By Melinda Shelton
Editor's note: Intern Susannah Schwartz contributed to this story.
Protesters came by the tens of thousands, from Maine to Oregon, Minnesota to Southern California, Idaho to Florida. In an unprecedented show of unity, hundreds of groups with diverse agendas crossed movement lines and joined NOW activists to march to "Fight the Right" in San Francisco.
"Let our future history say we were the freedom fighters in the ultimate liberation movement, and that we left no one behind," AIDS activist Phill Wilson said, drawing cheers of support from marchers.
With the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop, activists who have not stood together before joined hands, thrust them skyward and joined NOW President Patricia Ireland in a pledge to defeat the menacing ultra-right wing. "We're gonna raise our hands, we're gonna raise our voices, and we're gonna raise hell!" Ireland told the cheering throng at the Presidio's Crissy Field.
"The leaders in Congress and the private sector are saying: `You're struggling to keep your family together and your heads above water, but don't look up at us! Look over there at some poor person. It must be the fault of that undocumented worker from Mexico. It must be that undeserving welfare mother who's taking your tax dollars. Or maybe it's that unqualified woman or person of color who got your job through affirmative action,'" Ireland said.
"But we won't be fooled by that scapegoating. The religious, political extremists, the radical right wing will not take our rights away. We will stand together and we will stand strong to keep our rights and to move forward into the next century."
More than 850 groups ranging from labor unions to religious organizations endorsed NOW-sponsored march on April 14. Activists marched to defend affirmative action and reproductive rights, to fight against racism and bashing of immigrants, lesbians and gays and to end violence against women and the war on poor people.
Throngs of marchers sprawled along sidewalks and grassy hills, holding banners and signs with clear messages: "Wages for Housework"; "Fight the Radical Right"; "Get Your Rosaries Out of My Ovaries"; "Stop Immigrant Bashing"; "Young Feminist Mobilizing NOW"; "Deport (Gov.) Wilson"; "Affirmative Action is Better than Inaction"; "Overthrow Newt and Bob's Evil Empire"; and "Spread Love: Hug a Queer."
For 86-year-old Miriam Neiman of Sun City, Ariz., a long-time civil rights activist and NOW member, the current political climate sends a very clear call to action. "Why am I here? Desperation," Neiman said. "You read the paper. You see what's going on. It sets the teeth on edge. You can't take it, just sit down and do nothing."
San Francisco resident Jordan Rose, holding his four-year-old daughter, said he believes the best way to teach her about political issues is to expose her to a diversity of peoples and situations. "Exposure like this can easily teach somebody not to accept stereotypes they may find come at them later in life," Rose said.
Vi Huynh of Brisbane, Calif., said she attended the march "because I believe in fighting to keep affirmative action," and San Francisco resident Susan Ulrich said she came for the "coalition building."
Diversity was also evident in the slate of speakers. Pre-march speakers included Dr. Prema Mathai-Davis, national executive director of the YWCA; Paul Rockwell of Angry White Guys for Affirmative Action; high school activist Rachel Bauchman; and feminist leader Gloria Steinem.
"An extremist ultra-right wing has taken control of one of the two major centrist political parties," Steinem said, in a widely quoted remark. "They are racist; they are sexist; they are homophobic. But they are useful in a way because they help make our coalition because they are for everything we are against."
After marching the 1.7-mile route along the San Francisco Bay waterfront, participants were welcomed to the afternoon rally by San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who had proclaimed April 14 "March to Fight the Right Day" in the city.
Mary Chung, president of the National Asian Women's Health Organization, challenged march participants to continue their fight for rights for all people. "Like so many people, Asian Americans suffer from ill health care, poor education, discrimination in education and jobs," Chung said. "Let us challenge this attacks against us all and demonstrate our strength and unity."
Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal urged the thousands of college students at the march and rally to participate in Freedom Summer '96 voter registration drives across California "because only 20 percent of young people are registered to vote" and to target the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) in November. "The CCRI is neither Californian, civil or right," Smeal said. "We must defeat this initiative that would set us back 30 years."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson of the National Rainbow Coalition brought the crowd to its feet, and amid cheers and chanting, stressed the power of the majority. "If you want racial justice and gender equality, if you want to end homophobia, if you want to end immigrant bashing, let's vote about it!" Jackson shouted. "Together, we are a majority. As a coalition of conscience and caring and hope, we are the majority and we can send Pete Wilson back to private life and Dole back to Kansas to farm one more crop. Don't let them break your spirit!"
Speakers such as Katie Quan with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, Delores Huerta with United Farm Workers of America, and Angela Sambrano with the Central American Resource Center recognized immigrant groups waving banners and yelling in their native languages. All three referred to recent immigrant bashing, not only in California but throughout the country, and blamed anti-immigrant right-wing rhetoric.
Quan, who led a successful garment workers strike in San Francisco several years ago, said that power will have to be taken from those who have wielded it for so long. "What we need is for this, the broadest coalition of justice-loving people to say: `You're not going to whip your power any more or run all over us.' We've got to form a tide, a movement that will make them share the power and share the wealth."
Clad in a bright red shirt with the message, "No Grapes," Huerta spoke of the ongoing fight to protect that health and welfare of farm workers and the need for organized opposition to racist and sexist legislation, such as the California Civil "Wrongs" Initiative. "Everyone here has to make the promise that we're going to fight racism and CCRI, and we are willing to walk into our neighborhoods and organize the vote," Huerta said.
Cuts in funding to domestic violence programs and attacks against reproductive freedom were also criticized by speakers who labeled right-wing "family values" claims hypocritical and false.
"Domestic violence is not a family value ... but is the very seed of all the violence that happens in our homes, in our schools, in our streets," said Peggie Reyna with the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. "The world belongs to everyone equally, and everyone has a right to achieve that without violence, without being raped, battered, stomped on or starved."
To make her point, Ashley Phillips with the Women's Care Clinic in San Diego held open her coat to expose the bullet-proof vest she is forced to wear as an abortion provider "because Pat Buchanan and his NRA friends have made this a garment of necessity for people who fight for women's rights.
"When one group feels they can legitimately legislate everyone's morality, we're all endangered," Phillips said. "Abortion providers in this country are the most courageous, heroic and compassionate people I have ever met. It's no longer enough to be only pro-choice -- you need to be pro-doctor and pro-clinic."
The need for organized opposition to punitive abortion rights legislation was also emphasized by Claudia Crown Ades, one of five women who stood behind President Clinton in early April when he vetoed a bill that would have banned the late-term dilation and extraction (D & X) abortion procedure. The audience grew silent when Crown-Ades described the painful decision she faced when told her severely malformed fetus had no chance for survival.
"With self-righteous indignation, hypocrites from the radical right claim they know what would have been best for my baby," she said. "They would have had me give birth to my dying child, already tortured in my womb, and had me hold him while he gasped for air. Why? Because they pretend to be more compassionate about my child than I am. [But] I stood up with my president and fought the evil right on behalf of all the women who come after me."
Drawing a connection among the issues, Wilson, founder of the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum and a person with AIDS, said he has experienced first-hand the bigotry, hatred and divisiveness extolled by the right wing. "It saddens me to think fear and hatred can win, that bigotry and divisiveness can claim victory, that evil can prevail," Wilson said. "The extreme right extols us to value families unless they are poor, headed by women, unless those families are black, brown, red or yellow, or have gay and lesbian members, or have AIDS."
As the day's activities ended, area residents Dolores Caruthers and her 10-year-old daughter, Danylle, reflected on their experiences.
"I feel really uplifted and so I'm going to go home and find something to join in," Caruthers said.
And Caruthers' message was not lost on her daughter. When Danylle was asked why she thought her mom took her to the Fight the Right March, she said, "To show me how much people care."
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