Big rigs cause a stir on Reserve

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After nearly a year of public meetings, citizen protests, movie screenings, endless questioning and nationwide media coverage, the heavy haul made its way through Missoula early this morning—running a veritable gauntlet of grassroots opposition along Reserve Street. The nighttime passage of ConocoPhillips' first two monstrous loads from south of Missoula to Interstate 90 was marked not by the stillness typical of post-midnight Missoula but by picket signs, handcuffs, verbal abuse and a squelched attempt at a dance party.

Conoco's loads left the former weigh station between Lolo and Missoula around 1 a.m. this morning, an hour after protesters with Missoula's All Against the Haul had gathered to meet the big rigs at the intersection of Reserve Street and South Avenue. Throngs of Montana Highway Patrol officers arrived at the scene ahead of the shipments, pushing demonstrators out of the street and hauling off several who refused to cooperate. As the two separate halves of the coke drum destined for the Billings refinery crawled by, Sherry Lee chanted from atop a ladder, accompanied by roughly 50 fellow protesters.

"I'm here to hopefully make a difference," Lee told the Indy. "Standing up with other people is important...It helps open up dialogue, and what I really hope is that it opens up minds."

Some minds proved reluctant to welcome the sentiments of All Against The Haul's supporters, who had conducted a march and vigil on Higgins in downtown Missoula earlier in the day. Several cars roared through the Rosauers parking lot before and during the passage of the Conoco loads. Most shouted insults like "Get a job" and "You're un-American." All Against The Haul campaign coordinator Zack Porter and his fellows merely joked about the drive-by commentary.

Passions quickly escalated further down Reserve Street near Target, where the anti heavy-haul group Northern Rockies Rising Tide (NRRT) attempted to host a dance party in protest of the big rigs. The group had set up several speakers outside Walgreens, but NRRT member Max Granger said several highway patrolmen repeatedly shut their music off because it was interfering with communication among Conoco's contracted transportation crews. Instead, nearly 100 demonstrators gathered on the east side of Reserve chanting "Hey hey, ho ho, these megaloads have got to go."

As the first shipment—briefly stopped to allow traffic to pass—began to move forward, dozens of protesters flocked into the street to block the way. Carol Marsh, 69, and Ann Maechtlen, 50, abruptly sat in the road and refused to budge as law enforcement officers urged them to cooperate or "go to jail." Thom Walker, 19, a University of Montana student who only heard about the protest that day, joined the duo. Patrolmen escorted Marsh and Maechtlen onto the sidewalk after several minutes, but Walker was hauled away—his legs still crossed—and handcuffed, all the while shouting, "This is what Democracy looks like." Walker was cited for obstructing a public road and released in the Walgreens parking lot around 3 a.m. He's to appear in Missoula County Justice Court later this spring.

"I'm pissed off about how fucked up everything is, and to have something like this roll right through Missoula where I live was too much to take," Walker told the Indy after his release.

The protesters succeeded in stalling Conoco's shipments for roughly 15 minutes. But as the loads rolled by, the high-running passions of the morning began to take on an ugly face. Demonstrators argued nose-to-nose with cops, the more cordial of whom pleaded that they were "not into the politics of this thing" and were only trying to "keep you people safe." Several people along the sidewalk shouted obscenities at the big rig crews, saying "fuck you" to the men hanging off the sides of the loads and asking, "How does it feel to sell your soul?"

It took mere minutes for the loads to pass, and once they had—around 3 a.m.—crowds dispersed quickly. Granger and several other NRRT members lingered along Reserve, congratulating Walker on his bold statement and his quick release from law enforcement custody.

"I think it was a first step," Granger said of the protest. "And we're going to escalate from here until we stop this project...It was an amazing outpouring of opposition. We stopped them for a short amount of time, and that was a success."

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