By Anne H. Oman
Photos by Lea Gallardo
January 23, 2017 1:00 a.m.
At 10 o’clock Saturday morning, several hundred – some say more than a thousand – women, men and children are gathered in Central Park, near the American Legion fireplace. On the sidewalk, several uniformed Fernandina Beach policemen and yellow-vested auxiliary police watch the crowd.
Are they expecting any trouble, any hecklers?
“It’s a fluid situation,” replies one. “We’re treating it like any normal parade.”
On the podium, organizer Sheila Cocchi thanks the police department for their help, to loud cheers from the exuberant crowd.
“I love the enthusiasm, “says Ms. Cocchi, and the parade begins. Out of the park and down South 11 Street, they walk, or are pushed in wheelchairs and strollers. A few ride bicycles or tricycles – and a toddler is pulled in a little red wagon. Some carry babies or lead four-legged friends – Golden Retrievers, Labradoodles, sheep dogs, and canines of indeterminate lineage. They wear tie-dyed rainbow tee shirts, tank tops, clerical collars, Old Navy sweatshirts. Many are clad in the official Fernandina “sister March” tee-shirt, with the legend “Women’s Rights are Human Rights,” which was designed by local graphic artist Hope Cannon and sold at cost. There are caps in a stars-and-stripes motif, and one woman sports a feathery crown in two shades of pink.
I had a feather boa,” she explains, “and I just attached it to a baseball cap for the march.”
Others, despite the bright sunshine and temperatures that reached 77 degrees by morning’s end, wear the knitted cerise “pussyhats” that were created for the main Women’s Solidarity March in Washington, DC. The hats are a sly reference to what is perceived as the newly elected President’s misogyny and to a taped 2005 interview of the future President that was revealed during the campaign. And almost everyone carries a home-made placard or banner:
“A Woman’s Place Is In The Resistance.”
“Not Going Back”
“Love Trumps Hate”
“Equal Work, Equal Pay”
“Make America Kind Again.”
“America is Us.”
“Nasty Women Make History”
Some of the wording follows the approved script issued by the official march in Washington, and local organizer Christine Platel had cautioned participants here against any partisan statements. But a few skate close to the edge:
“Our Rights Are Not Up for Grabs – Neither Are We.”
“Grab Him By The Putin.”
The marchers turn onto Ash Street, parading around the venerable oak saved by Kate Bailey, singing “We Shall Overcome.”
“We’re marching for those children,” one woman calls to a family watching from the sidewalk.
Three little girls carry a banner that reads “Support Planned Parenthood,” and diners on the terrace of the Patio restaurant wave to the marchers.
As the group turns north onto South Second Street, a ringing chant is heard:
“What do we want?”
“When do we want them?”
“For Our Daughters And Granddaughters,” reads one sign.
“I Am Mother, Sister, Daughter, Warrior.”
“March Forward, Not Back.”
“What Would Your Mother Say?”
Some signs support a catchall of causes:
“Yes To A Free Press”
“Protect Our Reproductive Rights”
“Climate Change is Real.”
“Free Health Care for All”
“Art Saves Lives – Don’t Kill the NEA.”
“The National Endowment for the Arts is one of the things Trump wants to cut,” says Grace Peters, and artist and calligrapher who is visiting from Massachusetts and who painted the beautifully lettered placard. “He has all these conservative think tanks writing papers about it.”
The right-tilting Heritage Foundation has called the NEA “welfare for cultural elitists.”
As the parade turns onto Centre Street chanting “They go low, we go high,” the police spot a scantily-clad young woman and pull her out of line.
“We just talked to her and made sure she wasn’t in violation,” a police officer explains later. She was deemed not in violation as her nipples were covered, and she was not detained. This was the sole untoward incident of the day, although marchers reported encountering a man with a “Jesus Saves” placard who told them he was supporting the unborn.
But there were no arrests and, despite vague threats on the internet, no heckling. Onlookers were either supportive or passive, and the mood was happy and positive rather than combative.
A fashionably dressed woman parades shaded by a parasol, and a weary-looking woman bears a sign fashioned from a packing carton, which reads “Let Us Not Grow Weary.” A group of African-Americans carry a banner identifying their church. Another group carries the standard of the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality. A one-legged woman in a motorized wheelchair rolls by the Amelia Island Coffee Shop and past the pocket park, when a three-piece band that is not part of the event smiles and waves to the marchers.
