Arkansas women and men came from all over the state to take part in this year’s March On the Polls in front of the capitol in Little Rock, Saturday.
The event was sponsored by March On, Arkansas!, a new grassroots organization that, “is committed to dismantling systems of oppression by amplifying the message of groups practicing non-violent resistance and by promoting Arkansas candidates who support a pro-women platform and are also underrepresented individuals,” according to the group’s Facebook page. The group is lead by congressional hopeful, Gwen Combs.
Many of this year’s women political candidates and current legislators participated in the march, and several addressed the waiting crowd.
The marchers heard from political hopefuls such as Gwen Combs, running for Arkansas’s 2nd Congressional District; Hayden Shamel, running for Arkansas’s 4th Congressional District; and Maureen Skinner, running for
Arkansas State Senate 35th District.
Two sitting members of Arkansas’s legislature also spoke before the march. Arkansas Senator Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock , and Arkansas Representative Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff. Both women will be defending their seats in Arkansas’s legislature later this year.
“I feel a rational exuberance,” Sen. Elliot said, when asked how she felt about the growing crowd waiting to march. “I am so pleased with the … joy of people coming together and believing and knowing that they can do something … it gives me even more to be optimistic about because women have reached a point where they just aren’t going to take it anymore!”
From the corner of South Pulaski Street and West Capitol Avenue, the participants began the three-block march, ending at the capitol building steps.
On the steps of the capitol, the marchers kicked off the 8th Annual Rally for Women’s Reproductive Rights, hosted by the Arkansas Coalition for Reproductive Justice. The crowd heard from several women speakers who touched on subjects such as sexual assault, saving the public school system, and immigration/DACA issues just to name a few.
Kati McFarland, Healthcare and Disability activist and sexual assault survivor, was the first speaker during the rally. McFarland made it a point to mention that with her disability, without the Affordable Care Act, she would be dead, and without medicare she would, “literally starve to death.”
According to the rally’s host, Kendra Johnson of the Human Rights Campaign, McFarland lives with a severe form of an incurable genetic disorder. McFarland spoke about her own sexual assault and the rights of women in need of reproductive healthcare initiatives.
“Last month, I became part of the 80-plus-percent of disabled people who will face rape or sexual assault in their lifetime,” McFarland said.“Suddenly healthcare for me wasn’t just a matter of survival, it was a matter of reclaiming my body as my own. Healthcare was a matter of protecting myself from the consequences of this horrible thing that someone had done to me.”
Perhaps the most profound moment during the rally was when speaker, DREAMer Diana Pancheco, came to the lectern to recount her childhood as an undocumented immigrant in the United States and the benefits she’s received from being a DACA recipient. Pancheco recounted that her father left her in the care of friends who brought her to America and enrolled her in an American school. She is now a 20-year-old student at Philander Smith College, working three jobs and earning her degree in Business Administration and Hospitality Management, as a result of being a recipient of DACA.
“Thanks to the family with whom she lives now, she was able to finish High School, and now [she’s] in college preparing to fulfill her dreams… That baby girl from Mexico is standing before you today sharing her story. I am a Dreamer.”
The rally ended with remarks from keynote speaker, Dr. Anika Whitfield of the organization Save Our Schools. She began her speech encouraging members of Save Our Schools, women and children of color, anyone with disabilities, Dreamers, and people from the LGBTQ community to join her up on her platform.
“This is not just my voice, this is OUR voice,” Whitfield said, as people joined her in front of the crowd.
Whitfield outlined the tragedy, according to SOS, of public schools closing in Little Rock and negatively affecting the children who are misplaced by those school closings. She expressed to the crowd the importance of people stepping up to reclaim and save our schools and communities.
“The time is now!” Whitfield said.“We are the people to do it! We don’t need to wait on anybody else, there’s not a Superman or a Superwoman that we need to be looking for. We are the they.”
Throughout the day’s events, all speakers spoke to empower women to find their voices and to use them to fight being disregarded.
“This is a force that has been dormant too long, and now they’ve become a force to be reckoned with,” Sen. Elliot said. “I am so glad to be a part of what we’re doing. I’m so glad so many women here have discovered that they have a voice.”
According to promoters, the event had approximately 3,000 attendants. Even though the number of marchers in Little Rock this weekend were less than half of last year’s historical Women’s March, Gwen Combs was remained optimistic.
“For that many people to show up and stand in solidarity a year in, shows there is still tremendous energy,” Combs said.
According to Combs, March On, Arkansas! is a subsidiary of March On!, a nationwide movement determined to encourage more women to sign up to vote and become involved in their local politics. Combs said approximately 22,000 women have come forth in the last year to run for office. Prior to the marches, the numbers each year were generally under 1,000.
March On, Arkansas! currently has six members. Combs is the lead organizer for this movement and has said that they are, “just some people trying to do some good.”