The "Million Woman March" was a follow-up to the "Million Man March." In one of the largest political protests in the recent history of Philadelphia, at least half a million black women descended on Benjamin Franklin Parkway Saturday as part of the "Million Woman March." The overcast day featured political speeches, socializing and plenty of commerce, with hundreds of souvenir peddlers -- mostly males -- hawking "official" bumper stickers, T-shirts, jewelry and kente cloth. The event was organized by two political activists who were virtually unknown on the national level -- Phile Chionesu, a South Street African craft shop owner, and Asia Coney, a local public housing activist. The two did not solicit corporate sponsorship or the help of well-connected black professionals adept at fundraising. Working out of a West Philadelphia office donated by the city, Chionesu and Coney used a tiny staff, Internet advertising, and word of mouth to attract what they said was a crowd of 1.1 million people. The city put the attendance at 500,000. These estimates make Saturday's gathering close in size to the approximately 1 million people who heard Pope John Paul II speak in the city in 1993. "It was amazing [that the march] was grassroots and there was such a big turnout," said College freshman Kari Coley, who attended the event with friends and family. Unlike Washington's "Million Man March" two years ago, Saturday's protest was not organized by the Nation of Islam -- although Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan endorsed it heartily, and Nation of Islam members provided security for the speakers. "This wasn't conceived of by Farrakhan, it was conceived of by women who lived here," said Philadelphia Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, whose district includes University City. But Saturday's event had its own share of controversy, notably a platform plank calling for independent black schools and the presence of keynote speakers Maxine Waters and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who are surrounded by accusations of political myth-making and political murder, respectively. U.S. Rep. Waters (D-Calif.) is perhaps best known for her belief that in the 1980s the CIA condoned the sale of crack cocaine in the United States by dealers linked to the Nicaraguan Contras. The CIA-crack cocaine theory began with a widely-publicized series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News in August 1996. Independent investigations by The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post failed to turn up similar evidence, and the editors of The Mercury News distanced themselves from the story. "More than anything, we want an end to the scourge of drugs in our society," Waters said at the march. "I'm convinced the CIA did play a role." In a combative, sometimes vitriolic speech, Waters accused affirmative-action opponents of racism and demanded that they "stop using race as a wedge issue.? Stop the attacks on my people and my children." Mandela, the former wife of South African President Nelson Mandela, rose to prominence in the African National Congress during the three decades her husband was in jail. She is now being prosecuted for alleged involvement in abductions, torture and at least eight deaths. The crowd took to her instantly, shouting "Winnie! Winnie! Winnie!" when she appeared on stage. "Your very presence today, your unity, your solidity, manifests your power, your strength," Mandela said. Referring to the end of apartheid, she warned, "We rule the day. That doesn't mean that if we rule we cannot make mistakes." But most participants cared more about sisterhood than about politics, and many didn't even mind the inadequate sound system, which left many unable to follow events on the podium. A New Haven, Conn., woman even had a red, black and green business card professionally made just for the march. "Mz. [sic] Arayna D. Dixon" it says, along with her name and address, "The Million Woman March --October 25, 1997." Dixon, who left her house at 2:30 a.m. Saturday with 14 friends, said she came to the event so she could network with new "sisters." As for collegiate representation, New York University brought around 150 students, who left Manhattan at 7 a.m. And although Penn did not organize a formal trip to the event, at least several dozen students attended. "I was surprised and disappointed I was one of the few white women there," College senior Holly Shere said. "I had figured the feminist contingent from Penn would have shown up." Shere added that she "felt comfortable" marching with black women. "I didn't feel unwelcome or anything like that," she said. Both Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King had been listed on the program as late as last Monday, but last week spokespeople for them said that both had refused invitations months ago. The program ended with the reading of a letter sent from Havana by "U. S. political prisoner" Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther who is not related to the late rap artist Tupac Shakur. "I am still being pursued by slaveholders, bounty hunters and bloodhounds," said Shakur, who was convicted in 1977 for being an accomplice to the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. Two years later she escaped from jail and was granted asylum by Cuba.
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