Kate Munger (in beige overcoat) and her choir sing to anti-choice marchers at they arrive at Justin Herman Plaza on Jan. 21, 2017. (Emma Silvers / KQED)
Like millions of people across the U.S., Kate Munger got up on Saturday, Jan. 21, and headed out to a march to meet up with friends and make their voices heard.
Unlike most of those people, Munger’s preferred form of protest involved sheet music.
Around noon that damp day, as images of women’s marches from elsewhere in the Bay Area flooded social media, another, rather different march was underway in San Francisco. The 13th annual Walk for Life West Coast, a demonstration by anti-abortion activists that takes place yearly around the Jan. 22 anniversary of Roe v. Wade, had previously reserved the Market Street parade route from Civic Center to Justin Herman Plaza starting at 12:30pm. By 2pm, preceded by police officers on motorcycles, the march (made up of thousands of people, many of them groups from Catholic high schools and universities) arrived near the Ferry Building.
There, Munger -- a West Marin resident best known for founding the Threshold Choir, which sends volunteers to sing for people in hospice -- stood with a choir of a dozen other women, waiting to perform their counter-protest. Smiling, they held signs that read “We don’t agree with you AND we uphold your right to your beliefs in our democracy.” As anti-abortion demonstrators streamed past them toward waiting charter buses, the choir members began to sing. They didn’t stop for nearly 90 minutes.
“I called this a singing protest because I wanted singing to be the primary focus,” Munger told me about an hour earlier, as the women she’d invited that day gathered outside the Ferry Building.
“I think it’s a healing modality that’s really important in our culture right now, and I think it does things that other forms of protest might not be able to do so well. So I wanted to go into the most challenging situation I could find where people I don’t agree with are expressing their opinions -- to which, in a democracy, they have a perfect right -- and support that, welcome that. Exercise my own right to speak about it as well."
It felt, said Munger, like “an assignment.” So just before the New Year, she emailed every singer she knew, explaining her intentions and inviting them to come.
Some declined, saying they would find it too difficult. But about a dozen women responded eagerly, coming from Oakland, San Francisco, the North Bay, and as far as Fairfield to sing that day -- and for a wide range of reasons, as well. (Many knew Munger from participating in the Threshold Choir, though this was not an official Threshold event.)
“I probably feel more strongly about choice than about almost anything,” said singer Amanda Newstetter, a social worker at UCSF’s AIDS Education and Training Center; she previously worked at Planned Parenthood. “I’m a little nervous, because I know what kind of energy they might be coming at us with, I know some of the pictures they carry rile me up. But what a perfect thing to meet this group with love somehow, to try to find a bridge. We’re all humans on this planet, and we want a lot of the same things.”
Sue Kiel, who came from Suisun City for the day’s events, said the protest provided her with a sense of purpose. “In times like these, you find yourself saying ‘What can I do? What should I do?’” she said. “And one thing I can do, with a skill I have, is use music to promote acceptance, and connection, and the idea that we’re all in this together.”
In organizing the protest, Munger drew from the songbook she's gathered in her years of work with the Threshold Choir, selecting simple non-denominational prayer songs like "Shine" by Kri Schlafer and "Can I Stand Here For You," written by Munger -- both containing messages of hope and peace.
Reactions from anti-abortion protesters, as they arrived, varied somewhat. Many ignored the women entirely as they passed by the choir. One small group briefly planted themselves in front of the women and began shouting their own song into a blowhorn before continuing on their way. But the overwhelming majority of marchers who responded did so with visibly positive surprise: one young woman stopped, read their signs, then hugged several choir members before heading for her bus.
"It's really refreshing to see people with the opposing viewpoint being respectful, speaking to each other like we're human beings," said Karen Dowling, a Stanford graduate student who paused to watch the choir after finishing the march. She said she'd encountered several counter-protesters along Market, and most of those interactions had involved "vulgar" comments or gestures of one kind or another. She and her friend Joanna Nurmis, a University of Maryland student wearing a shirt that read "This is what a pro-life feminist looks like," both mentioned dismay at anti-abortion groups being barred from official participation in women's marches around the country.
"My wife is at the women's march right now," said Lee Eskey, an anti-abortion marcher from Novato who stopped, carrying his "pro-life" sign, to take a photo of the choir. "We're both doing our own thing today. And this is my cause, but I'm so moved by this -- by being able to listen to each other without anger."
To be sure, there was plenty of (righteous) anger left to go around that afternoon. Faced with a president who has bragged on camera about sexual assault, under the shadow of an administration that has made all too clear its stance on funding for reproductive health services, it's undeniable that many American women are, understandably, viewing the next four years as ones in which they will constantly have to do battle: for a soon-to-be-filled Supreme Court seat, for their bodies, for equal pay -- the list goes on.
So it makes sense that, as one march wound down and another much larger, much louder one took its place, joyfully "vulgar" comments and gestures flooded the street. Also unsurprisingly, after their singing counter-protest, many women from the choir headed to the Civic Center to participate in a different, perhaps less harmonious sort of political action. But they did so only after leaving a set of words hanging in the air, the lyrics to "Blessings In a Dark Time," a simple song written by Munger:
Blessings in a dark time, We need blessings in a dark time, We need to be blessings in dark time, starting now.
CLARIFICATION: The headline and captions in an earlier version of this story were updated to more accurately reflect the protest.