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Women's March surpassed 20,000 protesters, making it largest in St. Petersburg history

Participants raise their arms as they complete the demonstration route during the Women's Solidarity March St. Pete in downtown St. Petersburg on Saturday, January 21, 2017. St. Pete Police said 20,000 participated in the event, which made this sister event to the Women's March on Washington the largest demonstration ever held in St. Petersburg. ANDRES LEIVA | Times

Published Jan. 22, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — A women's rights protest of more than 20,000 people swamped downtown streets Saturday in a rejection of President Donald Trump and his policies, shattering the record as the largest demonstration in city history.

Beginning in Demens Landing park at noon with an hour of speakers rallying the crowd from a stage, the mass of protesters snaked up Bayshore Drive and looped back down Beach Drive boasting homemade signs, chanting and cheering in a 1.3-mile loop that ended with no arrests and no violent incidents.

Organizer Amy Weintraub said for an event that was expected at its conception to draw only hundreds, the outpouring can be seen as the inception of a new wave of activism in the region.

"This is the first step in building a movement for people in the St. Petersburg area to get involved in social justice issues at a critical time," Weintraub said.

It was one of hundreds of sister protests held across the country to coincide with the Women's March on Washington the day after Trump's inauguration. At the center of the movement is a stand for women's social and reproductive rights, but the message has also encompassed an urgency to advocate for immigrants, minorities, LGBTQ people, environmental protection and other causes.

RELATED: In center of Women's March on Washington, a St. Pete organizer.

Hollie Davis, 38, helped her 7-year-old son, Jackson, paint a poster for the march reading "Boys will be boys who respect girls," in response to disparaging comments Trump was recorded saying in 2005, including grabbing women's genitals without their consent.

"The fact we still have to march concerns me," Davis said. "We still have to fight for women's rights, protection from sexual assault, equal pay, public education."

Although he became a U.S. citizen in 1987 and served in the Army, Arturo Gonzalez, born in Ecuador, worries a wave of xenophobic rhetoric heightened during the presidential campaign will evolve into a citizen-versus-citizen hostility.

He said he is working to prevent laws like controversial legislation in Arizona that allowed police to demand papers of people suspected of living in the country illegally from taking new life.

RELATED: Hundreds of thousands of women protest against Trump.

"We cannot give credit to those who think it's okay to discriminate against a group of people," Gonzalez said. "This is letting America know we will not sit for discrimination and hate."

Amid the record-size protest — St. Petersburg police provided the crowd estimate — few counter-protesters appeared.

The streets were not originally planned to be closed to traffic, and protesters were instructed to stay on sidewalks. But after police realized the immensity of the attendance Saturday morning, officers siphoned traffic off some roads, and protesters filled the streets.

Of previous protests in St. Petersburg, the largest was in 2015 when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers organized a march of 1,500 to support farmworkers.

Mayor Rick Kriseman declared Saturday as Women's Rights Day in St. Petersburg and assured the crowd that the city was a safe place amid a fractured America.

"If you're worried about what comes next in this country, you should know St. Petersburg is your shelter and we have your back," he said. "We're all in this together."

Still, the optics of the event reflected the severity of concerns.

Some of the signs hoisted in the air read: "Trump: racist and rapist," "Get your hands off my body" and "Make rapists afraid again."

Karen Lieberman, 66, of Awake Pinellas, an activist networking group, stood on the stage before the march and described a time in the United States during World War II when America rejected Jews fleeing concentration camps and Nazi rule in Europe.

"Does that sound familiar?" she asked.

Pressing on a theme constant through the Women's March events, Lieberman said Americans should not allow the Trump administration to mimic Nazi tactics by establishing a registry based on religion, which during the campaign he proposed for Muslims in the United States.

Women's March St. Petersburg volunteers like state Sen. Darryl Rouson said activists must continue their causes at city council meetings and by participating in local government. He said they must call, write and visit their state and U.S. representatives because "it does make a difference."

"The first thing we do is we get excited, we rally, then we must transform that excitement into action," Rouson said. "When these masses gather and express themselves we (elected officials) pay attention."

But as cathartic as the unity of thousands rallying for social justice felt Saturday, Jasmine Jones, 36, of Tampa, wasn't sure if it guaranteed hope for the future.

She said she realizes she has taken for granted the victories she thought were irreversible, like the passage of President Barack Obama's signature Affordable Care Act and marriage equality.

"My entire life I've been at risk," Jones said. "I'm a black lesbian. I'm a public school teacher. Everything I represent seems to be in peril."

Kaukeb Malik, 38, a Muslim from Tampa, saw it differently.

While minority groups may have fought for their causes independently before, a new sense of urgency has brought women, men, people of all gender identities and social causes together with the same goals.

"We are all facing finally the same issues," she said. "Look at us. We are all together here. We are all fighting together now."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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