More than 500 people came to Sonora High School on Sunday to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy, and to hear the civil rights, social justice activist Carmen Perez speak.

About 50 people with conservative groups, including the State of Jefferson, California Valley Patriots and Blue Lives Matter, came to protest against Perez.

Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an American federal holiday. The date of the holiday this year coincides with King’s date of birth, Jan. 15, 1929. King, a civil rights leader, was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, at age 39.

Perez is best known as a co-organizer of the 2017 Women’s March, which drew more than 400,000 to the nation’s capital the day after the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, as well as millions more participants who took part in coinciding events across the United States.

Perez came to speak about “Organizing for Social Justice.”

She took the stage about 2:30 p.m. and she told the audience she and other Women’s March organizers tried to ground their event in King’s ideology. She said it wasn’t easy because they had to talk about issues including white privilege and racism in real time.

She said the presence of Donald Trump in Washington “lifted the sheet” to show who is racist in today’s society. She it was important to recognize who’s racist and to dismantle to structures and foundations of racism.

Perez said she understands how some people feel alienated from society right now, and she urged people to get engaged in activism and social justice anyway. She said she got her start working in prisons in Santa Cruz and Tracy, and she recognized the alienation of inmates as similar to the struggles of marginalized people on the streets.

She urged individuals to “find your lane,” to find a way to contribute to activist causes. A cook can cook for the movement, because people are hungry. A yoga instructor can help other activists heal.

Before Perez spoke, those who came to hear her walked past the protesters, who stood with flags and signs near the street, so that passing motorists could see them. A few people driving by honked. A few yelled at the protesters in disapproval, and the protesters yelled back on occasion.

Some protesters and people attending the Martin Luther King Jr. event talked to each other out front of the high school theater. Martin Blake, a resident of Columbia, said it was important to note that more than 10 times the number of protesters were inside the high school theater to pay respect to King and to hear Perez speak.

Leo Tolhurst, 15, of Sonora, said he thought the protesters were out of place on a day to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.

“I think they should leave,” Tolhurst said. “Today we’re celebrating a great man. They’re just here to wave their flags and get attention.”

Tristan Celayeta, 77, a resident of Sonora, said the State of Jefferson supporters and other conservative protesters were grandstanding.

“Why did they choose to do this on MLK Day?” Celayeta asked, adding they consider themselves geo-local.

“They are not. Jefferson Staters want to promote the argument of country people versus city people, and that’s just what people say when they want a feudal system,” Celayeta said.

Before Perez arrived, some State of Jefferson supporters from the town of Tuolumne brought flags and signs to oppose some of the things they say Perez stands for.

“She raised a lot of money of Planned Parenthood,” Alexander Harold Horat, 14, said out front of the high school theater.

Alexander’s father, Joe Horat, added, “She got an award for human rights and I don’t think she deserves it. We think it’s hypocritical to say that Martin Luther King would be in favor of abortion.”

Alexander’s mother, Maria Horat, a native of Caracas, Venezuela, said she came to protest because she is against communism and socialism.

Phoenix Farris, 17, a Sonora High School senior, said he saw protesters and he decided to counter-protest by standing on a bench and holding his fist in the air near the high school theater entrance.

State of Jefferson supporters were there to protest, not to disrupt or cause trouble, Aaron Nazarow of Tuolumne, said.

When Perez began speaking, she initially said she was glad to be here in Sonoma, then quickly corrected to Sonora, noting she’s visited multiple communities in recent days and she planned to fly to New York City later Sunday for an event Monday in the Big Apple.

Perez noted she grew up in Oxnard and she was honored and humbled to be in Sonora. She said it’s important to remember King, as well as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, who was killed in June 1968. Perez said she welcomed the “brothers and sisters outside” who were opposing her presence.

Terry Koster, of Oakdale, with the California Valley Patriots, and a woman who declined to give her name, came to the front of the high school theater to try to ask Perez questions when she was done speaking.

Organizers with the Mother Lode Martin Luther King Jr. Committee invited Koster and the woman to take part in a question-and-answer session later in the afternoon. They accepted.

At a separate venue on campus, with coffee, tea, cookies and snacks laid out, several hundred people came to the question-and-answer session.

Koster asked Perez about her support for Islam and Sharia Law. A Blue Lives Matter supporter named Jordan Davis, from Berkeley, asked Perez how she squares her support for the LGBT community with support for Islam, because Islam is intolerant of homosexuals.

Perez said she does not support any ideology that does not support women and women’s rights. Perez said she supports people who practice Islam and she does not discriminate against Muslims. Perez said her support for the LGBT community is not contradicted by her support for people who practice Islam.

Megan Vieira, a school teacher from Stockton, was among people who lined up to wait and speak to Perez.

“We have so much social injustice in our school district,” Vieira said. “We talk about equality in education and equity in education. Funding for education is not fair in our district.”

Pat Cervelli with the MotherLode Martin Luther King Jr. Committee said she believed the event Sunday was a success. Because so many people came it was the best-attended MLK Jr. Day event in Tuolumne County.

“This is the first time we’ve had a protest,” Cervelli said. “And I think it’s great they were invited in to talk. That’s what we have to do these days, talk to each other.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.

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