Photo via La Voz.

The 30th annual Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres in Mar del Plata, a weekend of sisterhood and solidarity, rapidly devolved into chaos as police officers shot rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd during a march Sunday evening. 65,000 women, children and men participated in the rally, calling for an end to violence against women (in all its forms) as well as greater sexual and reproductive rights, among other issues.

As is customary in the Encuentros, part of the crowd split off to protest in front of the main cathedral.

They were greeted by a counter-protest group of about 30 men who stood with arms interlocked, faces strained, apparently praying for the souls of the protesters in front of them. Several media reports point to Carlos Pampillón, head of the conservative extremist (most would call it an actual neo-nazi) group – Foro Nacional Patriótico.

A handful of topless women approached the not-at-all self-pitying and sanctimonious protectors of the Church and started making out with each other (a not unheard of form of protest and activism). A few participants (out of thousands), got a little antsy and agitated both the men and the crowd by throwing bottles and attempting to break through the men’s linked arms in a game of protester red rover. At the same time, video shows the anti-feminists shaking the gate until it collapsed.

At this point, in what seemed like a premeditated plan, the men filed out as police officers filed in behind in riot gear in front of the church doors. The shouts from protesters grew louder but the mass began to shrink back in anticipation of what would happen next. Police fired rubber bullets diagonally into the air as the crowd rushed back for protection. No more than 30 seconds later, we began to feel the burn of pepper spray in our eyes, nose and chest. At my side was a woman with her toddler. Despite the provocation of a few, the reaction was completely disproportionate to the actions of protesters.

In the middle of the protest repression, three women were arrested and detained inside the church. They were released after midnight.

In reality, what happened at the cathedral is tragic, not only for the repression protesters experienced, but because it overshadows all the good done at the Encuentro. That 65,000 people came together to support women’s rights in the march. That over 50,000 women participated in dozens of workshops all democratically facilitated to collectively and cooperatively develop solutions to issues surrounding gender and sexual identity, motherhood, addiction and mental health, among others. That pre-teens contributed fresh ideas while older women imparted their wisdom. That the voices of all women, including those traditionally marginalized, had equal value: young and old, wealthy and poor, trans and cis, indigenous and of European descent. All of this despite differing ideologies, experiences and strategies.

This is not to say it was all sunshine and roses until we reached the church. On the contrary, the Encuentro was successful because of its combative moments, when frustration and anger bubbled to the surface, as passion took its place beside reason. A strong sense of solidarity despite difference laid the groundwork for success.

And let’s not forget those incredible war cries. Whoever said women aren’t funny has clearly not met many. My personal favorite, “Get your rosaries out of our ovaries” and “Saquen sus medallitas de nuestras conchitas” (I’ll let y’all use Google translate for that one).

The next Encuentro will be in October 2016 in Rosario but until then the fight for women’s rights and against state repression of social movements will continue.