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Speakers fire up crowd of 500 gathered for Women’s March in Santa Rosa

Nearly 2,000 miles separate Sonoma County from Austin, but when Texas lawmakers outlawed nearly all abortions last month, they may as well have picked a fight directly with Rohnert Park resident Savannah Kolb, Brenda Chatman of Santa Rosa and Willieshae Watts, age 12.

They were among an estimated 500 people who gathered Saturday in Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square as part of a nationwide Women’s March focused primarily on defense of women’s reproductive rights and the growing threat posed by the conservative political movement — in Texas and elsewhere.

During often rousing, impassioned speeches that drew cheers of approval and loud applause, speakers at the two-hour Rally for Women’s Rights & Voting Rights touched on a wide range of social issues — from gun violence to immigration and voting rights.

But it was the question of abortion — one thought resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court 48 years ago, only to have a new court majority let the Texas law take effect — that galvanized the crowd in Santa Rosa. And by all indications, those assembled take the matter personally.

“Women’s rights are human rights,” said Kolb, 35. “It shouldn’t be a f---ing question. The fact that it passed in another state? It’s terrifying.”

Chatman, 42, volunteered to set up for the rally, sponsored by the Sonoma County Democratic Party, and said she has been fearing the erosion of women’s rights since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, prompting what was then the first, massive Women’s March the day after his inauguration in January the following year.

“I had so much anxiety about what is going on right now,” Chatman said Saturday. “We’re moving backward. Marches like this bring me a little bit of hope.”

Locally elected leaders and other presenters urged their audience to organize, advocate and speak up against efforts around the country to restrict access to abortion and to stand up for the rights not only of women but of all people, especially those who may be marginalized because of race, sexual orientation or identity or immigration status.

“There’s a war,” state Sen. Mike McGuire intoned in an especially fiery speech, “a war brewing in this nation. And this war is solely focused on women and women’s reproductive rights.”

Rohnert Park Vice Mayor Jackie Elward, who is Black, noted that women of color and those who are poor are most likely to be affected by restrictions on both voting and abortion rights. She said she wanted to speak out in part on behalf of her own daughters but also on behalf of all young women.

“You gave me the power to be the voice of voiceless,” said Elward, who was elected to office last fall. “I’m doing it.”

The protest was one of more than 600 similar events scheduled Saturday around the country, including one that drew thousands to the nation’s capital. It was timed to fall just before the high court’s next session, which begins Monday.

The nine justices will during this session consider a Mississippi case that many feel could challenge the court’s landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.

In addition, activists wanted to make clear that what’s happening in Texas and other states has no place in California.

Those political forces “may seem far away,” Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Natalie Rogers told the crowd, “but trust and believe, it is going to be trying to come this way.”

The Texas law prohibits termination of pregnancies after the point when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is usually around the sixth week of gestation — before many women even know they’re pregnant. There are no exceptions for victims of rape or incest.

The law, which took effect Sept. 1, also uniquely calls for private civil action as the exclusive mechanism for enforcement. It allows individuals to hold those who perform abortions or who aid and abet their acquisition liable for damages of at least $10,000 for each procedure — what critics say amounts to putting a bounty on women with unwanted pregnancies.

Though the right to abortion had long been believed settled by Roe v. Wade, the growing number of state legislatures pursuing restrictive abortion laws in recent years has been expected to prompt the high court to renew its consideration.

The high court’s refusal to block the Texas law absent full-scale arguments is deemed an ominous sign, though challenges to that law could still eventually make their way before the nine justices.

Windsor Town Councilwoman Esther Lemus, in what turned out to be an emotional appearance, spoke of her thoughts on those who oppose abortion rights and consider themselves “pro-life” but who resist gun restrictions, adequate aid for the poor and hungry, and steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“When I think of the new Texas law, Senate Bill 8, one word comes to mind: hypocrisy,” she said.

Lemus gave her prepared remarks after an introduction by local Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Sabo, who made reference to Lemus’ stunning allegations in April that she was among at least nine women who say they were sexually assaulted or subject to sexual misconduct by former Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli.

Weeping as she hugged Sabo and took her position at the microphone, Lemus noted the very public nature of her disclosures and the “process (it took) for me to get here today.”

“Without your support,” she said haltingly, “I would not be able to be here today.”

Most in attendance at the rally carried signs and placards — many of them bearing angry messages like “Regulate Your D--k,” “Texas Taliban, Stay Away from California,” and “I Wish My Uterus Shot Bullets So the Government Wouldn’t Regulate It.”

Several included images of clothes hangers — a reference to the desperate measures to which women have resorted at times and in places where abortions were illegal.

“No Going Back,” said one such poster.

“70 years old and still protesting this SH*T,” said the sign Jeannie Mecorney carried in the company of her two daughters, Miriam Blachman, a Healdsburg farmer, and Gabbie Blachman of Pleasant Hill.

“I apologize to my daughters every day,” said Mecorney, of Pacifica. “I thought I was going to fix everything for you. Still fixing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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