Fernandina Beach Police Chief estimated the crowd at 700 to 800, but other observers said there were as many as a thousand participants. Organizer Sheila Cocchi said that some 1,400 people had signed up to participate. According to Ms. Cocchi, the group raised funds to pay the $650 cost of the permit, plus extra for auxiliary police. Although most of the marchers were female, there was a significant cadre of men. At least one sign was in Spanish, and African Americans were well represented. But Jennett Baker, a healthcare advocate who had tried to recruit African Americans to participate expressed some disappointment in their turnout.
“We tried to get the word out,” she told the Fernandina Observer. “I’m glad for what’s here, but I wish there were more young African Americans – the next generation.” When the group returns to Central Park, Sister Sledge is belting out “We Are Family” over the loudspeakers, and organizer Christine Platel thanks the participants:
“It’s so overwhelming to see all of you here. It’s not ending today – it’s a movement.”
As the marchers – fired up but weary – sit on the grass or lean against trees or gather at picnic tables, Nassau County NAACP President and former Fernandina Beach City Commissioner and Vice Mayor Patricia Thompson, wearing pink pants and pink sneakers, leads them in a song:
“Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around.”
Dr. Nancy Dickson, a retired professor whose dissertation focused on early Irish women warriors, recounts her personal family history: a great grandmother who introduced women in rural Georgia to the rudiments of birth control, a suffragette grandmother, and the progress made while she was growing up. Roe v. Wade, the first woman Supreme Court justice, the first woman Presidential candidate…
The crowd cheers at that, but Dr. Dickson adds:
“But still the Equal Rights Amendment has not passed. And still women make only 80 percent of what men make.”
She ends by passing a colorful tissue-paper torch to her granddaughter.
Jennett Baker, a retired major in the US Army Reserves who served in the first Gulf War, talks to the crowd about people who say they want their country back.
“I want to ask them: how far back do you want to go? And whom do you want to take it from? Muslims? Gays? Do you want to turn it back before Brown v. the Board of Education? To the time of lynching and police dog attacks on civil rights protestors? Before women were allowed to control their own bodies? When homosexuals had to hide their sexual orientation? Is that the country you want?”
The crowd roars: “No!”, and Ms. Baker ends with a quote from the late U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan: “If the society today allows wrongs to go unchallenged, the impression is created that those wrong have the approval of the majority.”
Theresa Sparks, a clinical psychologist who organized a service at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church for the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre, speaks on behalf of the LGTBQ community.
“I am a lesbian,” she tells the crowd, which cheers in response. “I’m marching for our community because we are citizens. But in Florida, we can be fired, denied housing, and denied services from businesses. And, as of today, all information protecting gay rights has been deleted from the White House website. It feels like we, ourselves, are being erased.”
News reports confirm that hours after the inauguration, the page about LGBT protections was removed from whitehouse.gov.
Ms. Sparks ends with a call to action: “Be in Jacksonville Tuesday when the city council votes on the Human Rights Ordinance.” She then rolls off the names and phone numbers of local representatives: Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, and state legislators Aaron Bean and Cord Byrd.
“They are your employees. Call them, “she urges, “and tell them they work for you.”
Editor’s Note: Fernandina’s “Sister March” has received a great deal of coverage by the Fernandina Observer and rightly so. Unless someone tells us differently, we believe this demonstration attracted the largest group of marchers in our city’s history. The last demonstration that we recall was when a smaller group of citizens took to the streets to protest a proposed “Super WalMart” for the island.
Our thanks to Anne H. Oman for her coverage of this important event. Anne relocated to Fernandina Beach from Washington, D.C. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Times, Family Circle and other publications. We thank Anne for her contributions to the Fernandina Observer.
We also thank Lea Gallardo for photographing this historic event. Lea developed a love of photography at a very young age. Not until photography and computers “joined forces” did Lea become completely involved in photography. For the past 7 years, Lea has shared her talents with the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival. After 47 years in the Washington, D.C. area where Lea owned a group of stores, she became a full time resident of Fernandina.