HELENA - There was a significant disruption on the Montana House floor Monday, as protestors in the gallery began shouting and chanting after the House speaker again declined to allow a Missoula representative to speak on the floor.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton told MTN seven people were arrested for criminal trespass after refusing to leave the gallery.
It was the culmination of a full day of protests at the Montana State Capitol, sparked by the ongoing debate over the decision by House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, not to recognize Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, on the floor.
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The issue goes back to last week, when Zephyr, a transgender woman, spoke on the floor about Senate Bill 99, which would ban gender-affirming medical procedures for transgender youth. She said lawmakers who voted for the bill should be ashamed and would have “blood on your hands.”
Republicans objected to those remarks. After that, Regier said he had concerns that Zephyr wouldn’t maintain decorum if he called on her, and he refused to recognize her on the floor, pointing to rules that give the speaker the final say on questions of recognition.
Zephyr’s supporters said the decision was “silencing” her and depriving her roughly 11,000 constituents of their voice in the House.
On Monday morning, supporters delivered a petition to the speaker’s office, urging Regier to change his decision. It bore more than 3,200 names on paper that stretched from the House chamber to the Capitol rotunda.
At noon, hundreds of people took part in a rally on the front steps of the Capitol. They chanted “Let her speak,” and raised a banner reading “Democracy dies here.”
Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, said elected officials across the country have shown “discomfort” with opposing viewpoints.
“I'd say the best and easiest next step is for Speaker Regier to wrap this to a close and begin to allow Rep. Zephyr to do her job on the floor once again,” Howell said. “Beyond that, I think only time will tell.”
Zephyr said during the rally that she planned to continue speaking up.
“I was sent here to speak on behalf of my constituents, speak on behalf of my community,” she said. “It is the promise I made when I got elected, and it's the promise that I will continue to keep every single day that I'm in this building.”
At 1 p.m., the House began its daily floor session. More than 100 people filled the gallery. Regier opened the meeting by addressing those in attendance.
“We have rules for our members as well as our guests,” he said. “Guests: please no cheering, booing, signs, noises of any kind. The gallery is for observation only; our committee meetings are for public interaction. We welcome you to the Montana House.”
The House then began a lengthy debate on more than 40 bills.
After more than two hours, they were discussing Senate Bill 518, which would require schools to take additional steps to ensure “parental involvement” in education.
The bill includes a provision that would require parents to give permission before a child could use a pronoun that didn’t align with their sex at birth.
Zephyr requested to speak on the bill and was not recognized. Regier again pointed to decorum in explaining his decision.
“No representative is above our House rules,” he said.
The House voted 63-34 to uphold Regier’s ruling.
At that moment, people in the gallery began shouting “Let her speak!” Regier pounded his gavel, called several times for order, and then directed the sergeant-at-arms to clear the gallery.
He told House members to move to the sides of the chamber.
Eventually, most Republicans in the House left the floor while most Democrats remained at the side of the chamber.
Zephyr remained at her desk throughout the protest, holding her microphone over her head.
Several dozen protestors continued to chant in the gallery, first continuing with “Let her speak!” and eventually with “Whose house? Our house!” Some threw red gloves onto the House floor.
Law enforcement officers, including Montana Highway Patrol troopers, began trying to remove them. Some of the protestors were handcuffed.
Eventually, officers from the Helena Police Department and Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office Civil Disobedience Team came into the gallery, wearing protective gear and carrying batons.
They cleared the remaining protestors from the gallery, about 15 minutes after the disruption began.
Dutton told MTN all seven people arrested were taken into custody by MHP. He said the county detention officers would book them and release them without requiring bond.
Dutton said six of the people arrested were from Missoula, and one was from Great Falls.
Zephyr went outside after the demonstration ended, saying on Twitter she wanted to “show support for those who were arrested defending democracy.”
I have stepped off the house floor to show support for those who were arrested defending democracy.I will be back as soon as I can.
— Rep. Zooey Zephyr (@ZoAndBehold) April 24, 2023
“What you heard today is people standing for democracy, people standing to let their voices be heard in that floor,” she said shortly afterwards. “What you're watching here is you’re watching people who do not want to see democracy in action. They want to strip us of our rights. And it's not enough for them to get the harmful bills through. When someone stands up and calls out their bills for the harm they cause, for the deaths they cause, they want silence. And we will not be complicit in our eradication.”
Regier and the rest of the House GOP leadership released a statement Monday evening, in which they described the incident as a “riot by far-left agitators.”
“House Republicans condemn violence and will always stand for civil debate and respect for our processes of government,” said the statement, signed by Regier, House Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Rhonda Knudsen and House Majority Leader Rep. Sue Vinton. “Today’s riot by far-left agitators damages our discourse and endangered legislators and staff. Their actions did not represent Montana values. We want to thank our law enforcement for maintaining order and protecting the safety of everyone at the Capitol. House Leadership will still stand firm in our commitment to decorum, safety, and order. We will uphold the people’s will that sent 68 Republicans to Helena.”
House Democratic leaders released their own statement.
“Today we saw Montanans show up and engage in the democratic process, and some of those Montanans were arrested,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena. “To me, it’s an incredible statement in support of the trans, nonbinary, and Two Spirit community - and against the Republican agenda that would strip our neighbors of their basic rights, dignity, and humanity.”
After the House returned to work — about 30 minutes after the disruption began — SB 518 passed a preliminary vote, 60-39.