‘Freedom Riders’ and Evolving Pro-Choice Protests

The Freedom Rides are a powerful symbol, but we—and Stop Patriarchy, which began an "Abortion Rights Freedom Ride" on July 30—should think deeply about what they mean in conversation with the history of abortion rights.

Clinic escorts outside a Planned Parenthood facility. brunosan // flickr

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

I typically turn a deliberately blind eye to the bitter feuds and organizing fads that erupt with boring regularity on Twitter. Yet, recently, some of the most vocal social-media cheers and jeers revolved around abortion protests in Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Texas. And the chatter wasn’t about your garden-variety anti-abortion protests. Instead, the Twitter talk has focused—and will continue to focus—on a new crop of pro-choice direct actions, some staged at abortion clinics. And the bare-knuckled Twitter fights were between groups that support abortion rights but don’t agree on the tactics.

As fleeting and furious as Twitter conflicts can be, anyone who cares about reproductive health, rights, and justice can’t ignore these movement strategy showdowns online or offline. These combative conversations are part of larger, essential discussions about why we keep losing ground on abortion rights when the majority of Americans support us—and should be part of honest discussions about the need for innovative organizing in the face of relentless, creative opposition. And these intra-movement slugfests are bound to recur because internal debates—even ugly ones—can fuel movement change; because the continued assault on abortion rights will continue to outrage and mobilize; and because some of the mobilized believe that extreme times require extreme measures or, at the very least, a re-examination of the tried-and-true protest playbook.

Until now, that playbook has largely stayed away from clinic counter-protests. While supporters of abortion rights have never been mute, there’s often been a distinct reluctance to go toe-to-toe with their opponents on sidewalks. Some of that reticence is rooted in the sober reality of violence against abortion providers and clinics: For Bostonians, for example, the effective end of the 35-foot buffer zone resonates forcefully in a place where, in 1994, two clinic workers were murdered at a Brookline clinic. And there are those refuse to answer anti-choice propaganda and moralizing with science, saying it’s a false apples-and-oranges equivalency. But we also know that facts often fare badly in these ideological wars; evidence is going up against deeply felt emotional claims about “life,” women’s status, and “what Jesus would do.” And while “movement people” rely on science and evidence gleaned from women’s lives, that’s evidence that’s hard to communicate to the general public.

The difficulty of reaching people drives why the pro-choice clinic protests of a North Carolina couple have gone viral. Grayson and Tina Haver Currin became social media cool kids with their “Saturday Chores” Tumblr that visually documents their pro-choice counter-protests at a Raleigh clinic. Their story has all the makings of movement legend in the making. Driving by a clinic, the husband-wife team saw anti-abortion protesters, decided to stage a spontaneous counter-protest, and grabbed a store sign for their homemade message.

On Saturdays, they’ve become a consistent presence with tongue-in-cheek signs that turn the tables on the protesters standing within arm’s reach. “He’s Single,” said one sign complete with an arrow aimed at a young white man toting a “Pregnant Mothers Need Support Not Abortion” sign. Some are even more pointed, “Women’s Rights Expert,” also referring to a male protester. Others are non-sequitur—signs that profess love for kittens and turtles, for instance—that underscore the sometimes seemingly random sentiments expressed by abortion opponents.

For some abortion rights advocates, the Currins’ protest is an irreverent pro-choice revenge fantasy gone live. And it’s much-needed levity because it’s not hyperbole to say that those very abortion rights are under siege. Herein lies part of the Currins’ appeal. They are just regular, albeit quirky, folk who literally took up the cause in the blink of an eye. And they’re part of that vast, murky middle of Americans who don’t want abortion banned but don’t think that much about it, really.

Many clinics discourage protests such as the Currins’ and instruct their escorts not to engage protesters in any way—a difficult task when protesters pray for their souls and steadily harangue patients or random passers-by. But some abortion rights advocates wonder about the wisdom of mocking anti-picketers because turning clinic protest into a debate could turn increasingly nasty. And from a more philosophical point of view, I see the dangerous allure of framing anti-abortion clinic protesters as illogical or unhinged targets of mockery. Seeing them only as cranks means that it’s difficult to understand how to best engage and counter their arguments.

