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  1. Florida Politics

From Facebook to thousands: St. Peterburg's women's march quickly gained momentum

Suzanne Benton, 80, inadvertently founded the St. Petersburg march for wome's and human rights when she called for a local counterpart to the national march on the Women's March on Washington Facebook page. She is a longtime activist and artist. [Courtesy of Suzanne Benton]
Published Jan. 20, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — It started with a Facebook post in mid-December. Days later, a handful of activists were brainstorming in 80-year-old Suzanne Benton's living room. Now it has the potential to be the largest protest in city history.

When a group of strangers first started organizing a local protest to coincide with the Women's March on Washington on Saturday — a massive demonstration set to take place in the nation's capitol the day after President Trump's inauguration — they weren't expecting more than a few hundred people.

"We thought at that time it would be perfectly fine if we didn't get a stage at all and just pulled a pick-up truck and someone stood in the bed of it and talked into a microphone," said Amy Weintraub, who serves on the march's steering committee.

But then attendance at the organizational meetings grew by the dozens. By Friday, more than 17,000 people had registered to attend the St. Petersburg march for women's and human rights set to start at noon at Demens Landing Park.

If even a fifth of the RSVPs actually show up, it will far surpass the city's past protests. The largest was in 2015, according to police, when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers organized a march of 1,500 in support of farmworkers. In November, an anti-Trump protest brought 800 to 1,000 marchers to downtown days after the election.

Benton inadvertently founded the St. Pete event in December she called for a local counterpart to the national march on the Women's March on Washington Facebook page.

"Whatever gains we have made are under threat, and it's intolerable," she said. "We have to educate people. Women have been oppressed for millennia. It's up to the women to move us forward."

The St. Petersburg march is one of 18 sister events in Florida planned to coincide with the national event in Washington, where more than 200,000 are expected to protest the new administration and its policies.

Benton said Trump's disposition, from bragging about grabbing women's genitals without their consent to favoring Republican-led plans to defund Planned Parenthood's health services for women, is no different from the misogyny she combated as a "first wave feminist" fighting for equal rights decades ago. Trump apologized for those boasts, which were recorded in 2005, but has also denied ever committing such acts.

Activism comes naturally to Benton. She marched with thousands of women on Aug. 26, 1970 down Fifth Avenue in New York City to protest for equal rights in the workplace, politics and in marriage. As a lifelong artist, her masks and performance art told the story of the feminist movement in more than a dozen countries in the 70s and 80s.

Going forward, steering committee member Suzanne Young, 32, said the group's goal is to continue their activism well beyond Saturday's march.

Young said organizers will be educating people on how to get involved in local politics, how to contact elected officials so they can be heard on proposed legislation, and how to support advocacy organizations.

The women who organized the St. Petersburg march all share concerns about the Trump's administration's stances on issues ranging from women's reproductive rights to racism to the environment. But Young said activists must also work as a cohesive unit to enact change.

"There's been that criticism of these progressive movements that we're kind of fractured," she said, "and I think this is an opportunity to come together and work together and be undivided in our resistance and support people who feel threatened and marginalized."

Weintraub said that unified momentum is already showing.

One priority of the sister marches is to show that activism is not just centered in the nation's capitol outside the White House, but in cities and neighborhoods all across the country.

The St. Petersburg steering committee had to overhaul its logistical planning in recent weeks when their expectations grew from hundreds of marchers to possibly thousands. The group had to reserve more portable toilets, rent a stage instead of using a pick-up truck and haul in a DJ and sound system to spread their message in the park.

She said that's just the beginning.

"These sister marches, as well as the big national march, are providing that outlet at the very moment people need it," Weintraub said. "The fact that it's a national event and we don't have to travel to D.C. to feel a part of it, that's really captured people's imagination that they can have a voice toward Washington."

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

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