This story was published on NJ.com on Jan. 21, 2017. It can be found here.
By Kelly Heyboer and Mark Mueller
WASHINGTON — In an extraordinary rebuke of a U.S. president on his first full day in office, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the nation’s capital and in cities and towns across America Saturday, demanding protection for hard-fought rights and assailing the policies and promises of the new commander-in-chief.
Billed as a demonstration of unity, the Women’s March on Washington served as a platform for a variety of causes, from women’s and gay rights to the demand for universal health care and less heavy-handed policing.
But as speaker after speaker made clear, they were also sending a pointed message to President Donald Trump, whose election laid bare deep divisions among Americans.
Tamika Mallory, a co-chair of the march, called the event “an act of resistance” against the tone and rhetoric of the presidential campaign and of the administration’s policies.
Added co-chair Linda Sarsour: “I respect the presidency, but I will not respect this president of the United States of America.”
Organizers have said as many as 200,000 people registered for the event. But as the day wore on, and as people continued to stream toward the rally point on Independence Avenue near the Capitol, the organizers revised the figure, saying they believed it had reached half a million.
The National Park Service stopped providing estimates of crowd sizes after a controversy about the number of participants in the Million Man March in 1995.
But the number appears to have been verified by Washington transportation officials, who said some 470,000 people had used the Metro rail system by 1 p.m. The figure suggests far more people attended the march than Trump’s inauguration Friday, when 193,000 Metro riders had been recorded by 11 a.m.
More than 650 sister marches took place around the world, with the largest concentration in the United States. In Chicago, after 150,000 people choked downtown streets, authorities said the march portion of the event would be too unwieldy, canceling it.
Tens of thousands of others descended on Manhattan, Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles, surprising organizers with the large turnout.
In New Jersey, a crowd estimated at 6,000 people demonstrated at the Trenton War Memorial before marching to the Statehouse.
Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, a co-chair of the Trenton event, said she was struck by the turnout in New Jersey and elsewhere.
“I have never seen people so energized in my 30 years with Citizen Action,” Salowe-Kaye said. “It makes me feel hopeful and invigorated, as I am just about turning 70, that I will make it to 80.”
An estimated 4,000 people rallied on the boardwalk in Asbury Park. Additional marches were held in Mount Laurel, Pompton Plains, Westfield and Wyckoff.
Overseas, women in the capitals of Europe and as far away as Myanmar and New Zealand participated in sister marches, in part to show solidarity with American protesters and in part to demand rights for themselves at home.
Among those in attendance in Washington was Kirsten Brendel, 24, who drove to Washington Friday night from her home in Somerset County with her mother, sister, aunt and other relatives.
“Women’s rights — all civil rights — matter, and we really need to be there for each other instead of oppressing those rights,” Brendel said.
Chants of “Love Trumps hate” erupted around Brendel as the crowd awaited the speaking and musical program, which ended at 3:30 p.m., more than two hours late. Many demonstrators, the vast majority of them women, then marched past the Washington Monument to 17th Street NW, near the Ellipse behind the White House. Others departed from the staging area.
In the weeks before the march, organizers repeatedly stressed the event was not an anti-Trump demonstration. But the reality, as seen in signs and speeches, was another matter.
Feminist Gloria Steinem, who has been at the forefront of the women’s rights movement for decades, took direct aim at the president in her remarks, decrying his “grandiosity” and “hyper-sensitivity.”
“I’m not trying to deny the danger that this day initiates,” Steinem, 82, told the group. “Trump and his handlers have found a fox for every chicken coop, and a Twitter finger must not become a trigger finger.”
Responding to Trump’s claim that he has connected with the people of America, Steinem said, “I have met the people, and you are not them.”
Noting the crowd’s size — a sea of people, young and old, stretching in all directions — Steinem called the gathering “an outpouring of energy and true democracy like I have never seen in my very long life.”
Liberal activist and filmmaker Michael Moore exhorted those present to make calls to state and federal representatives a daily routine, to join progressive groups and to run for office.
“You have to be willing to put yourselves on the line,” he said. “It’s that important.”
Actress America Ferrera cast the current political climate as a war for the “moral core” of the nation, contending Trump is seeking to erode hard-fought rights.
“Our dignity, our character, our rights have all been under attack, and a platform of hate and division assumed power yesterday,” Ferrera said. But the president is not America. … We are America, and we are here to stay.”
Attacks against Trump were at times intensely personal. Actress Ashley Judd, for one, said the president looked as if he bathed in “Cheetos dust,” a riff on his skin tone.
But for most speakers and members of the crowd, issues were most significant.
Heather Bernhard, 38, of Lawrenceville, boarded a bus in East Brunswick before dawn to get to the demonstration.
“I’m marching because I don’t think anyone should be able to tell me what I should do with my body,” Bernhard said.
The mother of a 16-month-old baby, she said she was concerned the promised Republican repeal of Obamacare would limit access to birth control and roll back other health care gains.
“I’m terrified of the future for my daughter,” she said.
Bernhard said her husband and daughter were joining the march in Trenton.
The enormous crowds made it difficult for many demonstrators to find the march. Closed and packed streets meant latecomers were blocked from getting close enough to the stage to hear the rally’s speakers.
Many protesters, wearing symbolic pink hats, marched down neighboring streets near the National Mall, chanting, “This is what democracy looks like,” “Free Melania” and “Dump Trump.” Other demonstrators stood and sat on side streets as people took turns speaking in impromptu mini-marches.
Brenda Crespo, of Metuchen, sat on a curb with her daughter on a side street near Independence Avenue. Both wore rings of flowers on their heads, one of the ways New Jersey organizers had encouraged people from the Garden State to stand out.
“My faith requires me to be here,” said Crespo, 47, who is studying to be a Presbyterian minister at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. “I’m here representing those people who don’t have a voice.”
Though the crowds meant she was far from the speakers, Crespo said it was important for her to share the moment with her daughter.
“I wanted her to see the power of unity,” Crespo said. “I wanted her to see how powerful an experience it was.”
A group of women from the Burlington County area said they felt compelled to attend the march because they were fearful in the wake of Trump’s inauguration Friday.
“I think he’s inspired us women to get involved,” said the group’s organizer, Debbie Ethington, 58, of Burlington Township. “I think we’ve been slipping for a long time. This is bringing us together.”
Susan Ulmer, 54, of Bordentown, said she and her friends do not usually protest.
“I’ve never been to a march before,” she said. “I never thought I would be part of something like this. I feel like a man on a battlefield.”
Ulmer said she sees “a shift to negativity” with Trump and that she needed to speak out for her young nieces and nephews, who are minorities.
Ethington and Ulmer were among 53 people on a chartered bus, one of at least 300 that ferried people from the Garden State to Washington.
“It was like a convoy,” Ulmer said. “I felt humbled to be in the company of such magnificent people.”
NJ Advance Media staff writers Marisa Iati, Brent Johnson, Susan K. Livio, and Ted Sherman contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press also was used.