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Women’s March on Bellingham draws thousands, likely the largest in city’s recent years

Thousands of people flood downtown streets in Women's March on Bellingham

Protesters gather outside city hall and walk through the streets at the Women's March on Bellingham on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 in Bellingham. The march followed the lead of protests nationwide including cities of Seattle, Los Angeles and Washingto
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Protesters gather outside city hall and walk through the streets at the Women's March on Bellingham on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 in Bellingham. The march followed the lead of protests nationwide including cities of Seattle, Los Angeles and Washingto

A day after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, thousands took to downtown streets in what was likely the largest march or political gathering in the city’s recent history.

Bellingham police Lt. Bill Slodysko, a 34-year veteran of the force, said the Women’s March on Bellingham on Saturday had the largest turnout of any march that he could recall. BPD, he said, could not get a concrete number of attendees more specific than “thousands.”

The permitted event followed the lead of other women’s marches in the U.S. and worldwide in cities including Seattle; Los Angeles; Chicago; New York City; Washington, D.C.; and London, to bring marchers together on issues such as immigration and reproductive rights. Many local marchers said they feared Trump administration policies could be detrimental to women, people of color and the LGBTQ community.

I’m actually hopeful that events like this will bring our country together instead of separate us, and so I’m excited to be part of that.

Nancy Nelson, Women’s March on Bellingham attendee

Erica Work, a march organizer, said the event wasn’t a protest.

“We’re talking about it as a positive show of unity, everybody coming together,” she said Saturday morning outside Bellingham City Hall, the march’s start and end point.

The 200 block of Lottie Street, which passes directly in front of the building, served as ground zero for the event, the temporary home to a bank of portable toilets and tents for a variety of local organizations. Booth-holders included the Green Party of Whatcom County, the Brigid Collins Family Support Center and the Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival.

Attendees had the lot packed by about 10:30 a.m., a half hour after the event was scheduled to begin. Speakers took to a stage set up in the plaza outside City Hall to rally the group, read poems and sing.

Bellingham resident Nancy Nelson, 54, standing with friends in the center-rear of the crowd, said it was the first time she could recall attending an event of this sort.

“I am here because I think this is the right thing to do,” she said. “I’m actually hopeful that events like this will bring our country together instead of separate us, and so I’m excited to be part of that.”

The exodus from the lot began a half hour behind schedule about 11:30, with marchers turning right off Lottie and walking south on Commercial Street. It took about an hour for all the demonstrators to exit the parking lot.

Marchers represented an array of ages and spoke for different causes. Bellingham resident Janet Mueller, 62, held a sign that read “Only love can drive out hate,” alluding to a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.

“I feel like we’re going to lose a lot of our rights and what we gained with Obama,” she said in reference to reproductive rights, issues surrounding health care and the environment. “I want to send a message that we matter.”

Niall O’Murchu, 47, and Ricardo Lopez, 42, two friends from Bellingham who walked together along Commercial, also said they were concerned for the rights of women and immigrants, and wanted to march in solidarity with those groups.

“I’m concerned women are going to be charged unequally for their health care. I’m concerned about access to reproductive health,” O’Murchu said.

Veronica Saibel, 20, of Bellingham marched with friends who held a large piece of fabric that read “Femme” in block letters. Saibel wore no pants and had a uterus hand-drawn in red on the front of her underwear. She said she felt Trump did not respect women or their reproductive rights.

The parade, which filled the traffic lanes from curb to curb and sent marchers onto the sidewalks, had some gaps as demonstrators grouped together, but most sections ran solid for as long as four blocks in some places. In some spots along the route, marchers in the middle of the parade looked down alleys to see an equally packed street on the other side of the block.

Organizers had planned for a mile-long route from Commercial to Chestnut Street to Cornwall Avenue to Magnolia Street, then back on Commercial to return to City Hall. But the parade’s head met its middle section at the intersection of Commercial and Magnolia, causing a jam.

Police first diverted marchers down Champion and Unity streets, then later added the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Cornwall to the route, allowing marchers to turn left from Cornwall onto Champion, then right on Unity. Slodysko said it was the first time he could remember having to divert a route to accommodate the size of a crowd.

As demonstrators returned to the lot in front of City Hall, performers returned to the stage. Attendees milled about the lot and the section of Commercial between Lottie and Central Avenue.

The event did attract Trump supporters, but very few. One declined to provide his name. Another, Forest Machala, 22, said he had come just to see what the event was about.

“You’ve got to see the other side, even if it’s not really going to change your mind,” he said at the southwest corner of Commercial and Lottie, sporting one of the red “Make America Great Again” hats that became a symbol of Trump’s campaign. “That’s why I’m here – to figure out what it is about.”

As large as the turnout was, Slodysko said about 1:30 p.m. that the march was peaceful and without problems, aside from a lost child, who was found soon after.

Work said the event was what organizers had hoped for.

“We just hoped that people would be respectful and supportive of each other,” she said. “That’s what we’ve seen today.”

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan

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