FORT WALTON BEACH — Hundreds of people took to a busy section of U.S. Highway 98 on Tuesday to join thousands more across the country in protest of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Protestors met at Fort Walton Landing before marching along U.S. 98 chanting “My body, my choice.” Several drivers passing by honked their horns as the protestors raised signs with messages such as “Women’s rights are human rights."
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It was not the first time abortion rights activists had rallied in Okaloosa County. Several gathered in Niceville and Fort Walton Beach in May after a draft of the Supreme Court’s decision eliminating the nearly 50-year-old constitutional right to abortion was leaked by Politico.
Although not unexpected, the court’s decision struck a nerve with many women and men — young and old — who came out to protest Tuesday. Like many others, Fort Walton Beach resident Jessica Valenzuela said the issue spans beyond abortion.
Several said they fear the effects the reversal of Roe v. Wade could have on women’s access to health care and other rights grounded in the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process such as same-sex marriage.
“I just feel really angry and disappointed that we’ve gone back to not having the rights that we had before. I don’t think they’re going to stop with this,” Valenzuela said. “I’m hoping that we can make a difference by saying how we feel about it and not giving up.”
Randi Sparks of Fort Walton Beach brought her four children and husband with her to Tuesday's protest. Before leaving the house, Sparks said she sat down with her 10-year-old daughter to explain what was happening.
“I didn’t think I’d ever have to explain that she had less rights than a man just because she was born a woman in this age,” Sparks said. “You always talk to your kids like ‘Back in the day women didn’t have the right to vote or women were property.’ Well at this point it’s getting like that and it shouldn’t be.”
The protest was organized by lifelong Fort Walton Beach resident Oli Tuel, who graduated from high school in 2020. After hearing about the Supreme Court’s decision, Tuel said she felt “angry” but didn’t initially have any intentions of leading a protest.
The task seemed daunting, but with the nearest protests being in Crestview and Pensacola, she started looking for ways to organize locally.
“The option was either don’t go to a protest or host it yourself, and I decided to host it myself,” she said. “This is my home. This is where I belong, and these are my people. Regardless if two people showed up or this many people showed up, I would’ve been here regardless.”
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Tuel reached out to the Okaloosa County Democratic Party to help spread the word and set up a voter registration table at the park. Within a day of putting the details online, 60 people signed up. The 100-plus people who showed up Tuesday took her by surprise.
“I didn’t expect so many people to be so accepting of what we’re doing. We still have a lot of people here who care about bodily autonomy regardless of (political) party,” she said. “Just being here, I hope that the message is no matter who you are it is your decision what you do with your lives and your children.”
The protest did catch the attention of a lone anti-abortion supporter. Local pastor Doug Stauffer, who applauded the Supreme Court’s decision, marched alongside protestors while carrying a sign quoting the Bible and reading “Choose life.”
“I get that people are very emotional about this and that there are some unfortunate circumstances that cause a baby to come into the world,” Stauffer said. “But the thing is, there are a lot of babies that come into the world unwanted and they’re wanted later on. That’s why I want to make sure there’s another voice out there.”
Stauffer said he believes the legality of the procedure should have always been determined by state legislatures rather than the federal government. Restrictive abortion laws are in effect in at least six states following the Supreme Court’s decision.
"All that does is send it back to the states, where it should have been at the beginning," Stauffer said. “That’s why we have the problems we have is because the federal government tries to enforce their will upon the local states, and that is not their job.”
While abortion is still legal in Florida, a new law banning the procedure after 15 weeks goes into effect Friday. Florida is the only state along the Gulf of Mexico expected to maintain access to abortion.
Many protestors said they are now looking to the “people in power” to listen to their concerns.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of hatred and anger in the country,” Valenzuela said. “I think a lot of the change is going to come from people in power listening to the population.”
Peggy Schiller, a Seacrest resident running as a Democrat against Florida’s First District U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, joined protestors Tuesday. Schiller said she believes Roe v. Wade should have been codified long ago, but hopes the issue spurs voters.
“If a third of the country continues not to vote, we may easily continue to be ruled by laws that really reflect a minority, not a majority of the people here. What we have to do is get people to understand this is a watershed moment,” Schiller said. “The most important weapon we have is our vote.”
Protestors made numerous trips around U.S. 98 and continued chanting even as a downpour of rain soaked the area. Sparks and others said they felt it was important to get their message out, but they hope the action doesn’t end there.
“It’s important and I would like our community to know that it matters to more than just a random group of people. It matters to a lot of us,” Sparks said. “I’d like for our voices to be heard, and hopefully it will encourage others to vote because that’s the only thing I can see us changing.”
This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Hundreds in Fort Walton Beach protest Roe v. Wade reversal