From a few hundred yards east of the railroad's junction with Greenough Drive, a train whistle pierces the calm Sunday afternoon. Seven protesters—flanked by two city police officers—sit unfazed and undaunted next to the tracks. One of the officers gives them a final polite warning: Continue the protest and be arrested for disorderly conduct.
No one moves. A banner reading "No coal exports" flutters in the wind. The train, cars laden with coal, continues its approach.
The entire scene came together on less than two hours notice. The Blue Skies Campaign and 350-Missoula put the word out days earlier that the weekend would feature some sort of civil disobedience; the exact date, time and location were withheld. Blue Skies organizer Nick Engelfried says he's pleasantly surprised that two dozen people made it despite the short notice.
"If I believed in karma," protester Cate Campbell says from near the tracks moments before the police roll up, "this is where good karma is born."
Coal trains have become a flashpoint in the West in recent years, as mining companies express ever-growing interest in developing coal deposits in Montana and Wyoming for shipment to markets in Asia. Critics argue the potential 50- to 100-percent increase in coal trains bound for West Coast ports could irrevocably ruin communities large and small along the way.
"This is the beginning of a sustained, nonviolent resistance to the exporting of coal," says 350-Missoula co-chair Jeff Smith.
Dave Jones, the protesters' designated police liaison, first warned the Missoula Police Department days earlier that a nonviolent protest would be occurring, but kept even them in the dark about the specifics until the last minute. The secrecy was deemed necessary after Montana Rail Link got wind of a similar protest in Helena last September and stopped the train outside of town. The goal for today, Jones says, is to get photos of the coal train with protest signs in front of it.
"These folks are willing to risk arrest to dramatize the issue and make a point," Jones says.
The train is nearly upon them before the protesters along the tracks—Engelfried and Campbell among them—quietly get to their feet and follow the officers to their cruisers. All seven are cited for disorderly conduct and pose for photos with the tickets. Campbell, who used to work as a brakeman for Burlington Northern Sante Fe in Missoula, says protests like this are a chance to act on her convictions.
"I just feel like the time has come and gone," she says, "when outside companies can use us like a resource rich colony."