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Even before the historic election that put a real estate mogul in the White House, the ACLU of Montana staff noticed a heightened interest from donors and supporters of civil liberties.

"There was just a kind of energy and excitement about the ACLU that was really qualitatively different," said Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the ACLU of Montana.

The momentum continued after the polarizing campaign and election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. In December, at an event in Bozeman, 150 people showed up, and it was the first time many had engaged with the organization.

Now, the statewide membership has nearly tripled, from roughly 1,500 before the election to at least 4,300, said Borgmann, who grew up in Missoula.

Tuesday, on her way through Missoula to headquarters in Helena, Borgmann talked with the Missoulian about the dramatic increase in interest in the organization that works to protect liberties.

The former law professor from City University of New York School of Law also shared some of the trends she sees, and spoke of a shift in the work of the ACLU, and some of the priorities on tap for protecting people's rights to equal treatment.

It's too soon to tell if the momentum that's built over the last few months will having staying power, but Borgmann said activism is cyclical, and the quieter period may mean a bright side for the mission of the organization.

"Hopefully, we're not going to be in this kind of civil liberties crisis indefinitely," she said. "And when the sense of urgency is lessened, then I think we'll see a drop off in engagement."

Even before the election and ensuing women's march that fired up activists around the world, the ACLU had been planning to help people organize. Many people want to do more than write a check or sign an email petition, she said, so the ACLU created a "People Power" platform that helps activists plan events and mobilize support.

The new initiative has been able to capture the enthusiasm and motivation of the political current, a new wave for the ACLU.

Borgmann said one challenge is that the Trump administration has brought threats to liberties on many different levels, from reproductive rights, LGBT equality and environmental justice to the free speech rights of protesters, and that's led to concerns around privacy and the targeting of immigrants and refugees.

It's a full menu, and people can choose their own causes.

"One of the goals of People Power is for activists to be able to decide for themselves what they want to do and just equip them with the tools," Borgmann said.


In just one weekend after Trump had taken the oath of office, the national ACLU received $24 million in donations, which one of its officials called "unprecedented." The president had started signing controversial executive orders, such as "extreme vetting" of people from seven Muslim-majority countries, an order since revised but again challenged in court.

The ACLU of Montana benefits from its relationship with the national organization, but because of complex financial sharing rules, the membership money from Montanans doesn't flow directly to the ACLU of Montana, Borgmann said.

In fact, the ACLU of Montana is two related organizations, she said: It's a 501(c)3 where people can make tax-exempt donations, and also a 501(c)4, a union that can lobby. It's important for some people to be "card carrying members" of the ACLU and join the union through a membership fee, but she said the other entity is also important.

"Giving to the Montana foundation is still really important because that's where the bulk of our income comes from," Borgmann said.


Despite the swell of interest in a variety of issues, the ACLU of Montana has set its own priorities for activism, she said. One is criminal justice reform, specifically reducing incarceration due to income level, Borgmann said.

People end up in the criminal justice system simply because they can't pay a fine, and it then becomes harder and harder for them to dig themselves out, she said. The ACLU of Montana is looking at probation and parole reform in response, and it also aims to help people reintegrate into society after having been incarcerated.

"Some of the stories around who ends up in the prison system are really pretty heart-wrenching," she said.

Borgmann also said there's bipartisan support for criminal justice reform because it saves money over time.

The organization is focused on racial justice, too, and a new full-time organizer is traveling across the state and meeting with people on reservations to pinpoint specific issues and campaigns. Native Americans will set the direction, Borgmann said, and some of the concerns include the treatment of Native students in public schools, tribal jail conditions, and policies for dealing with the meth crisis in Indian Country as a health issue, not criminal one.

The ACLU of Montana can make proactive progress on specific criminal justice and racial justice issues, but she said it will also stay trained on its mission.

"The ACLU is always going to cover the broad waterfront of civil liberties issues," Borgmann said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.