By Leah Small
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Thirty-three demonstrators were arrested Saturday afternoon at the state Capitol during a protest against legislation they said would violate women’s reproductive rights.
At 2:17 p.m., Capitol Police officers declared that the demonstration was unlawful because many of the protesters were on the Capitol steps without a permit. Other demonstrators gathered at the bottom of the steps. The permit allowed them to assemble at the Bell Tower at the southwest corner of Capitol Square.
Police with shields held back protesters while unshielded officers performed the arrests. Those arrested were taken to the Richmond City Jail.
“It’s nice up here,” one protester on the stairs shouted to the rest of the assembly before the arrests. “The Constitution is our permit.”
More than 1,000 men and women of various ages had gathered at Capitol Square for the protest, which was organized largely through Facebook and other social media. The demonstrators chanted, “When women’s rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up and fight back!”
The gathering was a follow-up to a Feb. 20 “silent protest” called Speak Loudly with Silence. Both demonstrations targeted the wave of anti-abortion legislation coming out the General Assembly.
One such measure is a bill to grant personhood rights to an embryo at the moment of conception. After the previous protest, it was postponed for discussion until next year.
In addition, the General Assembly passed a bill requiring women to receive a transabdominal ultrasound before getting an abortion. (Initially, the measure would have required a transvaginal ultrasound.) The bill has been sent to Gov. Bob McDonnell to be signed into law.
Abby Guskind, a 49-year-old self-described “domestic engineer,” was one of the 33 arrested.
“It’s my body, my choice,” Guskind said. “I want Gov. McDonnell to stay out of my vagina … There’s better things to do like fix our economy and leave women’s choice to them.”
During the Feb. 20 demonstration, participants silently lined the walkways on the Capitol grounds and linked arms. This time protesters were anything but silent.
They used microphones and megaphones to blast slogans and other messages to the entire group. Protesters also started a short march down Broad Street before turning back toward the Capitol grounds on Franklin Street.
Twenty-five-year-old Graham Evans, one of protest group’s 10 founders, said the organization was going for a different effect than the last demonstration. The Feb. 20 silent protest in front of the General Assembly Building was meant to give legislators “a walk of shame” on the way to the Capitol.
“Right now, people are pissed,” Evans said. “And we’re chanting and we’re shouting.”
The anti-abortion bills have been supported largely by Republican legislators.
“They’re trying to impose masculine patriarchal ideas about how the world should be,” Evans said.
Vivek Jain, a 33-year-old physician, said lawmakers also are interfering with the doctor-patient relationship.
“No medical professionals or groups are asking for these bills. There’s no evidence that the ultrasound is necessary,” Jain said. He is planning to run as an independent candidate against Republican U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor for the 7th Congressional District seat this fall.
Another demonstrator, 56-year-old Shelley Napier, said people must realize that their reproductive rights are under attack.
“Young people are not paying attention … to these attacks on their right to choose,” Napier said. “It makes me scared to death.”
The protest ended around 3 p.m. as specified by the permit obtained by Speak Loudly with Silence. Afterward, a few members of the group gathered on the sidewalk to donate money toward legal expenses for those arrested.
On Saturday night, Delegate Delores McQuinn, a Democrat who represents part of Richmond, issued a statement supporting the protesters and criticizing police.
“Today’s arrests at the Capitol are just the latest example of government overreach that we’ve seen in recent weeks. The men and women who marched on Capitol Square have a right to peacefully protest without the threat that they will be arrested for exercising that right,” McQuinn said.
She said there has been an “overabundance of police presence” at demonstrations by women’s rights advocates.
“I have never seen a similar police presence when guns rights advocates assemble on Capitol Square on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday,” McQuinn said. “We must ask the question: What are they so afraid of?”
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.