Opinion: Reasons for hope amid assaults on liberty


Caitlin Borgmann

In our Montana bubble, it’s sometimes easy to think that political turmoil gripping the nation doesn’t affect us. This year is different. Montana may not be a hot spot for civil liberties crises, but we are not immune to the Trump Effect.

From Nazis terrorizing Jewish residents of Whitefish, to anti-civil-liberties legislation being considered this session, we have our fair share of worries. You may be tempted to prepare a bug out bag and hole up in your basement for the next four years, but take heart: there are astonishing reasons to feel hopeful, even inspired.

First, the bad. Too many Montana legislators are marching in lockstep with Trump.  Proposed bills this session include Trump-ish attempts to undermine freedoms by promoting hysteria and hostility toward immigrants and other marginalized groups. It’s not just the content of these bills that’s alarming—it’s blatantly twisting the truth to justify a breach of civil rights.

For example, some legislators peddled fear in order to support a bill to require Montanans to show a photo ID before voting. While the Trump camp might call assertions about rampant voter fraud “alternative facts,” let’s call the claims what they are: false.

Another bill would ban abortions entirely at 24 weeks, even when the woman’s life or health is endangered. Supporters are feigning interest in women’s health as they jettison science in favor of false assertions that forced childbirth is safer than abortions. If relying on scare tactics and falsehoods to justify encroachments on our freedoms sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what Trump’s playbook relies on.

Fear and intolerance are more vividly reflected in ugly events happening outside the Capitol. Since the election, Nazis and garden-variety bigots have been emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric. Neo-Nazis’ plans (ultimately abandoned) to march in Whitefish may have been constitutionally protected but carried a despicable message of hate and intolerance toward Jewish members of that community.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana received calls from appalled citizens across the nation (yes, nation) asking how something like this could be happening. The answer is alarming yet simple: these groups are interpreting the president’s seeming lack of concern as tacit approval of their extremism.

Don’t lock yourself in your bomb shelter just yet, though. Amid the bad and the ugly, there is surprising good. Montana, like the rest of the country, has seen a surge of activism. The record 10,000 people attending the Women’s March was just one uplifting display of Montanans’ commitment to protecting our freedoms.

Trump may be bringing out the worst in some people, but he’s bringing out the best in many others. At the ACLU of Montana, we’ve noticed a dramatic uptick in membership and engagement. People don’t just want to put their names down as supporters—they want to join the fight.

There’s inspiration in the Legislature too. Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula, is carrying a large package of proposals—the result of interim work by the bipartisan Commission on Sentencing—to make our criminal justice system more humane and fair, including reforms to keep people out of prison by encouraging treatment and reducing recidivism.

Another champion for civil rights, Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, filed bills to protect the privacy of your electronic records, ban use of license plate readers, and work toward uniform policies for law enforcement’s use of body cams.

Dial up your legislators and prepare your rally signs. There are bad and ugly things happening in Montana, but let’s keep our eye on the good. There’s a long battle ahead, but know that we will be fighting with you and for your freedoms, every step of the way.

Caitlin Borgmann is the executive director of the ACLU of Montana.

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