Thirty-one women’s rights demonstrators were arrested Saturday in a state Capitol protest that drew hundreds of people and a police response including officers in riot gear.
The rally was the latest held in opposition to contentious General Assembly bills that have drawn attention far beyond the state, including a measure that would require women to undergo a transabdominal ultrasound before having an abortion.
Some protesters, wearing red armbands and holding signs that included “Gov. McDonnell get out of my vagina,” urged the governor to reject the legislation, which is headed to his desk.
Capt. Raymond J. Goodloe of the Division of Capitol Police said 17 women and 14 men were arrested, though representatives of groups involved with the event said they believed more were taken into custody. Goodloe did not have a breakdown on charges, but said those arrested were likely accused of either trespassing or unlawful assembly, both misdemeanors.
The arrests took place after some protesters, who had marched along nearby streets before entering Capitol Square, refused to leave the south steps of the Capitol. They were, in some cases, carried away by police and taken to a bus parked nearby while other officers held protesters at bay with shields.
In the course of two hours, Glen Allen resident Bonnie Ward went from marching with a sign that read, “Women: 51%, men: 49%, there is a new majority,” to being guided into a bus by police.
“The legislators should not be legislating medical procedures, especially for women,” she said earlier. “We have a freedom of choice and they’re trying to take that away.”
Goodloe of the Capitol Police said he did not know of any injuries to demonstrators or officers. The Virginia State Police tactical field force was called because the crowd was “getting really large and we didn’t want things to get out of hand,” Goodloe said.
An event organizer said attendance was close to the approximately 1,000 that were expected.
Del. Delores L. McQuinn, D-Richmond, said late Saturday the arrests “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 in a news release. “At several recent women’s rights events, there has been an overabundance of police presence.”
After a Feb. 27 women’s rights vigil, several activists expressed concern about the number of officers. One organizer said some of those who came to the peaceful event were intimidated to see an armored vehicle. During another rally Feb. 20, a state police helicopter and extra officers were deployed.
State and Capitol police have responded that the personnel and tactics have been in place to ensure that the protests are carried out safely.
Shelley Abrams, who runs a local abortion clinic, spoke to the crowd before the march. She said she had an abortion and has never regretted her decision.
“Being in a clinic, people have no idea how many people get abortions,” she said. “Your sisters are getting them, your mothers. There’s a stigma of shame around that, and I want that to go away, and it starts with people saying, ‘I had an abortion.’”
Urbanna resident Louise Friday said legislators are “taking us back to another time with their rules and trying to, in a sneaky way, prohibit women from using contraceptives.”
Along with Friday was Sheila Jones, who was wearing a T-shirt that she said she wore in April 1992 during the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, an abortion-rights rally that drew hundreds of thousands.
“I thought we’d taken care of these atrocities (on women’s rights) back then, and we haven’t,” she said. “So I had to come back down here and do this for all of the young women that now are fighting for the same thing that we thought we had taken care of 20 years ago.”
Jennifer Fettweis of Richmond also attended the Feb. 20 women’s rights demonstration at the state Capitol that drew about 1,200 people.
“It’s sad to be in Virginia where it’s really getting attention for all the wrong reasons,” she said.
The ultrasound legislation and another measure that would define life as beginning at conception have sparked protests here and drawn attention nationally, including becoming fodder for “Saturday Night Live.” The so-called personhood bill appears stalled for the year.
The original ultrasound bill did not specify what type of procedure women would have to undergo. Often, ultrasounds are performed trans-vaginally early in a woman’s pregnancy.
Opponents blasted the bill as highly invasive, and it was amended to require an abdominal ultrasound to determine gestational age but give the woman the right to refuse a transvaginal procedure.
Proponents of the legislation say clinics already routinely perform ultrasounds on women before abortions. McDonnell has said he supports the bill.
“It’s really powerful how many people are out here. I think it speaks a lot about how much people care about this issue,” said Leigh Weedon, of Richmond. “And it’s really inspiring to see.”
She said she was there to push back on what she sees as invasions of privacy.
“I was incredibly proud of the people that were arrested on the stairs. I thought that was a great sacrifice, and I was very proud of them doing that,” Weedon said. “I was also really surprised today with the presence of the SWAT team, obviously, and the German shepherds.”
Fettweis noted the number of women at Saturday’s rally who said they had pushed for women’s rights in the 1970s.
“I didn’t think anybody in my generation coming up would have to do this,” she said.