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My State Is Sliding Into Fascism. Here's How We're Stopping It

My State Is Sliding Into Fascism. Here's How We're Stopping It

Rep. Zooey Zephyr
Montana Rep. Zooey Zephyr, photographed by August Payton

Montana's rugged individualism allowed it to wage war against women and LGBTQ+ people. Community is the antidote.

Pictured: Rep. Zooey Zephyr faced the wrath of intolerant Montanans

For much of its history, Montana has been known as a place where privacy is sacrosanct, where neighbors shovel each others’ driveways but don’t care about what happens behind closed doors. I, too, have often idealized that notion of live-and-let-live. But Montana’s history as a state is not long, and our situation is dire. In a time when so much of what we see from our state’s politicians is amplification of inflammatory national narratives, it’s time for a 180 from this rugged individualism: maybe, as state legislatures continue to do everything in their power to create false enemies and distract from the government’s unwillingness to meet the needs of the people, hyper-local, highly personal organizing is the antidote.

This spring, I got a glimpse into a different Montana — one where divisive governments have no power over a community connected by interdependence. This glimpse was born out of crisis, but I believe it can be a window into a better way of living, if we let it.

Over the last several months, I have watched my home rapidly descend into fascism. Montana’s state government (like many across the country) has used its power to attempt to control our bodies, force us into binaries, and define us by our reproductive capacity. A duly elected representative — my representative — spoke the truth about the life-or-death impacts of anti-transgender legislation and, as a consequence, was denied the ability to do the job she was elected to do. Montanans were arrested for peacefully demanding representation. The “people’s House” was closed to the people; press were barred from taking notes in committee rooms. Representative Zooey Zephyr, and by extension, the 11,000 Montanans she was elected to represent, were silenced in the halls of power. All of this was notable. It was historic. It was big.

But bigger than the threats to democracy, bigger than the anti-trans sentiment, the colonialism and patriarchy and white supremacy oozing from the Capitol building, was the love, rage, and resilience with which Montana’s queer and trans communities met this moment. Just 48 hours after the April 26 vote to formally censure Rep. Zephyr, over a thousand people (no small beans in Montana) filled the streets of Missoula in a 24-hour display of radical love and solidarity unlike anything I’ve ever seen. For those 24 hours, the Clark Fork River carried the sounds of our joy, our love, and our power from Missoula, Montana into eternity. We created another world that day, and every day from here on out, we will work toward bridging the gap between that world and the one we find ourselves in now.

This could not have happened in a place whose politics are truly individualist. It was a result of dozens of neighbors sitting down in a room and trusting one another to do what needed to be done. It was a result of collectively calling on every connection we had: restaurants, lighting designers, brewery managers, local politicians, people with safety gear and art supplies and money. It was a result of the vast majority of those connections saying, “yeah, I’ll do anything I can– for Zooey, for trans people, for my community.”

The fight for autonomy, for freedom, for self-determination– it’s a monumental battle, and it cannot be won in state capitols alone. The structures that got us into this mess will not save us. This moment must be met with love, curiosity, and a refusal to let talking heads and capitalist politicians turn our neighbors into our enemies. Rather than touting our independence, the last few months have shown us that we can lean on one another, that our communities can support and uplift each other in ways that run so much deeper than the practical questions of rural life. We can care for one another in ways that transcend the state and create networks of solidarity that will support us when the government cannot, will not.

A week after the event, organizers sat down to write thank you cards to people who had contributed their time, money, skills, or resources to make the 24-hour protest party a success. The list stretched into every corner of life in Missoula, from the mayor to the local bakery to a total stranger who had heard about what we were doing and showed up to paint faces at our block party. That is what a community looks like.

We had found ourselves in a perfect storm– our elected official had been silenced, and in the fallout, the legislature had shown its fascist hand. This made things easier for the organizers; the town was pulsing with energy and anger. But when the moment came, we already had what we needed: the skills, the connections, the power, the will. None of those things disappear when the headlines fade away.

Plenty of people have asked what comes next. I am basking in the fact that I don’t really know. What I do know is this: no politician, no law can take away the power of a connected community. If you want to build real, unstoppable power, start by deepening your roots. Nourish your community, and let it nourish you. Learn your barista’s name, host a neighborhood dinner, find out who’s in charge of parade permits in your hometown. Put your city council member on speed dial. Face authoritarian governments with a love so strong it laughs in the face of oppressive laws. Do it together, and do it now.

Izzy Milch is Senior Advocacy Manager at Forward Montana, a constituent of Rep. Zooey Zephyr, and an organizer of a rally after the vote to censure Rep. Zephyr.

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Izzy Milch