There are the pragmatic concerns of keeping patients safe and not adding to the cacophony of voices—even friendly ones—that greet women entering their facilities. Says Kelsea McClain, a North Carolina clinic escort and former clinic employee:

When clinic patients see a stranger standing in front of their clinic with a poster, they automatically assume, “Oh. That person is here to harass me.” They don’t take the time to read the poster, gather context clues. … So it can appear like a sea of people is there to protest you and your abortion, when in reality it’s a few antis and some awesome supporters. When we escort, we have on hot pink vests that say “Clinic Escort.” Yet daily we have patients run from us, thinking we are protesters trying to accost them.

But there’s varying opinion about how protests affect women seeking abortion care. I’ve heard an escort praise counter-protesters for distracting antis from their real target: patients. The little research available on the impact of anti-abortion clinic protesters suggests that there is no universal response to abortion protesters, though there seems to be a nearly universal assumption that such protests have a negative impact on women’s abortion experiences. A 2012 study from the University of California San Francisco’s Bixby Center of Reproductive Health followed 950 women who sought abortion at 30 facilities nationwide and documented their emotional response to clinic protesters. Forty-eight percent of women said the protesters did not upset them at all, and more than half of survey participants reported varying levels of upset. The women most likely to be disturbed were those who struggled with their abortion decision.

For Britni de la Cretaz, a director of Hollaback! Boston, there are multiple questions to consider when thinking about a pro-choice clinic action: whether the clinic wants such support; whether patients will be deterred or distressed; and whether such events amp up anti-choice hostility. De la Cretaz participated in increasingly contentious Facebook exchanges with other Boston activists who staged a July 25 counter-protest outside a downtown Boston Planned Parenthood clinic. About 40 activists from Boston Feminists for Liberation and allied groups chanted “Abortion Is Health Care,” and some carried signs exhorting abortion opponents to demonstrate real care for children by speaking out against Israeli violence in Gaza. They did so against calls from some clinic staff to cancel the event.

De la Cretaz said to Rewire on the phone that women who seek abortions “are not making a statement; they’re not an activist. They’re just seeking health care. They just see a hundred people standing at the door. … There’s a difference between clinic defense and protest.”

She added, “Tensions are so high [in Boston] because of the Supreme Court [McCullen] decision and people are rightfully angry, but that can spurn more anger. If one person cancels her appointment because there are too many people standing at the door, are we harming the people we’re trying to help? I understand the need and want to make a bunch of noise, but I wonder if our tactics need to change.”

Efforts to contact Boston Feminists for Liberation (BFL), the collective that organized the protests, were unsuccessful. But online comments from BLF organizers and supporters shot back at the criticisms and questions from De la Cretaz and others. They argued women are already canceling appointments, that Planned Parenthood affiliates have a vested interest in containing on-site protests and dissent over them within their staff, and that they’ve heard from patients who welcome pro-choice protesters. And the war of words went on to suggest that this was not just a struggle over tactics, but a fight over a feminist mainstream that controls resources and more radical elements who want to push the organizing envelope.

Those divisions are both real and exaggerated. Fights between liberal feminists who work within the political system and left-leaning feminists are part of feminism’s creation story, and it’s easy to imagine the doyennes of mainstream liberal feminism pitted against today’s anarchist bluestockings. But it’s more complicated than that.

Advocacy of abortion rights pushes even political behemoths such as Planned Parenthood to the margins of popular discourse, allowing politicians to take aim at it over and over again. But reality also demands that we acknowledge that, as a health-care and political heavyweight, Planned Parenthood has the machinery to serve millions of women, support legislative actions, and exert a huge political influence through established power and money.

But there are a lot more players in the reproductive health and justice worlds than Planned Parenthood. These questions about the Boston protest are not merely about strategy. They are about movement direction, and they’re not just about Boston.

