HELENA – The spirit was jubilant, as thousands of marchers gathered in the streets near the Capitol Saturday as part of the Women’s March on Montana: Human Rights for All.
Initial estimates put the size of the crowd at 10,000 people.
When the crowd stepped off at noon, it was to the lively beat of the Bozeman marching band, Chicks with Sticks, whose drums were flamboyantly colored plastic buckets.
There were yells and whoops and also chants – “My body, my vote!” and “This is what – democracy looks like!” and “Women’s rights are human rights!”
A line of marchers was already wrapped around the Capitol, and more and more marchers kept pouring up Washington Street.
The crowd far exceeded the expectations of organizers, who had hoped that 4,000 would show, based on Facebook responses.
They danced, they chanted, they sang and they cheered.
Some came wearing their brilliant pink, hand-knitted, cat-eared “pussyhats” to call out President Donald Trump on one of his more infamous comments about grabbing women's genitals.
But this particular march was never billed as an anti-Trump rally, said one of the organizers, Deb O’Neill.
“We said this is nonpartisan from the get-go. Anyone is welcome despite who you voted for, so long as you support human rights for all.”
And speak out, they did – for women, for the planet, for Native Americans, for refugees, for diversity and for the LBGTQ community.
It was a call for action in the coming years, not just one day.
“The march is just day one of this group,” said O’Neill. “This is not the end, it is just the beginning.”
Similar marches were held in more than 600 other cities and towns around the world, including 30 other countries.
In Chicago, New York and Washington, the marches drew hundreds of thousands of people – once again, far exceeding planners’ expectations.
A reason for every marcher
Volunteer Yvonne Field of Helena, who was sporting a bright pink "pussyhat," said she got involved with the march because she works with children with special needs who have cognitive disabilities and others who are English learners. “I’m also the mother of a multi-racial kid. I want this to be a safe place for us. Some people told me that after Trump was elected they could tell me how they really feel.”
Noah Jacobs of Great Falls was carrying a sign reading “We all come from immigrants.
“I just want to support all the women and immigrants in the country because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Everyone has the same rights as all our neighbors. We just have to support women – their rights are my rights as well. What affects them affects me.”
Walt Luebeck of Missoula showed up carrying a United States flag and a diversity flag.
He decided to march because “there’s so much partisanship. There’s starting to be discrimination against everybody – against blacks, Hispanics, just everybody.”
Laura Barta of Polson, wearing her hand-crocheted "pussyhat,” was dancing to music with her partner, Dylan Gomes of Missoula.
“We all have to stand together,” she said, “and hope together. Revolutions start with hope.”
“I’m here to support Laura,” said Gomes, adding that the most important issue to him is climate change. “I’m a biologist and the evidence is clear” that human-caused climate change is happening.
For every marcher, there was a reason.
Twenty-three buses came in from across the state, said O’Neill.
And according to some of those on the bus, like Paula and Eric Nielsen of Bozeman, the traffic headed to Helena stretched for miles behind them.
As they waited for the rally to start, they were talking to friends via cellphone who were inching along in a traffic queue that stretched to Townsend.
Riding on their bus were a number of people from their Universal Unitarian Church in Bozeman, who broke into singing a hymn from their church.
“I think it’s our duty to speak out about rights. ... We have to use our voices,” said Paula Nielsen.
“As a man, I saw it as a people issue, not just a women’s issue," Eric Nielsen said.
A call to action
That was also the spirit of the speeches given on the Capitol steps.
“This is amazing!” said O’Neill as she greeted the crowd, telling them there were so many people marching that they needed to delay the beginning of the rally to allow all the marchers to arrive and hear the speeches.
It took an hour for the huge crowd to pour up through adjoining streets and circle the Capitol.
Among the speakers was First Lady Lisa Bullock, who told the crowd "we stand together in solidarity with our partners and our children."
She noted that it was civil disobedience by strong women that resulted in women finally getting the right to vote.
She also recognized the strength of her mother, who was her role model. “She accepted everyone into our home.” There was no exclusion, no hatred.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., spoke to the crowd via phone from Washington, D.C. "Keep marching," he said. "Our country's counting on you."
