Hundreds rally for Women’s March Billings: ‘Let’s write our own story’

A young boy — with a sign that said “I love my 2 moms” — took the lead early on in the Montana Women’s March Billings on Saturday. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

Many hundreds of marchers — children, women and men — turned out for the Montana Women’s March Billings on Saturday morning in a show of solidarity and a call for women everywhere to get more involved in politics.

Held a year after millions of women around the world rallied the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, the Billings march was one of at least half a dozen such events planned for around the state on Saturday.

The marchers gathered at North 31st Street and Second Avenue North, proceeded down Second to North 20th and then to North Park, where they rallied in the parking lot of the North Park Community Center.

It was difficult to estimate the number of marchers — one might have wished for the presence of former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, an expert in crowd estimation — but they stretched out for five or six blocks on the way to North Park, and once there they packed the parking lot.

Native American speakers opened the march, which was then led by Native American ribbon-skirt dancers. At North Park, the keynote speaker was Marci McLean, a Blackfeet tribal member and executive director of Western Native Voice in Billings.

She noted the strong involvement of Indian men and women and said, “That’s powerful. That speaks volumes about what Billings is prepared to do together.”

It seems safe to say that the most enthusiastic crowd response was for Kathleen O’Donnell, a fomer member of the U.S. Army National Guard. She described the difficulties of being a lesbian and serving at a time when “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was the U.S. military’s official policy regarding gay service members.

She said she couldn’t bring the woman she would eventually marry to any Army functions for fear of being thrown out of the Guard. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was finally repealed in 2011, she said, but only because enough people demanded change.

“We have another opportunity right now to make a difference,” she said, adding a bit later, “We need to put strong women in office who can and will make a change.”

Gwen Kircher, an African-American woman born in the South, said she has seen heightened racism since Trump’s election. In the past year, she said, she has heard “the N-word and the P-N-word — that’s ‘prairie N-word,’” more than at any other time since moving to Montana in 1976.

Kircher also recounted how many prominent black civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, specifically mentioned the importance of seeking justice for Native Americans, and lauding the achievements of Native American leaders.

Several of the eight speakers spoke only briefly, offering words of encouragement. Kassie Runsabove, a Native women health advocate, told rally-goers, “Help each other and be strong.”

West High student Allison Johnson said people like her who are too young to vote need to work on behalf of candidates they believe in, and people who can vote need to, and to run for office as well.

State Rep. Jessica Karajala gave a humorous interpretation of classical mythology, saying the exploits of certain goddesses had been “bro-propriated” in the re-telling, and she closed with a quote from Helen Keller, ending with “let’s write our own story.”

State Sen. Margie MacDonald urged people to recapture the spirit of 1993, when Billings came together to stand up to skinheads and other racist groups, culminating in the Not in Our Town movement.

“We made history,” she said. “All over the world people live up to that.”

State House candidate Amelia Marquez told people at North Park that “today is your day,” and she urged everyone present to think of running for office, whether that was for Congress, the state Legislature, city council or school board.

“Real change happens from the bottom up,” she said.

Earlier in the day, in a telephone press conference to announce the launching of the #MeTooMontana coalition, activists presented a list of demands to state and national political leaders.

For starters, Rebecca Weston, coordinator of Missoula Rises Community Conversations, called on the state’s congressional delegation to ask that Trump resign, “or at the very least,” that they “strongly condemn and hold Donald Trump accountable for his acknowledged history of sexual assault and harassment.”

They also demanded that:

♦ The state of Montana work with tribal leaders in their efforts to investigate and gather statewide data regarding crimes committed against native women, and to create “a mutually transparent process that allows for trust and shared information between the state and the tribes.”

♦ State legislators amend Montana’s Hate Crime Statute to cover violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

♦ State legislators re-open public assistance offices in Big Timber, Chinook, Choteau, Columbus, Conrad, Cut Bank, Deer Lodge, Dillon, Forsyth, Fort Benton, Glendive, Livingston, Malta, Red Lodge, Shelby, Sidney, Plentywood, Roundup and Thompson Falls.  Women need access to financial resources in order to leave sexually abusive relationships or employment situations, they said. And because internet access is inequitably distributed and women rely on in-person office visits,  they said, closing rural public assistance offices “will only make it harder for women to seek safety, essential services and justice.”