divest its investment portfolio of fossil fuels. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

April 26: “Climate action now”

It was shortly after 9 a.m. when Simon Dykstra and Beverly Sitton joined several of their student peers inside the main entry of the Guilkey Executive Education Building, their protest signs ready for a campus rally later in the day.

While roughly 8 percent of the University of Montana’s investment portfolio is invested in fossil fuels, several students involved in that week’s climate march said it was 8 percent too much. As they have in years past, they urged the school to rid its portfolio of oil and gas and coal.

“Divesting from fossil fuels is important to me because it sends a large message,” Sitton said at the time. “It says UM is on the right side of history, it shows we’re sticking to our core tenets of sustainability, and it makes a big impact, given how $12 million is going to this destructive industry.”

Protesters flocked through downtown Missoula to challenge President Donald Trump’s stance on the environment and his denial of climate change as part of the national Peoples Climate March rally held in cities across the country. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

April 29: “I’m sure the dinosaurs thought they had time”

Shortly after UM students drew attention on campus, hundreds of protesters marched through downtown Missoula on a Saturday morning to challenge Trump’s stance on the environment and his threat to pull out of the Paris Agreement.

Saying it was time to stand together to combat climate change and protect the policies championed by the prior administration, protesters marched through the downtown streets, led by the Hellgate High School marching band.

The event coincided with the People’s Climate March, a national gathering that drew an estimated 200,000 people to Washington, D.C. While Trump has announced his intention to pull from the agreement, he hasn’t done so yet.

“A majority of us high school students can’t vote,” said student Anwen Toelaske. “Whether you’re left or right politically, or anywhere in between, we only have one Earth to share. Unity is the strongest force when adversity strikes.”

Protesters engage in a ‘die-in’ at Sen. Steve Daines’ office in downtown Missoula to encourage the Republican senator to vote against a repeal of the Affordable Care Act – and to hold a town-hall meeting in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

July 19: “It’s called taking care of your people”

The health care landscape shifted quickly in July as the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate fell short of the votes needed to adopt a new bill, and failed again to muster the support required to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

They would achieve the later in December by passing tax reform.

While the drama played out on a July afternoon in Washington, D.C., a group of protesters gathered at the office of Sen. Steve Daines in Missoula to hold a symbolic “die-in.”

Their hope was to get the senator’s attention on health care. It didn’t work, and they never received the town hall meeting they’ve been seeking with the senator in Missoula.

“He literally has his finger in the wind,” said Cameron Best, who organized the July event. “We want universal health care, and we want Daines to show up for a town hall. A tele-town hall is not a town hall.”

Lauren Small-Rodriguez, an American Indian of Mexican descent, tells those gathered at a rally in August that her family has experienced racism and bigotry. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

August 13: “You can’t be a Nazi and an American”

On a Sunday evening in August, Missoulians gathered downtown to stand in solidarity with cities across the country, condemning the violent acts of an alt-right group of white supremacists who marched on Virginia days earlier.

Erin Erickson, who organized the event on behalf of Missoula Rises, said that while the white majority has the power to effect positive change on racial issues, it has been silent for too long.

That silence included the last campaign season, where Trump’s “winks and nods” to the alt-right went unquestioned on his path to the White House, Erickson said.

“When we saw those micro-aggressions occurring, we didn’t stop and we didn’t call people out because we didn’t want to be too critical,” she said. “We cannot continue down this road. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue any longer. It’s a humanity issue and it’s a community issue.”

More than 100 protesters turned out for a mid-day December rally in Missoula to protest the Republican Party’s tax reform plan. It eventually passed and was signed into law. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Dec. 6: “What color lipstick do they put on this pig?”

Before the arrival of la nina, several hundred protesters gathered on the steps of the Missoula County Courthouse on a Wednesday afternoon to pan the GOP’s tax reform bills.

Saying it wasn’t a partisan issue but rather a Montana issue, the protesters blasted the measure as another handout to large corporations and the nation’s wealthiest citizens.

Working-class Montanans, they argued, would lose out. Time will tell who was right, those who subscribe to a “life-all-boats” philosophy or the camp that buys into “trickle-down economics,” saying it creates jobs and boosts the economy.

“This isn’t tax relief for the people, it’s tax relief for the rich and it screws the rest of us,” said Bill Geer of Lolo, who attended Wednesday’s rally. “Once the Republicans realize they’ve increased the debt, they’re going to come after entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”