The Rally of Rage 

Anger and irony fuel the upcoming mass protest in Libby

Brace yourself for too-strange-for-fiction news from Libby, Montana.

A small group of Libby businessmen has announced plans for a “forceful mass rally of civil disobedience” to wage war against the “federal and global invasion” of rural communities. The organizers say they expect over 3,000 people for the April 15 tax-day protest.

Organizers say tax forms and a United Nations flag will be burned. A widely circulated Internet posting by one of the organizers, Libby legislator Scott Orr, suggests they raise the Confederate flag in its place. Orr hints at “other surprise demonstrations,” presumably including the promised act of lawbreaking, to “fan the flames” of popular outrage.

No more Mister Nice Guy in Libby. The flier demands, “No more negotiating. No more public meetings.” Libby residents need to “Show up or Shut up” to protest the Clinton “regime” in solidarity with the poor people of Elko, Nev., who threaten civil disobedience to reopen an eroding forest road closed to protect a trout stream.

One of the primary organizers of the civil disobedience rally is the owner of a Libby car dealership, Terry Andreessen. Andreessen has been on a different warpath recently, complaining bitterly about press coverage of the hundreds of Libby residents dead or dying from asbestos poisoning related to W.R. Grace’s now-closed vermiculite mine.

A fervent Libby business booster, Andreessen is concerned about the town’s sullied reputation. He has threatened to sue the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for breaking the asbestos story nationally. Seeking to improve Libby’s image, Andreessen personally placed a $6,000 ad in the Portland Oregonian newspaper touting Libby as a great place to relocate a business or family.

Within days, 10 business owners answered the ad to inquire about relocating to Libby. The local newspaper applauded Andreessen’s civic contribution, which was echoed by Libby Mayor Tony Berget. “It just reaffirms my belief that there are some wonderful people in Libby who are working to make this a better place,” Berget said.

These accolades poured in before Andreessen’s latest plan to protest the global invasion of Libby. Although the Oregon ad touts Libby’s family-friendly quality of life, it didn’t mention the upcoming mass rally of civil disobedience.

Andreessen’s co-organizer of the civil disobedience rally, legislator Orr, has garnered his own headlines for Libby in the past month. Orr recently challenged a speeding ticket on the basis that Montana’s new speed limit is unconstitutional. A judge recently blocked Orr’s attempt to ask a Lincoln County jury to nullify his speeding ticket on constitutional grounds.

Andreessen and Orr are not fringe elements within the Libby community. Andreessen is regarded as a civic leader, and Orr was elected three times to represent voters in Helena.

But can anyone take seriously their howls of victimhood at the boot of the United Nations? If Libby needs to howl, it should be at the out-of-state timber and mining corporations that depleted its resources and, in Grace’s case, endangered the health of its workers.

The irony of civil disobedience in Libby on tax day is particularly rich. EPA has ponied up $4 million for community medical testing for asbestos-related disease, and community leaders speak highly of EPA’s emergency, on-site assistance. With politicians bending over backwards to feel Libby’s pain, town officials have provided a $22 million wish list for federal funding for everything from a performing arts center to a new sewer system.

Once again, I’m reminded of historian Bernard DeVoto’s famous paraphrase of rural western attitudes toward the feds: “Get out, and give us more money!”

A Libby friend, disgusted at local solidarity with the Nevada shovel brigade, offers a simple word of advice. “There’s a rule of thumb when you find yourself in a hole: Quit digging.”

The best that can come from the latest uproar is that Libby will stop digging, and that voices of reason will emerge to challenge the leadership currently offered by the likes of Andreessen and Orr. Perhaps Libby will step out of the dark shadow of denial and misplaced blame. Perhaps no one will come to the rally of rage.

Steve Thompson works as an environmental consultant in Whitefish. The opinions expressed in “Independent Voices” do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent.

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