By Jesse Adcock
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – More than 1,000 protesters gathered at the Lee Statue on Monument Avenue on Saturday and marched to Boulevard in solidarity with next week’s Women’s March on Washington protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration as president.
“We will fight like we’ve never fought before to make sure all people are treated with love and respect,” Democratic state Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond told the crowd. “We are strong because of this beautiful mosaic of people.”
Many nonprofit advocacy groups – including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Richmond Health Brigade and the Richmond Peace Education Center – had representatives at the event.
“It’s a time where there’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Betsy Brinson, a board member for the Peace Education Center. “There’s major peace issues involved at all levels.”
Brinson, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University faculty member, said she been involved with the center for more than 30 years.
“We do youth projects that teach conflict resolution, racial justice and international affairs,” Brinson said. “We are trying to educate people so they can speak out the best way they know how.”
For some, the presidential election was a galvanizing call to action, inspiring citizens to protest for the first time.
“I’ve never been really political before,” said Richmond resident Renee Ramos. “I’ve never marched in anything before.”
Ramos said that from Trump’s policies to his behavior on the national stage, she had to do something to protest his incoming administration.
“This is my first protest,” said Joy Whitenack of Richmond. “We can’t just go out and vote anymore. It’s time to really support justice and equal rights for everyone in the country.”
She said the change in political dialogue and climate over the last few years prompted her to protest.
“It was as great warm-up for next week,” Whitenack said, referring to the Women’s March on Washington, which organizers predict will draw more than 200,000 people.
For others, this was another march in a decades-long fight.
“I used to march a lot in Washington,” said Sherry Baxter of Richmond. “I marched in ’87, in Roe v. Wade and in 2000.”
Baxter said her child was taken from her in the ’80s because she was a lesbian, and that’s when she began marching for civil rights. Unable to find other mothers in the same situation, she said she first marched with gay fathers who had lost their children under similar circumstances.
The parade also played host to large puppet displays and a baton-twirling stilt walker dressed as Uncle Sam.
“I walk on stilts because it’s something you can’t ignore,” said Marcus Fioravante. “People are deaf to most signs and things. What art does to activism is beautiful.”
Building the stilts from found materials like discarded wood, Fioravante said he’s been performing and drawing attention to causes and protests like the March on Monument for three years.
“It confuses the opposition,” said puppeteer Lily Lamberta, founder of All The Saints Theater Company. “It brings a level of circus, color and creativity. You can say really hard-hitting things in a playful and obscure way.”
Just returning from protesting the construction of a pipeline through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota last month, Lamberta has been using large symbolic puppetry for protests in Richmond for more than 11 years.
Among the puppets carried in the parade was the “Wake-up Rooster,” which Lamberta said was meant to communicate that it’s time for the American people to wake up to the present dangers and take action.
Lamberta said she plans to take the puppets to Washington next week to protest the inauguration.
Saturday’s march concluded several blocks from the intersection of Monument Avenue and Boulevard, where a small stage was erected for McClellan and newly elected U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin to speak.
“We are going to revisit everything that makes America great,” said McEachin, a Democrat representing the 4th Congressional District. “It’s about diversity. It’s about love, not hate.”
McEachin said his first objective in office is to protect the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans have vowed to repeal.
“They’ve been talking trash for six years, and now they don’t have a plan,” McEachin said. “If they had a replacement, we would’ve seen it by now.”
McEachin said he would push to uncover the influence and scale of Russian cyberattacks during the past election cycle.
“We will not be afraid of the truth, and we will act on that truth,” McEachin said. “Please do not get weary in your well-doing. Democracy is a participatory sport – you need to participate.”