Thousands* of protesters marched to the state Capitol this morning in the Women’s March for Arkansas. Leslie Peacock, Benji Hardy and Brian Chilson are on the scene and will have more later.
Update: We’ve added about 100 pictures to Brian Chilson’s slideshow, at the bottom of this post.
Update from Leslie: I have just settled down from today’s amazing demonstration of women and men fed up with growing right-wing forces to make women second class citizens, denigrate people of color, destroy public education and define America as a country first for white Christians.
I was a participant today rather than a reporter. I didn’t take notes. But I can tell you that City Director Capi Peck today shamed Trump’s inaugural claim that American public education is terrible and we’re a nation of idiots. That Tippi McCullough talked about her firing from Mount St. Mary Academy 10 minutes after she was married to her life partner and how that turned her into an activist, with the help of the Democratic Party. That Crystal Mercer, a Clinton School of Public Service student and daughter of famed civil rights lawyer Christopher Mercer, was a dynamite emcee, asking, “What does democracy look like?” and getting the crowd — Brian Chilson, our photographer, estimated it at 5,000 minimum — to loudly chant the response, “This is what democracy looks like.”
Sofia Said was a terrific speaker, talking about her patriotism that the Right questions, including not to have her hijab ripped from her head as happened to women in North Carolina. “I am a woman. I am an Asian. I am an immigrant. I am a Muslim. … And I am much more than that, because I am a proud American,” Said said. A country that treats Muslims and others with intolerance, she added, is “not the America I know, that I adopted, that I came to 22 years ago.”
Update from Benji, 7:50 p.m.: Today’s march was the largest crowd I’ve personally seen turn out for any demonstration at the Arkansas Capitol — perhaps for any protest anywhere in the state. When I first arrived (around 11:15 a.m.), people spilled down the steps in front of the statehouse, across Woodlane Street, and down several blocks of Capitol Avenue. As the rally got underway, the crowd continued streaming up Capitol Ave and splayed out to fill almost the whole of the great lawn in front of the building.
Shelle Stormoe, the logistics chairperson for the march, told me afterwards that the march’s organizers estimated turnout at more than 7,000, based on visual counts and online registrations. (Others I spoke with said that number seemed on the high end, based on visuals, but there were unquestionably several thousand people in attendance.)
Organizers lined up a diverse panel of speakers, including Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff), Little Rock City Directors Kathy Webb and Capi Peck, Mireya Reith and Ana Aguayo of the Arkansas United Community Coalition, community organizer Sofia Said and many more. The rally was emceed by local artist and activist Crystal Mercer, who at the end of the event asked the crowd to join her in taking a pledge that mirrored the oath of office President Donald Trump spoke yesterday in Washington, D.C.
“He swore that he was going to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution, and that oath gives him the power to affect the lives of millions. So today, I will make my own oath,” Mercer said. “Please join me in making this personal commitment to preserve, protect and defend our constitutional, civil and human rights. So, if you choose to, please raise your right hand and repeat after me.” Thousands of women and men raised their hands and their voices to join Mercer: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute my role as an American, and I will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
“We are here, and we are here to stay,” she told the crowd, which roared back an assent.
Stormoe said the organizers were as surprised by the massive turnout as anyone else. “We were not expecting this number. … Last night, about 9 p.., we had about 5,000 registered. Over the last week, it went from about 2,500 to that number.” She said the word spread mostly through a Facebook event page. “We just shared it relentlessly, and it kind of developed organically on its own through that. We did have a press release … but for the most part it was a social media phenomenon.” People registered for the event from cities and towns all across the state, she said, and some from Louisiana and Mississippi.
It’s worth emphasizing that the organizing for this event did not originate with any previously existent political party, nonprofit or advocacy organization. “We were a group of people who did not even know each other before we started working on this,” Stormoe said. “We literally started on Nov. 12 — [march organizer] Gwen [Combs] posted something to Facebook, I happened to see the share, and we got started.”
What now, I asked?
“Our mission is to educate people about how they can take action in their community,” she replied. “We’ve decided to start a 501(c)3 specifically for the purpose of educating people. We don’t know exactly what’s happening next, but I do know that we are going to start working really hard on that mission.” Combs and others have been in close contact with national organizers these last weeks, Stormoe said. “We believe it will continue. We don’t know what form that’s going to take, but we do think there’s a national movement that is happening.”
*A previous version of this post said hundreds of protesters were in attendance; in fact, the number was in the thousands.