ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly
May 6, 2004


One Choice March: Locals travel 3,000 miles for abortion rights march [aerial photo of protest march]

Washington, D.C., April 25 March for Women's Lives.
Photo by Marilyn Rader, AP/Wide World Photos


by JUDY HODGSON, Publisher

[protest crowd]"Turn on C-SPAN! Can you see us? We're a little more than half way up toward the Capitol on the left. If they scan the crowd, we're near the B-20 sign marker. Bright yellow shirts with hot pink lettering!"

Of course I realized how ridiculous I sounded. I was standing there two Sundays ago talking into my cell phone in a crowd estimated by organizers to be 1.15 million people -- a gathering that included about 70 to 80 Humboldters who made it all the way across the country for the one-day show of force. If their numbers are accurate, that means it was the largest protest ever in the history of this country on the National Mall -- and all of us in bright-something T-shirts.

It was a cold, gray day, but spirits were sky-high. The Humboldt contingent traveled with its own music -- a drum, a flute and a tambourine -- which proved helpful in keeping the group together at least for a while. Someone waved a little burning sage stick around for the traditional Native American blessing. A homemade banner from Six Rivers Planned Parenthood was unfurled and we were ready to start walking from the Mall to the White House and back, a distance of less than two miles that would take all afternoon.

This March for Women's Lives -- led by a coalition of seven women's and civil liberties groups, including Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Organization for Women and the ACLU, and endorsed by more than 1,400 other groups from across this nation and representatives from 57 other countries -- was to step off at noon, but nobody was moving anywhere. We continued to watch, listen and cheer TV monitors that were as big as a barn. It was one giant pep rally led that day by entertainers, politicians and activists. Whoopi Goldberg. Cybill Shepherd. Susan Sarandon. Ani DiFranco. Holly Near. Gloria Steinem. Madeleine Albright. U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Hillary Clinton. Kim Gandy, president of the NOW. Billionaire Ted Turner.

[marchers nearing Washington Monument]The signs and the T-shirts were all clearly partisan on two issues: Abortion rights, yes; Bush, no. The slogans ranged from the mild -- "Stand up for choice" on the Planned Parenthood shirts -- to the racy: "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries." "The only bush I trust is my own." "If men could get pregnant, they would advertise abortion on TV" (a reference to the proliferation of Viagra commercials).

At 12:45 there was finally some movement by the crowd west toward the Washington Monument along with the pounding chant of "We will, we will -- rock you!" only "beat Bush" was substituted for "rock you." Half an hour later we were still barely inching past the main stage near the monument when a giant helicopter flew low over the crowd. Someone yelled, "Smile for the camera." An elderly woman in front of me waved her middle finger. A little after 2:10 our group finally left the Mall, stepping into the street as the chants of the crowd grew louder. "Church and state, separate." "My body, my choice."

It would be another hour or so before we traveled the few short blocks to the White House. And still ahead was the gauntlet of anti-abortion protesters along Pennsylvania Avenue waving gruesome signs of aborted fetuses and shouting slogans of their own.
[photos near end of story]

Big stakes

Planning for the one-day event undoubtedly began years ago. After all, the day President George W. Bush was sworn into office, like his father, he essentially cut off all funds for international family planning services intended to help poor women around the globe -- the same funding that had been reinstituted during the Clinton presidency. Bush soon thereafter began administering his anti-abortion litmus test to his judicial nominees. With the U.S. Supreme Court now at a 5-4 split on matters related to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in 1973, many believe the historic decision may be overturned. Whoever wins the presidency in November will likely appoint not one but two members of the Supreme Court.

Family planning services -- including access to safe, legal abortion services -- is not something I can be neutral about as a woman and as a mother of three now-grown daughters all raised right here in Humboldt County. After all, I came of age during the early 1960s -- a full 10 years before Roe v. Wade. I remember one high school classmate of mine who successfully aborted an early pregnancy all by herself with a wire coat hanger. The second time she was not so lucky. She survived but could never have children. Another friend, a straight A student with the dream of being the first in her family to attend college, dropped out of high school to marry and become a mother. She was a sophomore. Young women today really don't comprehend all that ancient history, a time when we were so ignorant about how our bodies work and how to prevent diseases and unwanted pregnancies, a time when the pill was just being introduced to the masses.

So it was with a clear bias that I went to a gathering at Planned Parenthood in Eureka in early April, signed up as a marcher and told everyone there that I planned to write about what I experienced upon returning home. I also found a traveling partner, Judy Webb, who along with her good friend, Michele McKeegan, founded the much-needed Eureka chapter of Planned Parenthood in 1975.

