Thousands Flood into Montpelier for Women’s March
by K.C. Whiteley

Photo: Johannes Otter

Like the Women’s March in Washington, DC, Vermont’s solidarity march in Montpelier surpassed all projections. The power of online organizing and the clarion call to justice issues across the spectrum were answered with overwhelming support as an estimated 20,000 Vermonters flooded into the capital city on Saturday, January 21. Leaving cars on the interstate and walking from miles away, carrying homemade signs and banners, Vermonters flocked to the Vermont State House to hear speeches and calls to action.  

Vermont Public Radio (VPR) updated its original estimate for the total national turnout for Saturday’s event based on a Washington Post story to 3.7 million in the US alone, possibly the largest demonstration in American history. No arrests were reported, a remarkable testament to the collaborative spirit and peaceful intention of women and their allies who organized the marches and those who showed up.

Intended to be the staging area to start off the march, thousands of people gathered and milled about at the Montpelier High School, lining the sidewalks and spilling onto Bailey Avenue, which had, by 1 p.m., been closed to traffic. Some groups led off the march with banners, followed by a Bread and Puppet–inspired walking float, “We’re All in the Same Boat.”

Photo: Johannes Otter

Less a march than a slowly moving wave of people filled the space from the high school to the State House, where a sea of bodies covered the snow-covered lawn. As more and more Vermonters filtered into the city, incoming traffic began to back up. Partway through the march, thousands of cell phones flashed an alert that I-89 had been closed with no access in or out from the Berlin, Montpelier, and Middlesex exits. Many parked their cars on the shoulder and walked into town. Montpelier police chief Tony Facos declared that Montpelier was maxed out: “City roads cannot support any more people or vehicles.” Despite the filled-to-capacity situation, no problems were reported. Capital city businesses gained record-breaking sales, and the interstate reopened as the crowds dispersed and headed home.

Photo: Johannes Otter

Speeches began on time, with a thankfully adequate sound system carrying the speakers’ voices. The popular Burlington duo, Dwight and Nicole, warmed up the crowd. Muslim Girls Making Change, a youth-led group who are part of the Young Writers Project, performed their spoken-word slam poetry, making real the challenging odds new Americans face.
Vermont’s only woman governor, Madeleine Kunin, demonstrated her staying power and connection to the politics of today with a rousing speech that acknowledged the host of injustices to be addressed. Noting that the pendulum of progress on social and economic issues had swung hard and fast to the right, she promised: “I assure you it will swing back again. The center will hold.” She closed, cautioning us not to give up hope and quoting Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers.”

Photo: Johannes Otter

Kunin was followed by Ebony Nyoni, cofounder and director of Black Lives Matter Vermont, who called on the overwhelmingly white crowd to help redress the inequalities people of color experience every day: “We can’t pretend to ignore the brown elephant on the table. We can’t ignore that white women earn higher wages than women of color. The pink elephant in the room is the one wearing the sash that says ‘I am the beneficiary of a system of oppression that continually destroys lives while my family flourishes.’ I beg of you women to remember not to leave out a constituent of white women … who decided to vote for Trump … Our freedom is tied up together. We need to stand up for each other.” Her call to “create a new kind of feminist movement called my sister’s keeper.” Her speech was answered with cheers of endorsement: “Black lives matter, black lives matter, black lives matter.”

Meagan Gallagher, in her role as president of Vermont Planned Parenthood Action Fund, reminded us of the critical role Planned Parenthood plays in providing reproductive health care for millions of women across the country. “We’ve been preparing for this fight for 100 years, she said. “Our doors will stay open.”

Photo by Diane Gayer

Bennington representative Ruqaiyah Morris is the second black woman to be elected to the Vermont legislature. Mother of a young son who travels to Montpelier each week from the southernmost corner of the state, Morris spoke about the sacrifices others made before her as the reason why she was at the march. Her great-grandparents worked with the freedom riders in Mississippi and put their lives on the line. Other relatives and her own family have been targeted for standing up for civil rights. “Let’s take that fear that we’re all feeling and turn it into action, and honor one another by doing what we need to do,” she urged the crowd.

When Bernie Sanders took the stage with his wife, Jane, and their grandson, the assembled masses erupted into cheers of “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie.” Vermont’s junior senator did not disappoint. Once the cheering subsided, Senator Sanders thanked everyone for coming out. He said the marches all across the country were saying to the new president: “Mr. Trump, we are not going backwards. We are going forward. We are not going to retreat on women’s rights, on immigration rights, on workers’ rights, on health-care rights, on racial justice, on the environment or climate change. Mr. Trump … you are not going to divide us up by gender, by race, by who we love. In fact, your bigotry and your ugliness are going to bring us together in a progressive movement. We are not going back.”

Photos Diane Gayer

He put the lie to Trump’s claim of being for working people and against the establishment, pointing out the billionaires around him: “Donald Trump is a fraud, and the American people will understand this.” He closed reminding us that the silver lining to this election is the fact that we are all coming together to create the kind of country we want based “on love, not on hate and bigotry.” He left the capitol steps to the same cheers of “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie” that he came in on.

Speakers who followed included Rebecca Haslam, 2015 Vermont Teacher of the Year, who called on her fellow teachers to stand up to protect public education; Mary Gerisch representing indigenous people’s rights and climate justice urged Vermonters to defeat the black snake of oil and gas pipelines; Lt. Governor David Zuckerman, whose wife handed out a huge bag of organic carrots, was introduced as the most progressive lieutenant governor in the country; Wilmar Santiz of Migrant Justice spoke through a translator about the plight of Vermont’s 1,500 migrant workers who sustain our dairy industry and who remain in the “shadows” for fear of being deported if they become too visible in their communities. He asked, “Will you stand with us if Trump tries to take away our rights?” The throngs of marchers shouted their support. Sue Minter, Democratic gubernatorial candidate asserted, “I am here because we will not be silenced. We will be heard.”

After high-schooler Greta Hardy-Mittell read her poem “Children of the Revolution,” Nicole Nelson closed out with a stunning a cappella rendition of “God Bless America.”

Women’s marches across the country showed a predominantly white demographic coming together. The astounding fact that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump means there is much to be done to bridge the great divide among whites. Ninety-four percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton, as did 68 percent of Latina women. How will we bring together whites and nonwhites, stand up and show up for each other? The forces of divide and conquer have never been more strategically employed than they are in today’s political arenas.

If the Vermont women’s march showed us what solidarity can look like, time will tell what acting in solidarity can achieve. And there’s little time to waste.



K.C. Whiteley lives in Montpelier and covers a variety of topics for Vermont Woman.