SK Rossi, director of advocacy and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, asked for a shout-out for all who were showing up at a rally for the first time – drawing a loud response.
Rossi admitted it had taken a long time, “as a queer person,” to find courage to speak out.
“Your elected officials work for you,” Rossi told them. “If you don’t ask – you’ll never get a yes.”
“This is the first step for many of you to find your voice. You can’t go home and turn on Netflix” and forget about what’s happening around you.
Rossi urged them to visit the ACLU website, aclumontana.org, because the group “is going to be working our ... butts off for you.”
Montana Women’s Chorus gave a joyous musical break, singing “A Women’s Voice,” about the power of women’s voices raised and also a tribute song in honor of suffragist trailblazer Jeannette Rankin, a congresswoman from Montana.
Towering above the chorus on the Capitol steps was the rainbow-colored street puppet, Synnovai, a modern Scandinavian goddess.
Rachel Carroll Rivas, director of the Montana Human Rights Network, told the crowd that “I fight white supremacy for a living.”
Her life is one of privilege, of having a bed to sleep in and feeling safe and loved, she said. “I know this is not the case for all people.”
“You are the schemers and the dreamers that will make tomorrow a better day and human rights a reality for all.”
She urged the crowd to draw inspiration from the people of Whitefish, where people have stood up against the threats and harassment of white supremacists.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the local group Love Lives Here," she said.
She quoted a Whitefish friend who said “we might not have much say nationally. But we can make Whitefish a better town. And if we do that all around the country, I think the national narrative can change.”
O’Neill spoke of being raped and how the victim gets blamed.
“Rape culture needs to end,” she said. “We can change culture and victim blaming.” She urged the crowd to reach out to elected representatives so that the Violence Against Women’s Act continues to be funded.
Michelle Mitchell, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and an Academic Achievement Coach for American Indians at Great Falls High School, spoke of the importance of education and also of how prevalent racism is on the Flathead Reservation.
“Education is about making tomorrow better,” she said. She also praised former Montana Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Denise Juneau’s championing of the Graduation Matters program and the importance of the Indian Education For All program that teaches all Montana schoolchildren about the unique culture and heritage of American Indians.
Lauren Small Rodriquez Tsitsistas, who is the first Northern Cheyenne woman in the U.S. Coast Guard, spoke of the importance of protecting clean water and to support the protesters at Standing Rock. “Do not be afraid to stand up now,” she said. “We must unite to protect the future of our world.”
Bree Sutherland, a trans and queer advocate and activist, talked of the pain and struggles of being transgender. “I got angry and I got active. I became an activist because I do not want to be a statistic,” Sutherland said, adding that the suicide rate of transgender people can be over 45 percent.
“Hello, nasty women!” said Laura Terrill of Planned Parenthood of Montana, referencing a comment Trump made about former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Terrill spoke on behalf of the thousands of women who come through the doors of their clinics. “Patients don’t come to make political statements, they come for health care.”
One in five women will come to Planned Parenthood sometime in their life for health care, she said. “We are going to fight like hell to keep our doors open.”
Mary Poole, director of Soft Landing Missoula, which works to find homes in Montana for refugee families, spoke of looking out for each other.
She recalled her experience as a rafting guide, where each guide not only looked out for their own boat, but pointed a safe way for the raft behind it. Rafters call it “point positive.”
The river ahead may be rough. “You will point me positive. I will point you positive and we will make it through stronger on the other side.”
Judith Heilman, director of Montana Racial Equality Project, reminded the group “racism is real” and yes, it does occur in Montana.
Her organization trains people in how “to interrupt racism whenever it is encountered.”
Calling your legislator is another way to interrupt racism, she said.
The rally concluded with with a call to action by Kellie Goodwin McBride, director of the YWCA Helena.
She asked people to listen to each other, for them to find their voices and call their representatives, and to take action one hour a week on an issue that’s important to them.
O’Neill told the crowd that the Women’s March website, womensmarchmontana.com, will be posting announcements of meetings, gatherings and calls to action.
“The march went very, very well,” she said in a follow-up interview. Not only did it draw a huge, enthusiastic crowd, but it was peaceful.
There were a few counter protesters, she said, but they saw the huge crowd and left.