Webb and I flew to D.C. early for the march so we could be tourists for a few days. One of the events we attended was the Smithsonian Crafts Show, an annual exhibit featuring 120 gifted artists from around the country displaying their wares. It included local ceramicist Peggy Loudon, who was invited to attend for the second year in a row.
[photo at end of story]

[John Kerry]On Friday we arrived early at the D.C. public library for a John Kerry rally, snagging a prime spot in the front row, just behind the barricades. It was hot and muggy and the audience became a sea of purple NARAL and red Planned Parenthood T-shirts, denoting the rally sponsors. The songs blaring over the speakers were all carefully chosen: "Won't back down, gonna stand my ground," "You ain't seen nothing yet," "Soak up the sun," and "Hey, ya," a song by Outcast, according to the young twentysomething beside me. As two trucks wallpapered with graphic photos of bloody fetal body parts circled the block, Kerry was escorted to the podium. [photo at right]

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Gloria Feldt told the crowd the threat to women's health issues -- including access to abortion, contraceptives and sex education -- was growing, and that for the first time in its history the organization was endorsing a specific candidate through its Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Kerry told the crowd what they wanted to hear, promising to rescind the global gag rule and release funds for international family planning. "Government should stay out of the bedrooms of America," he said. After the speech, he moved down to the barricades to the blaring tune of Tina Turner's "Simply the Best." Webb and I got a handshake and an autograph for our sweaty three-hour wait in sun. When Webb gave Kerry an enthusiastic hug-pat on the shoulder to wish him luck, the Secret Service boys closed in pretty fast. No unnecessary touching.

A human tide

All day Saturday, wherever we went, we recognized women in town for the march. There was no mistaking them on the subway and buses, and in the airport where we went to meet even more arrivals from Humboldt. Maybe it was the sensible shoes, the fanny packs with water bottles, the pins on their lapels representing groups from all over the country, the excited-yet-serious look in their eyes. These were no ordinary Washington tourists. They were there for a cause and they were everywhere. Four women sitting behind us on one Metro ride -- clearly four generations, one family -- just nodded and said to us, "See you at the march."

Sunday, march day, the weather had cooled considerably. At 7 a.m. Webb and I took the subway from Arlington, where we were staying, into downtown. When we emerged from underground it looked like a movie set with clusters of protesters, young and old, clad in matching shirts streaming in from all directions. We went to join the California Planned Parenthood delegation, a group that easily filled the large basement conference room of the Renaissance Hotel, for a pre-march rally.

California Assemblywoman Hannah Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, told the group that included many young women and a smattering of men, "There are way too many of us who remember before Roe v. Wade. ... We will not let [Bush] send us back." House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said those who oppose abortion should logically support family planning, but they often support neither. Barbara Boxer reminded us of all the erosion in access to abortions since Roe v. Wade. Then Maxine Waters, the fire-breathing congresswoman from L.A., rocked the house.

[photo below left: The yellow shirts (aka the Humboldt contingent) gathered early for instructions in the basement of the Renaissance Hotel.]

[Humboldt group in yellow shirts]"I called up George last night," she said, holding a pretend phone to her ear. "I told him to go straight to hell. And to take Attorney General John Ashcroft with him. And take Dick Cheney, too. And Colin Powell. And Condoleezza Rice!" (Ashcroft was attempting to subpoena women's private health records to use in the prosecution of late-term abortion providers, a request he has since withdrawn.)

With that we left the hotel to assemble on the Mall, following Tim Gray on the drum, Marla Joy on the flute and Debbe Hartridge's homemade "Granny for Choice" sign. In the two hours or so before the march got underway, our Humboldt contingent kept growing. June Davis' daughter arrived from Colorado. Tina McKenzie's extended family came from Vermont and Massachusetts. Judy Anderson welcomed a friend from New Jersey. The yellow shirts were ready.

[Debge Hartridge with "Granny for Choice" sign]There were easily close to a hundred in our pack when the march began, but throughout the afternoon, as the crowd slowly snaked its way shoulder to shoulder through the streets, we lost each other. At one point some of us found ourselves following another drum, one made from an upsidedown bucket. Near the White House there was a Rasta band playing and a dozen dancers with dreads. Someone commented how it looked and sounded so very Humboldt.

Past the White House marchers began to spread out for the last leg back to the Mall along broad Pennsylvania Avenue. It was there we were greeted by a yellow caution sign: "Warning: Fanatic zone ahead."

All along this route were counter-protesters, some in clusters but many thinly spaced. Some were angry and shouting, with police providing a buffer between the opposing demonstrators; others were standing silently with signs and pictures. "Women survivors of Roe v. Wade," read one sign. "Adoption, a loving option."

One entire block was lined with more gigantic bloody photos and black men with bullhorns shouting, "Sisters, don't do this!" "Congratulations on your death march. Because of you 45,000 babies are dead." "Keep murder legal." The mood was certainly tense. Some pro-choice marchers verbally engaged the counter-protesters, but most remained upbeat, marching straight up Pennsylvania to their own chants.

