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Anti-War Voices from Montana

Missoula's Take Back Our Country march was a vibrant example of 'red state' Montana's progressive side.
 
 
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Far from the steps of the White House, about 100 peace activists braved the cold and light rain Saturday night in Missoula, Montana to rally in conjunction with the anti-war march in Washington, D.C.

"It's important to remember that there are people everywhere in America who value peace and international cooperation, not just Washington D.C. and San Francisco," says Gerry Blackman, 65. "I don't think we can discount the numbers of these people everywhere in America."

Missoula's "Take Back Our Country, Bring Back Our Troops" rally was sponsored by the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center and Code Pink. Missoula, which is referred to by locals as the "liberal bastion" of Montana, gave John Kerry 52% of the vote in the 2004 presidential election.

"Missoula is the one place in Montana where a rally like this can happen on a fairly large scale," says Blackman, who recently returned from Uzbekistan as a Peace Corps volunteer. "I'm originally from Great Falls, Montana, which is a little different; maybe not so progressive. It's more content with the war because they support a military base. I've lived there most of my adult life. I've lived in Missoula about 17 years. This is a community that supports and mirrors my attitudes about peace and our international relations. It's a very special community in our state."

"This is the island," adds Jay Bostrom, a middle school teacher. "I spent a year in Helena, Montana and we tried to protest there, but the climate is extremely different. That's the capitol of the state, which is interesting because there is a pretty strong group of peace seekers in that area, but they stand alone and isolated. Standing on the corner with a sign there is a very different experience. At the last anti-war rally we had here, there were 1,000 people, whereas in Helena, there might be 50. Helena might be the second most progressive place in the state, which is not saying much."

While Montana is often referred to as a "red state," it has a much wider political spectrum than it gets credit for. Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer won a closely watched, highly publicized race in November, making him the state's first Democratic governor since 1988. During that same election, 62 percent of Montana voters approved a medical marijuana initiative, the 11th state in the country -- and the ninth Western state -- to do so. The Schweitzer and medical marijuana victories came even as Montanans voted by wide margins to ban gay marriage and reelect George W. Bush for President.

The state's progressives are also proud of the fact that Jeannette Rankin, a Missoula, Montana native, was the first woman ever elected to Congress in 1916, four years before women nationwide won the right to vote. In 1917, Rankin joined a handful of representatives who voted against World War I, saying that the first time the first woman had a chance to say no against war she should say it." In 1941, Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against World War II.

"Her (Rankin's) political integrity and voting record puts to shame the vast majority of congressmen and women today. She was immensely popular in this 'red state' despite her intractable anti-war and women's rights stances," says Bostrom. "Montana has nothing to be ashamed of politically. The seemingly incongruent and incoherent politics of this state are no worse than the unexplainable feat by the state of California to put Arnold in the Governor's office."

All of the people I interviewed at Saturday's rally are dedicated activists working for various causes both locally and internationally. Carel Schneider, 61, was at the rally representing Women in Black Missoula, a group she started on December 6, 2001. "After 2001, something was totally amiss in my whole energy field because of what we were doing. I had to stand up for what I believed in," she says. "I researched Women in Black, we started standing and we have been ever since."

Members of Women in Black Missoula stand on the town's visible bridge every Friday. "At first, we were called unpatriotic and un-American. When we went to war, people gave us the finger and yelled at us. There have been interims when they've honked in support, but we seem to be moving back into the hostile area," says Schneider. "I don't know why that's happening. It depends on the political arena. As long as we're there, they have to see us and we have to enter their heads. Somehow we're making a difference."

Are opinions about the war in Montana changing?

"Yes. Our membership is up, people are coming by more and our events are better attended. People come in to the Peace Center all the time and just talk about issues or what's happening. I can tell just by listening to them that there is more hope in the peace movement," says Betsy Mulligan-Dague, executive director of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center. "We had a lot of people -- hundreds of people -- at rallies prior to the war, but after the war started and the election turned, we really had some disappointed people that holed up and said, 'I'm not gonna try anymore.' I think that's changing. People are coming back out and are getting involved again. They feel like there's hope."

Mulligan-Dague says the key to keeping those people and growing the movement is by spreading a positive message. Many speakers at the D.C. rally were criticized for screaming off-topic, angry messages without offering solutions to the problems we're currently facing. "They think anger is going to rev us up and get us involved and it has in the past, but I'm finding people more excited by the concept of building rather than tearing down and criticizing," she says. "I get a hundred emails a day from truthout.org, moveon.org and commondreams.org, and after reading them, I'm tired. I want something positive."

The challenge for activists here in Missoula and across the country is to reach out to people outside of their tight-knit circles, especially those who still believe there was a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. The day after the rally, I went to a strip mall to ask people if their opinions about the war have changed. In a parking lot full of cars with "Support Our Troops" ribbons, it didn't take long to find people who still wholeheartedly support the war.

"If we don't react, then we're going to bring the fight here and I'd prefer to fight it there," says Vietnam veteran Gordon Feist. "We're gonna get attacked again. It's only a matter of time before that happens."

When I asked Feist why the pro-war rally on Sunday was minuscule in comparison to all of the anti-war rallies on Saturday, he said Bush supporters tend to be the silent majority. "I wouldn't go to a pro- war rally. I make donations through my checkbook. That's the way I protest if that's the word. I'm not a guy who would go out there and walk around," he says.

Feist, like so many people I've met in small towns in the South and West, has two family members serving in Iraq. "Whether you agree or disagree, the government was elected to make the decisions and until they vote the government out, then you have to support them."

After I interviewed Feist, I met Lisa, 42 (she didn't want to give her last name). Lisa, whose son returned from Iraq last year and plans to return soon, says her opinions about the war haven't changed. "I support the president and I support our troops," she says. Lisa says she believes the U.S. is in Iraq to fight terrorism. "I don't think it's about oil. I think everything changed on September 11 when we were attacked."

With the exception of Feist and Lisa, the majority of the people I approached on Sunday were visibly angry when I told them I was writing an article about Missoula's anti-war rally. In response to my request for an interview, one woman sternly said, "We have nothing to talk about," got in her car and sped off.

While that kind of hostility can be difficult to deal with, Carel Schneider says it's one of the reasons she, as an activist, has chosen to stay in Montana rather than move to a more liberal state. "I spent 17 years in Seattle and it was easy to be there. Here, you're a lot more visible and it takes a lot more determination," she says. "I've thought about going to other places, but we need people here. I can go back to Seattle and join a large group, but I won't make a difference like I can here."

Rose Aguilar is a San Francisco-based journalist gathering stories from people living in states that voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush. Track her journey at Stories in America .