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Rebekah DeFreest was holding court with four of her fellow Women's Marchers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, when five college-age men with Trump signs taped to their chests came by looking for a laugh — or a fight.

The standoff rapidly devolved into a screaming match. But DeFreest was determined to get into their heads.

"I pulled all of the men aside and we talked for probably half an hour. Some other protestors came up and encouraged the conversation, thanked them for coming out," DeFreest says.


DeFreest talks with Trump supporters. Photo courtesy of Rebekah DeFreest.

Bethlehem isn't Washington, D.C., and DeFreest isn't a Democrat. She voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. But her concern about what a Trump administration might do for the environment and Planned Parenthood, which saved her life by detecting her cervical cancer twice, led her to her local Women's March — in a city of 75,000 in a county that barely went for Hillary Clinton in the heart of coal country.

Attendance at Saturday's Women's Marches across the country — totaling around 3.2 million, according to a FiveThirtyEight estimate — surprised even many of the event's organizers.

Early reports of high turnout in D.C., New York, and Los Angeles prompted snap accusations that the march was a vanity project for "wealthy coastal elites." Unsurprisingly, the rally generated its biggest crowds in large urban areas in states won by Clinton.

But the proliferation of smaller rallies in red states — from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Sarasota, Florida — where marchers didn't have the luxury of preaching solely to the like-minded, are a signal that the movement has surprising strength and organizational seeds beyond its urban core.

Retired educator Linda Houston helped organize a march in her hometown of Wooster, Ohio — population 26,384.

Houston, a longtime Democratic activist and former local officeholder, was surprised at the turnout in a town she describes as leaning red.

"The last time I remember that many people was during the Vietnam War, so that was a long, long time ago," she says.

Houston (right) with the Wooster march planning committee. Photo courtesy of Linda Houston.

Some attendees were motivated by issues with particular local impact.

"Utah is gorgeous. It’s absolutely beautiful here. We have amazing outdoors, but we have some of the worst air quality in the entire country," says Katie Dabling, who marched in Ogden, Utah, despite a snowstorm that shut down roads and transit in the area. She worries that the Trump administration will gut environmental regulations and make health care less accessible for many in her state.

Utah is one of 19 states that refused to implement the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion, stranding many of her friends and leaving members of her family trapped in the law's "gray area" — with an income too high to qualify for traditional Medicaid but too low to afford insurance on the ACA exchange. She fears the government won't patch the hole.

Some marchers in these small heartland towns and cities saw them as life rafts for their neighbors who might feel like they're the "only one."

Dabling, who grew up Mormon and has many friends and loved ones who have come out as LGBTQ only to lose their faith community, marched to remind them and America that her state and hometown aren't homogenous.

The Ogden rally, which had to compete with a snowstorm. Photo courtesy of Katie Dabling.

"Don’t count the little states out, or the red states, because definitely there’s people like me here who are angry, who didn’t want what’s going on to happen, and there’s just a lot of work to do," Dabling says.

"Do I have hope? Only if we continue with this," Houston says.

Houston is already organizing with a group of local residents to lobby their congressman against repealing the ACA. Traveling to his office will require securing care for her husband, who has Parkinson's disease, but she believes the stakes are too high to skip the trip.

Rallygoers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Rebekah DeFreest.

"I have a granddaughter that I worry about constantly. And I keep telling her, ‘You’re important for who you are,'" she says.

DeFreest hopes to continue talking to the Trump supporters she met at the rally. After a wide-ranging debate over birth control, abortion, and public welfare programs, she invited them to join a Facebook group she started called "Finding Common Ground." The rules: Be informed and back up your points with facts from neutral sources.

All five joined.

"The next step is dialogue, and not hate or bashing," she says. "And if we could have good constructive conversations, like we did with them, we’d be able to break down so many boundaries."

This article originally appeared on 09.06.17


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