Webb and I finished the march, along with the only four other yellow shirts we could find. Back on the Mall, we had already missed many of the celebs, including Gloria Steinem and Whoopi Goldberg. We were in time for Tyne Daly and Amy Brenneman (from TV's "Judging Amy"), Julian Bond, and members of Congress who were there in support. (Due to a previous commitment, Rep. Mike Thompson, who met with Planned Parenthood people Thursday, was in Florida Sunday campaigning for a colleague facing a close race in November. President Bush was nowhere to be seen.)

[above right: Debbe Hartridge (left), director of public relations for Six Rivers Planned Parenthood, along with Judy Webb. Webb and Michele McKeegan founded the organization in 1975.]

[below left: Black men with bullhorns equated Planned Parenthood with the KKK and implored their "sisters to repent."]

[poster with photos of Nazi and KKK violence and aborted fetus, labeled "Planned Parenthood", and counter-protestors in foreground holding signs with photos of babies]The speeches continued as the crowd began to disperse. "We're here, Mr. President, even though you're not." "Looking out over this crowd, I wonder: What in the world would make so many women mad?" "Since Roe v. Wade, there have been 205 actions to restrict the right to choose." "The fate of Roe v. Wade hangs on a single Supreme Court vote." "Keep on marching -- all the way to November."

The U.S. Park Police gave everyone an extra half hour -- until 6 p.m. --clear out, a bonus for our good behavior. The program continued with the introduction of young medical students and professionals who have chosen to specialize in family planning and are training to become the new generation of abortion providers despite threats to their safety. The day ended with a short film called, "One fine day," a music and slide tribute to all the brave, pioneering women who came before us, fighting for freedom, peace, equality, the right to vote, civil rights, women's rights, human rights -- and change.


It wasn't until our return to Humboldt County that we learned Karen Hughes, President Bush's adviser, had this exchange with CNN's Wolf Blitzer on TV the day of the march:

BLITZER: There is a clear difference when it comes to abortion rights between the president and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry. How big of an issue will this abortion rights issue be in this campaign?"

HUGHES: Well, Wolf, it's always an issue. And I frankly think it's changing somewhat. I think after Sept. 11 the American people are valuing life more and realizing that we need policies to value the dignity and worth of every life. ... (T)he fundamental difference between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life."

Was she calling the marchers terrorists? I don't think so. I hope not. But it is pretty clear this administration's track record shows a bias toward abstinence-only family planning programs and against abortion access.

The election will be close in November. With the public's preoccupation with the war and the economy, the threat to abortion rights will be very real should Bush be reelected to a second term. The real purpose of the march, the reason so many people went to Washington from the far corners of the country, was to raise the issue of abortion rights a little higher on the nation's radar.

Bush apparently wasn't listening. Maybe voters were.


[people on sidewalk holding signs reading "Warning: Dangerous Fanatics ahead"]

After the White House, marchers returned to the Mall via Pennsylvania Aveenue where counter-protestors awaited.


Trucks served as impromptu billboards for counter-protestors.


{Peggy Loudon talking with man, ceramics in background]
Humboldt ceramicist Peggy Loudon coincidentally was in Washington, D. C., for the SMithsonian Crafts Show.

[Gloria Steinem with Leah Tamara]
Leah Tamara, co-director of Six Rivers Planned Parenthood's teen outreach program, managed to snag a photo with Gloria Steinem.

[Five women dressed in work clothing posing as Rosie the Riveter]
Jeanie Crossfield of Arcata with four fellow San Francisco State students in Rosie the Riveter garb at the March for Women's Lives.

[crowd in front of capitol, big screen showing Dr. Wicklund speaking]
Dr. Susan Wicklund, the only abortion provider in four Rocky Mountain states at this time, told the crowd after the march that access to abortion services means nothing if there are no providers. She introduced a group of new doctors and nurses who will specialize in family health.

[The Humboldt marchers posing with signs and smiles]

Humboldt marchers regrouped for photos after the march.

Largest march?

Was the March for Women's Lives the largest ever on Washington?

Probably. Days after the march, organizers were scanning photographs for a closer headcount and came up with an estimate of 1.15 million people. Major newspapers hedged their bets with estimates of "hundreds of thousands."

Other notable marches include:

  • 1963 March on Washington, at which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. 250,000.
  • 1969 Vietnam Moratorium Day. 600,000.
  • 1991 Desert Storm victory celebration. 800,000.
  • 1992 NOW Mothers March. This abortion rights/anit-gun demonstration drew 750,000.
  • 1995 Million Man March. Organizers of the march, held to promote black self-reliance and responsibility, estimated the turnout at 1 million, double the U.S. Park Police estimate. (Boston University later estimated 800,000.)
  • 1997 Promise Keepers. Estimates of the crowd that gathered for this march, organized by a group that said it wanted to introduce men to Jesus Christ, ranged from 480,000 to 750,000.




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