Women's March: Pittsfield sister event doubles expected numbers

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Washington, D.C. may have been the locus of Saturday's global Women's March, but the force was strong here on the Berkshire County homefront.

Carol Phinney Estes and her friend, Sandy Rich, decided to take a stand in the town of Adams, the birthplace of women's suffrage leader, Susan B. Anthony.

"In her day," Estes said, referring to Anthony, "women were not to do public speaking and they did not stand out with signs."

So they rebelled with the support of some fellow men, who agreed that their female peers deserved the same inalienable rights outlined for them in the Declaration of Independence. Estes exercised her right with a sign advocating for victims of sexual assault and violence; her steely blue eyes expressing both anger and sorrow as she recounted the deaths of her sister and grandniece, both at the hands of agitated men. She said she and her friends have also been victims of abuse, perpetrated by both men and other women.

"These are everybody's issues. We are all interconnected. We need to stop the war between sexes and create peace," Estes said."The solution is in speaking about it. People need to feel comfortable doing so. We need community conversations where we talk about the hard stuff and do it together, with strength and unity."

While millions around the world participated in Saturday's rallies, others chose, for various reasons, to sit it out.

In a Facebook post seeking comments about whether people would be demonstrating, Krista Miller posted, "Proud woman SUPPORTING our president and the peaceful transition of power. Cannot believe the number of people routing against the pilot of our plane."

Susan Elias Donnelly wrote, "I think Trump should get a chance to see what he can do before people start protesting. Peaceful protesting is one thing but the violence is unacceptable."

While there were reports of violence and vandalism and clashes between protesters and police in Washington during Friday's inauguration, Saturday's events in the Berkshires remained calm.

In Pittsfield, hundreds of people were standing in line, at times upward of an hour, outside of The Colonial Theatre, waiting to participate in the Women's March on Washington-Massachusetts Berkshire County event, one of the 673 official Sister Marches of the grassroots Women's March on Washington movement. By the end of that four-hour event, which started at 10 a.m., the official clicker tally was 1,640 people, double what had been expected.

"We tried to get everyone in and out as soon as we could but the people waiting were really respectful and patient out there," said House Manager Kathy Jo Grover.

The people included folks of all ages, women, children and men. While there were a few people standing outside the theater with pro-Trump signs, most people wore buttons, badges and stickers, with slogans like "Healthcare not warfare," "Justice or bust," "Equality for all," among other phrases. The theater also wasn't short on the presence of women wearing the now iconic hats knitted with pink cat ears, or pussyhats, an emblem of another grassroots movement to reclaim some of the vulgar statements now President Donald Trump used to describe grabbing women's genitals.

Asked if she and her family felt connected to the even larger events happening in the nation's capital and other major cities, Sloane Torres of Williamstown said, "Absolutely. People are protesting all over the world. This isn't just about the U.S., the entire globe is standing up and saying we need rights for all."

At her side were her husband, Gerry, and their two children, Oliver, 8, and Arden, 4.

The Torreses said their children have been participating in civil rights rallies and demonstrations since they were infants. Each family member made their own signs to express their hopes and viewpoints. Sloane's had a message about zero tolerance for hate; Arden's read, "Don't be mean." Oliver's read, "We want peace."

Gerry Torres said he had some words not fit for print for the new president; he also said, "It's time to say 'Enough with the hate and racism.'"

Asked about why he chose to carry a message of peace, young Oliver said, "Right now, hate is spreading around and I think it's spreading around more than it should. Peace is good."

Other signs and opportunities for activism and community service could be found throughout the theater lobby. Nancy Bissell of Dalton, and her son, Brian Bissell of Pittsfield took photos of a display of protest signs. Nancy herself wore a button that read "Nasty Woman," given to her by her granddaughter, Sam Bissell, who was at the Washington, D.C. march with other friends and relatives. That message is also being reclaimed through a women's empowerment movement after President Trump referred to Hillary Rodham Clinton as a "nasty woman" in an aside during a debate.

"My granddaughter asked me if I knew what it meant and I said, 'of course, I've been reading up on it,'" the grandmother said.

Nancy Bissell said it wasn't until now in her life that she's decided to become more engaged with women's rights. "We need to work hard to keep the rights we do have because so many before have worked hard to ensure we had them. I think we've been complacent. And I know we have more freedom when we work together for it."

Her son, Brian, said seeing Saturday's displays of global solidarity "feels very seminal." He said his daughter, Sam, who carried the sign, "Our liberation is bound in each other," has been teaching him concepts like intersectional feminism — the understanding of how not only gender, but a woman's race, class, religion, sexual orientation and other forms of identity, affect the degree to which she might experience discrimination, oppression and bigotry.

"That wasn't part of my vocabulary two weeks ago," Brian said.

Also in The Colonial lobby were stations where people could have their picture taken with oaths to defend the tenets of the U.S. Constitution and the Four Freedoms defined by Franklin D. Roosevelt. A wall of sticky notes grew over the course of the event, held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. People were given the prompt of "I will ___" and asked to fill in the blank with a positive action they can commit to. Responses ranged from "help educate" to "resist" to "stand up for others."

Several pages of signatures were collected to get involved with supporting organizations like Tapestry Health, which includes family planning and reproductive health services; Rainbow Seniors of Berkshire County, a group that supports older adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender; and The Four Freedoms Coalition, which recently drew some 2,000 people to downtown Pittsfield on Jan. 7, to also support human freedoms. Other national, state and regional organizations were also on hand to share their views and talk to people about rights, laws and lobbying.

Inside the theater itself, all three levels of seating were filled with people who watched the "Democracy Now!" live coverage from the Washington, D.C. march.

Lee High School students Rachel Belanger, Erin Cook and Brady Cook, said they found the gathering inspiring and "motivating."

"We need this community, we need this support," Erin Cook said. She mentioned how, after the three of them attended the Four Freedoms March and Rally, she and a classmate in the National Honor Society decided to redirect their community project and are currently organizing a march for the town of Lee.

The Berkshires Women's March event concluded with a crowd-pleasing performance, "Rock the Constitution," curated and produced by Jayne Benjulian. Benjulian co-organized Saturday's event with volunteers Kristen van Ginhoven, Lynn Festa and Mary Lincoln.

She worked with about a dozen other local actors and writers to create and perform a staged reading of monologues responding to the election and cultural climate. Sections of the U.S. Constitution served as interludes between pieces, designed to give the document a deeper meaning for audience members.

The process led Benjulian to feel more empowered.

"American," she said in the performance introduction. "Perhaps I inhabit that identity more deeply than ever before."

She continued explaining her exploration of the Federalist paper No. 68 by Alexander Hamilton concerning the Electoral College, and how she read the Constitution "slowly and let the words pop and resonate."

"I want to know what I'm talking about when I argue for my rights and the rights of others," Benjulian said.

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