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Sonoma Plaza overflows with Women’s March supporters

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What locals are calling the biggest rally in memory gathered in the Sonoma Plaza on Saturday, then spilled out into the streets, at one point blocking traffic on Napa Street and generating a police call-out. But that didn’t dim the positive glow from the rally, the local “Sister March” of the national Women’s March on Washington.

“We were just floored by how many people showed up. Like, who knew?” said Aiko-Sophie Ezaki, one of the organizers of the local event, along with Nancy Dito, Kathy Aanestad, Joan Howarth and others.

The event formally began about 11 a.m. with remarks from Pastor Curran Reichert of the First Congregational Church on West Spain. A relative newcomer to Sonoma – she worked for 10 years in Tiburon – Reichert had prepared some comments in anticipation of a crowd of about 500.

“We are here because we believe we are stronger together, because we will not let cynicism rule the day, because we want to be counted with our sisters who are marching on Washington today,” she shouted to the largely – though far from entirely – female gathering.

“Unfortunately, with only one bull horn it became impossible to hear over the gathering crowds,” said Reichert later. “We ultimately abandoned the script and started marching!”

The original intention was to gather in front of City Hall at 11 a.m., then march twice around the Plaza and disband by 12:30. That was fulfilled, more or less, but the crowd was much larger and getting around the Plaza took much longer than anticipated.

“Usually you’re lucky to get 10 or 20 people to stand out there with their signs,” said Gary Saperstein, of Out in the Vineyard and a board member of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau. “But to have thousands of people out there was just an amazing feeling. And the energy and electricity in the air, it was like a bonding experience.”

Shortly after noon, a group of teens from the high school came marching up Broadway to join the Plaza demonstration it caused a temporary traffic tie-up. A Sonoma County police scanner dispatch at 12:05 p.m. announced, “Crowd control needed. There are 2,000 people blocking the crosswalk in downtown Sonoma.”

“I noticed all these people were in the street. I thought, “Oh no! I had promised the police we wouldn’t do this!” said Ezaki. “But there were so many people at that point, there was no way anyone could control it.” She said contacting the school-aged kids had been frustrating, and she was never sure if or how many would participate. “They had been the hardest group for me to engage and connect with, and to see them show up with their families was really sweet. It was amazing.”

Sgt. Jason Craver of the Sonoma Police said there were a couple men in particular who seemed to lead the group into the street, but once most of the demonstrators undersood that this was not part of the march’s plan, they dispersed. He also disputed the widely-reported crowd estimate of 3,000, calling it too high. “I’d say the crowd was maybe 1,500 or 2,000 people,” Craver told the Index-Tribune. “Probably if you took the entire group from a Tuesday Night Market and put them out there and marched them around, you’d probably have about the same amount of people.”

Ezaki described the police presence as “patient,” and City Manager Cathy Capriola told the Index-Tribune that “city staff did not detect any significant damage to the Plaza and no significant trash.” There were no arrests and few confrontations, aside from the occasional drive-by profanity from cars passing by the rally.

Drive-by profanity was something that the pro-Trump rally also had to contend with the day before, on Inauguration Day, according to Elizabeth MacDonald. She and perhaps a dozen others gathered at the El Camino Real bell on Napa Street at Broadway, with two banners to “show support for the new President.”

It was not a large gathering, but in liberal-leaning Sonoma – which went for Hillary Clinton by large numbers in the November election – their presence was notable. MacDonald had asked for a positive demonstration, and the red, white and blue banners they displayed carried the simple message, “Trump – the 45th President – Make America Great Again.”

Cars coming up Broadway and crossing in front of the Plaza on Napa Street honked and their drivers waved, giving a thumb up or other gestures, toward the group. Some shouted words of support, others of denial or insult. MacDonald would simply reply, “He’s our President.”

Though she did say she was “disheartened” by some of the language the protest evoked, she summarized her purpose in a positive light. “I hope our group showed that you can stand up for what you believe in and not shut down opposing views.”

But the pro-Trump rally was dwarfed by the numbers that showed up the next day. Estimates of the Saturday Women’s March crowd rose as high as 3,000 – some in the march put the number even higher – making it a larger gathering than the biggest Tuesday Night Market or Sonoma City Party.

Spotted among the cheerful marchers were Sonoma Mayor Rachel Hundley, Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti, Rebecca Hermosillo from Congressman Mike Thompson’s office, Sonoma County Board of Education President Gina Cuclis, Sonoma Valley Unified School District Superintendent Louann Carlomagno, Sonoma school board member Nicole Ducarroz among others.

“It was a total blast,” said Reichert. “I just wish we’d had a better speaker system!” But the voices of the Sonoma 3,000 demonstrators – and at least 5,000 in Santa Rosa, 100,000 in San Francisco, and hundreds of thousands of other similar demonstrations across the country – were, if nothing else, too numerous to ignore.

“To see this going on, it feels like there’s a movement,” said Saperstein, who said Saturday’s rally reminded him of his activist days in New York during the 1980s. “It started that day, and now it needs to build. This movement is not going to be silenced, we’re going to be watching and listening to what’s going on.”

Ezaki admitted that “next steps” might be harder than the march itself. “I think that the biggest challenge going forward is how to keep people engaged.” She said she and others were working on ways to send messages about issues of importance to the community to the area’s elected officials, most of whom sent their representatives to the rally.

In a statement issued on Monday, Rep. Mike Thompson said, “Women across the world took to the streets this weekend in defense of their rights. To see the crowds in our district and across the country was to witness the real power of democracy.”

Lorna Sheridan contributed to this report. Contact Christian at Christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.