AUGUSTA — Thousands of people converged Saturday behind the Maine State House for causes as big as civil rights and as individual as wanting to be heard.
The Women’s March on Maine, one of hundreds of events related to the Women’s March on Washington a day after the inauguration Friday of President Donald Trump, drew people from varied backgrounds from across the state for two hours to hear a slate of speakers, chant, show support and bang on drums.
“This is beyond my wildest dreams,” said Bekah McIntyre, one of the event’s six organizers, as the event wrapped up at noon.
While the rally was promoted as an effort to support women’s rights, civil liberties and protection of the planet, and not an anti-Trump rally, Trump was the reason that many turned out and the reason that many carried signs.
For Augusta resident Julie Hopkins, her reason for attending was clear.
“This man who is our president represents everything I thought American is against,” Hopkins said, weighing her words. She said Trump promotes violence and has boasted about sexually assaulting women.
“We have to stand up and get together now and oppose everything he stands for, which is racism, sexism and bigotry. We have to stop it now by speaking out, contacting our representatives, and organizing and showing up to rallies and marches. As women, we have to stand up against what he has said and done.”
Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, kicked off the slate of speakers and offered the crowd three principles for those at the rally to carry forward — courage, solidarity and remembering that power lies in the hands of people.
“Today’s march in Maine started with a group of women, none of who hold elected office, none of whose names are in the paper every day,” Bellows said. “You may or may not know Alica (Barnes), Ariel (Linet), Bekah, Jessica (Gorton), Meaghan (Carlson) or Stephanie (Harmon McLain). What makes them special is that they made the decision to act. All great movements in this country and indeed around the world started with the people, were nourished by the people and succeeded because of the people.”
All of the movements that worked for social change began with regular people and did not rely on celebrities or politicians, she said.
“We cannot wait for one perfect leader to save our future,” she said. “Saving our future starts with us.”
Joining Bellows at the microphone were Maureen Drouin, executive director of Maine Conservation Voters; Jacie Leopold, a transgender woman and activist for equal rights; Fatuma Hussein, immigrant and founder of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine; Julie Kahrl, founder of Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights; June Sapiel, water protector and member of the Penobscot Nation; and Rep. Lois Galgay-Reckitt, D-South Portland, co-founder of the Human Rights Campaign fund and the Maine Coalition for Human Rights, among other groups.
Along with the speakers, representatives from groups such as Planned Parenthood had information tables at the rally and volunteers in the crowd signing up supporters and volunteers.
Grayson Lookner traveled to Augusta from Portland as a volunteer for the Maine Democratic Party to sign people up for membership in the party.
As a supporter of Bernie Sanders, the main challenger to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, Lookner said he was excited to keep the progressive energy of Sanders’ campaign alive.
He said he’s worried that Americans will lose voting rights and free speech rights.
“The rights of free assembly are enshrined in the First Amendment. I would hate to see a right wing Supreme Court take away those rights.”
Concerns represented at the rally were wide-ranging. Some people came out to support immigrants. Others came in support of science and the climate. One woman carried a sign in support of banning mandatory vaccinations.
Lovye Oesterlin came on a bus of 48 people from Topsham and wore a hand-lettered “Women’s rights are human rights” sign.
Oesterlin’s two daughters traveled to Washington, D.C., to take part in the national march. While she herself had the means to go, she didn’t have a leg that would stand up for all the standing up that march would require.
Her chief concern is preserving the Affordable Care Act, which requires Americans to have health insurance and extends that insurance to people who traditionally could not get insurance, including low- to moderate-income people and those with pre-existing conditions.
“I hope that we can make enough of a statement that we might change Susan Collins,” she said, referring to Maine’s senior U.S. senator, who is a Republican and who supports the act’s repeal.
If the act is repealed, people who lose insurance coverage will seek medical treatment in emergency rooms, Oesterlin said, adding, “One way or the other, we’re going to pay for it.”
Attendance estimates varied widely among organizers and onlookers. Organizers said earlier in the week that perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 would attend, based on indications from the Facebook event page and Eventbrite, an online event planning platform where people could register their intent to attend.
Eliza Townsend, executive director for the Maine Women’s Lobby who served as emcee for the event, said it was the largest crowd she’s seen at a rally at the Capitol.
Organizers floated estimates as high as 7,000 to 10,000.
The Capitol Police put the number at 5,000, but said that’s an estimate.
Regardless how big the number was, the rally brought some logistical problems.
The Maine Turnpike Authority reported Saturday morning that traffic heading north on Interstate 95 into Augusta had backed up to the toll plaza in West Gardiner.
Tom and Cherylyn Brubaker were caught in that traffic and wondered if they would arrive in time.
The Brubakers both wore pink “pussy” hats with cat ears, a symbolic reference to a controversial Trump remark about women that was revealed during the presidential campaign, that Cherylyn Brubaker had knitted; they were two of the six she had made. The other four went to her son’s girlfriend and three friends who headed to the Women’s March on Washington.
Cherylyn Brubaker said she’s concerned because she thinks the United States is on a scary path. She’s particularly concerned about health care and the military, because she has two sons, ages 29 and 31.
“For me,” Tom Brubaker said, “as much as I dislike (Trump), he is the president. This is a disagreement we have at home. He is the president, we have transitioned and he is in charge. For me, it’s about the preamble to the Constitution, ‘We the people.’ It says ‘in order to form a more perfect union,’ and I can’t disagree more with his vision of a more perfect union.”
Hopkins, who has been attending rallies recently in the Augusta area, said she was not surprised by the turnout.
“There are a lot of wonderful, good, decent caring people in the state,” she said, “and I am not surprised they came.”
Jessica Lowell — 621-5632