All of the abortion-related coverage from Texas—from Wendy Davis’ epic, bladder-busting filibuster to activists filling the capitol—has had the double-edged-sword effect of attracting national attention and fresh supporters, some of whom have little grasp of what’s gone before, said Lindsey Rodriguez, San Antonio-based director of the Lilith Fund, which helps women afford their abortion procedures.

It’s great to be able to have these conversations about abortion with people and, frankly, get the support, the money, and the attention. But we then get an influx of people who may not have the background knowledge and they’re really eager to get in and help. But one of the pluses of working with an abortion fund is that we’ve got a history of seeing the pitfalls when new ideas are tested and what doesn’t work for patients. There’s the potential for clients to be alienated, and our primary concern is that we don’t ask them a lot or make them feel there are strings attached. We don’t expect them to be politicized, and sometimes, people [or media new to the organization and its reproductive-justice approach] ask “Why aren’t [women who had abortions] protesting? Why aren’t they fighting?”

The Texas for Reproductive Justice coalition recently published a “United Statement in Opposition to Stop Patriarchy in response to New York-based Stop Patriarchy’s 2014 “Abortion Rights Freedom Ride.” The ride, which began on July 30, seeks to publicize the impact of Texas HB 2, which sharply cut the number of Texas abortion providers in one fell swoop last summer. Stop Patriarchy, which was on the ground in Austin, Texas, tabling last summer around the time of Wendy Davis’ filibuster, has asked volunteers to participate in online “people’s hearings” from several Texas cities; participate in a unspecified Week of Defiance in late August; and generally help stage “confrontational, dramatic non-violent political protest” that would include brandishing bloody coat-hangers and shackles representing female enslavement.  

According to the open letter, Stop Patriarchy’s presence in the past has disturbed many reproductive rights, health, and justice organizations in the Lone Star State and elsewhere. It alleged that the New York-based group did not play well with others, announcing a tour with little communication with the local and large base of organizations already in the Texas trenches. Furthermore, it charged that Stop Patriarchy was fundraising without transparent discussion of how monies would be directed and whether they would benefit Texas women. (The New York group raised more than $32,000 for the tour.)

“When you’re in a situation where the sky is falling, you have to come together and work together and build that trust,” Rodriguez told Rewire on the phone. “Even in places where you think it’s not contentious, a liberal blue state thing, people are fighting for money.”

She added, “The first time that Stop Patriarchy contacted us was when they’d already set up their campaign and asked us to re-tweet about it. But a few things rubbed us the wrong way: They seemed to be saying that organizations in Texas weren’t changing the needle on the ground. Then, they came into our wheelhouse, with fundraising. They said that if you donate a thousand dollars, we’ll let you put your name on someone’s abortion. That’s offensive. Our supporters started saying, ‘Why are you acting like no one’s funding abortions in Texas?’ They raised $32,000 on their Indiegogo campaign. What the Lilith Fund could do with that money.” (The Lilith Fund’s current budget is $120,000.)

Stop Patriarchy’s Sunsara Taylor said that the goal of the Freedom Rides was not to raise money for abortions but to raise awareness (and ultimately, revolution), and she distanced herself from the more vitriolic rhetoric of the Twitter firestorm.

“To be clear,” she told Rewire, “we never said that we were going to be funding services. From the beginning, we said that we were out to have a political protest. It couldn’t be further from the truth [that we said no one was doing work in Texas]. We’ve said there have been courageous people doing this work.

“At the same time, much more is needed. Services are not enough. You can’t rely on the courts. You can’t rely on the politicians. That’s not an indictment of anybody’s activism.” She added, however, that crowd-sourced online donations will allow Stop Patriarchy to fund four abortions in Mississippi and Texas.

Kit O’Connell, a Texas activist and journalist, has been one of many voices asking Stop Patriarchy to account for its funding. He was active with Occupy Austin during last summer’s campaign against Texas HB 2, the measure that is poised to cut the number of Texas abortion clinics to six by September 1. He pointed out that during last year’s protests at the Texas capitol, the so-called unruly mob of protesters “were constantly being told to be quiet” and “being asked to respect legislators who don’t respect us”—often by Democratic Party operatives. But he doesn’t see the Stop Patriarchy-Texans for Reproductive Justice verbal jousting as simply a matter of radicals versus the mainstream.

