A town's July 4th celebration says a lot about a community, and this holiday in Bozeman, Montana, promises to be relatively laid-back, with locals typically heading for nearby Livingston or Ennis to catch their parades, then back home for stirring music and fireworks at the fairgrounds.
Just five years ago, however, Bozeman woke up to controversy when the newly formed local Tea Party decided it wanted to march down Main Street on the Fourth to protest taxes and government spending. But rather than follow the normal process for a parade permit, the Tea Party stormed a Bozeman City Commission meeting and demanded a parade permit for July 4th. The commissioners were so intimidated that they ignored both the usual application process and Montana's Open Meeting Law. On the spot, the Tea Party was granted a parade permit.
The town then learned that the Tea Party's plan to close down Main Street for its tax protest was going to cost city taxpayers $1,100 in staff and police overtime. The irony turned out to be too much to pass up, so I applied for a second parade permit for Independence Day. And because city regulations only allowed an organization to apply for a parade permit, I made the application (with tongue firmly in cheek) on behalf of a new, contrastingly "big tent" organization: The Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus.
Included in the application was a promise that the coalition would raise the $1,100 needed to reimburse city taxpayers for the cost of the parade, a thinly veiled attempt to shame the Tea Party into not relying on government spending to finance its tax protest. Ironically, the Tea Party, based 30 miles outside Bozeman, had no qualms about asking city residents to pay for its protest event.
The coalition began raising money through T-shirt sales and donations, with the stipulation that if the $1,100 goal could not be reached, the coalition would not march, and all the money collected would go to the Gallatin Valley Food Bank. Several days before the Fourth, the coalition announced that it had surpassed the $1,100 goal by $1,500, which was donated to the Food Bank.
Finally it was the Fourth, and The Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus -- some 65 people strong -- marched down Main Street in a fun, upbeat, fairly random parade. In contrast, the Tea Party parade that followed -- estimated by organizers at close to a thousand people -- featured a vintage aircraft flyover and lots of really angry signs. In the end, the coalition paid not only for its own parade but also for the majority of the street-closure costs of the Tea Party's event as well.
In 2010, the city of Bozeman still didn't have a policy concerning main street closures, but to prevent more dueling parades, it decided to issue only one parade permit for the Fourth of July. City code stipulated that the earliest date to apply was the first week in January. The Green Coalition submitted its application for the Fourth during the first week in February and was granted the permit. The application included the same promise to reimburse the city for the costs of the street closure. That spring, when the Tea Party started making its plans for the Fourth and went in for its parade permit, the members were told by a city official, "You can march on the Forth of July if you want to, but it will have to be in the parade with The Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus." The Tea Party left town for the holiday and marched elsewhere.
In 2011, the Tea Party abandoned a Fourth of July Main Street parade in favor of a picnic get-together in one of Bozeman's city parks. Since then, the Tea Party has not attempted another Main Street protest march. Mission accomplished.
There are plenty of days in the year to complain about what's wrong with America; the Fourth of July isn't one of them. The holiday is about what makes this country great, and thanks to The Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus, Bozeman doesn't have to host a parade with a bunch of angry people carrying derogatory and racist signs. The day is about patriotic music, fireworks and a town full of folks proud and thankful to be living in the good old USA.
Brian Leland is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndicated opinion column service of High Country News. He is an electrical contractor in Bozeman, a graduate in engineering from Montana State University, and founder of the Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus in 2009.