Missoula's torrid affair with rally signs and sandwich boards dates back a long way, well before contentious 21st century issues like wolf delisting or the legitimacy of President Obama's birth certificate. This region doesn't suffer any lack of opinions, and locals have always felt that if you don't like what the demonstrators are demonstrating, protest in turn.
The social debate playing out every Wednesday morning on the corner of Russell Street and West Broadway is no exception. Earlier this summer, Chris McGraw decided he'd had enough of the graphic photos of mutilated babies brandished on homemade signs by anti-abortion protesters. He appeared alongside them one June morning with a sign of his own: "Honk if you think these people are nuts."
McGraw's outrage over the images quickly spread to several friends. One, Gregg Landry, went so far as to create the Dirty Picture Rush Hour Club (DPRHC) on Facebook, asking similarly concerned citizens to join the counter-protest. The club now has 494 online members—pro-choicers and pro-lifers alike, they claim—and Landry says their group has outnumbered the photo-toting protesters two-to-one on numerous occasions.
"It really all comes down to protecting the innocence of children as much as we can for as long as we can by removing those photos," Landry says.
The anti-abortion images are troubling to the DPRHC not only because of their graphic nature, but their inaccuracy. Most of the photos date from the 1960s and '70s, before late-term abortions were declared illegal. Today in Montana, abortions can only be conducted through the first trimester of a woman's pregnancy, unless the pregnancy threatens the woman's life.
Landry and his fellow DPRHC members have attempted to make that point known to the anti-abortion folks, but to no avail. The conversations take a predictable detour from civility, as evidenced by a video posted to the club's Facebook page a few weeks ago. In it, DPRHC members question an off-camera protester on whether the photo she's displaying is from a legal abortion. She loudly defends the image's legitimacy, and both parties begin talking over one another. All semblance of rational debate is quickly lost amid shouting and finger pointing.
But the DPRHC isn't there to change anyone's stance on abortion. Landry says it's the protesters' method—not their message—that has caused his club to gain momentum. For Landry, a father of two with a third child on the way, this issue comes down to the kids.
"I don't mind the idea of telling my children about abortion when they're old enough," Landry says. "[But] I don't want to explain abortion on the way to McDonald's or the swimming pool."