O’Connell said to Rewire, “I have friends that spend hours and hours on Wendy Davis’ campaign, and I have friends who are going to the Rio Grande Valley, leading workshops on how to use misoprostol, and everything in between. But I do agree with Stop Patriarchy that we need to do more until this law is gone.”

But he was disturbed by Stop Patriarchy’s language and anti-sex work stance; it has compared, for example, pornography with lynching, forced motherhood with slavery, and now its second abortion tour with the 1961 civil rights demonstrations that drove buses and a multicultural group of young activists straight into the heart of Dixie to challenge racial segregation.

It’s clear that Stop Patriarchy failed to observe some rules of Effective Organizing and Movement Building 101—rules like building strong relationships with established groups to see the lay of the land, especially when you’re fundraising in the name of women who come from a different place from you. I’ll also add some corollaries that have to do with race and place: New Yorkers rushing in to save Southerners are likely to be looked upon with suspicion, and the movements that can most successfully harness civil rights imagery are the ones that have proven “skin” in the historical or contemporary civil rights struggles.

But, really, they don’t have to ask permission. History is open source.The civil rights movement remains instructive for organizers, and in this moment, I think we can turn back to it for guidance. Though Americans all think we know about the civil rights movement, the movement—or more accurately, movements plural—has been reduced to Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and bus boycotts. There was never one strategy, and when organizers tried to fit all strategies into a single box, it didn’t work. But contemporaries knew that pacifists and militants co-existed in the same movement; students who supported sit-ins existed in the same movement with gradualists who hoped for quiet political solutions to end segregation; and that rural farmers existed in the same movement with middle class, urban Blacks.

At the heart of these conflicts are, yes, questions of resources. But it’s also about who gets to determine the rules of engagement or the messaging. I admit, it’s deeply uncomfortable to see abortion rights activists embracing the racialized vocabulary of anti-abortion forces who regularly make facile comparisons between slavery and abortion. Stop Patriarchy’s Taylor said she abhors anti-choice rhetoric that compares “fully human Black people to potentially human fetuses” as “wrong and racist.” But she stands behind comparing the abortion rights emergency and forced motherhood with slavery, and says that her organization means all forms of slavery, not just U.S. chattel slavery of African-Americans. That’s an argument that’s hard to make here in the United States, where slavery typically means the centuries-long bondage of Black people.

But if there’s one thing that I can give to anti-abortion forces, it is that they at least do talk about race, a topic that so tangles up traditional reproductive rights organization that they often opt out of talking about race at all. And racial comparisons, or those likely to be read in such terms in this race-saturated society, are particularly dangerous for groups like Stop Patriarchy; Taylor said that the group advising the abortion freedom rides is all white.

I’m not fundamentally opposed to one movement using another’s language—with respect and care. After all, Gandhi’s satyagraha (“insistence on truth”) germinated different flowers in the U.S. civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid struggle. Just as no one owns oppression—a point made quite eloquently by Stop Patriarchy defenders—no one owns the organizing toolbox.

But using another movement’s language and tactics must be an act of thoughtful and collaborative translation and transformation. The stakes of reproductive injustice for Texas women are terribly high, but they are not the same as the stakes faced by the Freedom Riders. Nor are Stop Patriarchy’s Freedom Riders facing the stakes of those 1961 travelers for justice, who knew that vicious beatings were likely ahead.

The Freedom Rides are a powerful symbol, but we—and Stop Patriarchy—should think deeply about what they mean in conversation with the history of abortion rights. There is a history of women moving across state and national lines to seek abortion care before Roe v. Wade; maybe those are the actual Abortion Freedom Rides and the journeys that must be illuminated? And maybe, you’re saying, that’s a stretch or an attempt to bend history into political slogans. But maybe it’s a start, for organizations that believe in intersectionality, to begin thinking about whether we can develop inter-movement, intersectional stories.