Families belong together, and Montana has just thrown their hat in the ring.
I was born and raised, right here, in Montana. Most of my childhood was spent on a dude ranch deep in the mountains on the Western side of the state, then I went to junior high with a class of 22 people and then transferred to a high school large enough to *gasp* have a full 11-man football team.
My involvement in politics didn’t start until after I finished college. I specifically remember one of the first nights hanging out with my now husband, where we watched an episode of The Daily Show, and I had to ask him to explain every joke Jon Stewart made. Not only was I completely clueless of any of the names mentioned, but I also had no knowledge about any of the policies involved. I didn’t even know the difference between a Democrat and a Republican.
So I started researching. Everything. And keep in mind I’m a millennial who didn’t own a cell phone until college, much less a smart phone until after I graduated. A friend set up a Facebook page for me, but it just sat there, stagnant, for three years until I posted on it for the first time at the start of my Master’s degree. Learning anything regarding political process meant a lot of long research days in the university library.
And so it begins…
The more I learned, the more I wanted to get involved, and since those first days in the library I’ve participated in countless rallies and protests, whether in support of Planned Parenthood or in opposition of repealing environmental regulations for Montana lands. I’m usually there as a photographer, and I’ve found most protests have the same script: show up, pick your favorite sign from an approved pile and stay as long as possible.
Our protests don’t usually draw huge numbers that make national news, like Los Angeles or Chicago and New York, especially considering we’re one of the widest spread states in the country. We’ve got people sure, but it takes hours of driving to get them all in one place.
I expected something similar from the “Families Belong Together” rally this past Saturday. Something small, with a few signs. I showed up with camera in hand, and was pleasantly surprised to find something much more than your typical rally or protest.
Organized by Jessica Kajala in an incredibly short period of time, a rough estimate of over 500 people were present throughout the day. The rally began at noon, but even as I arrived at 11:30, hundreds were already overtaking the courthouse lawn. There was music and free water, booths for Planned Parenthood, various immigration and minority advocates, as well as a booth for Forward Montana to register voters. A number of speakers were present, from the Montana Human Rights Network, the Montana Racial Inequality Project, and even the Montana chapter of the ACLU itself. Kathleen Williams, the Democratic challenger hoping to unseat Gianforte in the U.S. House of Representatives in November also gave a sincere and enthusiastic speech. While all state congressmen and representatives were invited, Kathleen was the only one there in person. Jon Tester did send a rousing statement of support to be read in his place, though. A deaf and hard of hearing interpreter was front and center during all speeches.
Besides the impressive amount of immigration information and alternative ways to help, there was also donation collection, with 100% of the proceeds going to RAICES, an organization devoted to providing legal services to detained immigrants and reuniting separated children and parents. There was even a group call-to-action where slips of paper were passed around with representative contact numbers and people called, tweeted, emailed, anything they could to get in touch with various members of Congress.
An angry mob this was not. These people weren’t here to shout into the wind, they were here make a tangible difference in current and future policy. Teenagers helped their grandparents dial the numbers to their representatives. Veterans, LGBTQ+ and 17 and 1/2 year olds stood in line to register to vote. Democrats and Republicans were present.
Montanans have always had a mindset of helping others, regardless of the distance of separation. Many of us are farmers and ranchers with hundreds of acres between us, and every snowstorm or flood or forest fire we make it a point to check on our neighbors and see that they’re okay. I grew up in a tiny town that would flood every year, and if it got bad enough the whole town would shut down for a day and we’d all meet to make sandbags for those at the highest risk of losing their homes.
Since we share our top border with Canada, we are literally one of the farthest US states from the crisis at the Mexican border, but that didn’t stop about 500 people from coming out to show their support on an issue thousands of miles from us. And that was just in Billings – there were additional rallies in Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell, Libby, Livingston and Missoula. Because that’s what we do here – we help others, regardless of how far away they may be.
On June 30th we proved once again, that distance had no effect on one’s obligation to do what’s right. We were more than fired up, we were organized, informed, and motivated. Not just for solving this particular humanitarian issue, but for solving many others, some far, some right here within our community.
It was a sight to see, and I couldn’t have been prouder.
Good on ya, Montana. Keep up the great work.