Montana Women's March

Rachel Carroll Rivas, director of the Montana Human Rights Network, speaks at the Montana Women's March in January 2017. 

Gary Marshall, BMGphotos.com

Many of us breathed a collective sigh of relief after the dust settled in Whitefish at the end of Dr. King Day last year. It’s been a year of intense upheaval, including the murder of a civil rights activist at a white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. That scene could have been in Montana’s beautiful mountain town, but it wasn’t, and there are lessons we must carry forward.

In some ways, last year’s white nationalist uprising began with a threatened armed march by Nazis on Dr. King Day in Whitefish. The threat was part of the harassment heaved at prominent members of the Montana Jewish community by anti-Semites and organized by a national website, “The Daily Stormer.”

The march didn’t happen because it was too cold. In fact, 500 tough Montanans had just stood outside in the single digits for a "Love Not Hate" event on the same streets of the proposed march. It wasn’t the cold that stopped the march, but the warmth of the shared human community that engaged in coordinated actions of love to support the Jewish people that had the deterrent effect. From across religions and economic class, across mountains and borders, folks came together and acted.

In a time of hurtful words piercing our airways from podiums and pulpits, it’s easy for some to retreat into the comforts of home. However, the comfort of home can only keep the noise out for so long — until the hurtful words are directed at you and your neighbor. For a big state, Montana is like a small town. We lean on each other to pull a car out of a snowbank and hold a spaghetti feed for a neighbor in need. So, when white nationalists attacked the Jewish people of Whitefish, Montana stuck up for them, from the smallest kids to the highest elected official. The lesson is: When our communities are under attack, we hold each other close and support each other, despite the physical distance that separates us.

We need to continue expanding the view of family and community beyond the comfy walls of home, that state line, and the borders to our north and south. We need to hear the cries of our fellow humans and recognize the attacks on us all. Then we must act.

Days after the failed armed march on Whitefish, over 10,000 people gathered for the Montana Women’s March. That day many found inspiration. The reality of today leaves us no room for betting that love will simply win if we wait for the self-destruction of the haters. It’s the power of collective action, smart strategies, informed positions, and persistent effort that will save the day.

We have the opportunity to share the lessons of Whitefish as we remember Dr. King and as many once again gather for Women’s Marches around the state this Saturday. The best way to honor King is to step out of those comfy walls of home and act.

I had the privilege of speaking at the Women’s March in Helena last year. I ended with an appeal that’s even more relevant a year later and a call to show up Saturday, write to your elected officals Sunday and speak out against bigotry on every day going forward. I say it again, get organized and act with others! When your ears are pierced with hateful words, breathe and then let us learn, teach and take action together.

Rachel Carroll Rivas is co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network (mhrn.org).

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