The lessons of our counterprotests

February 17, 2017

Jen Roesch, one of the organizers of a February 11 counterprotest against anti-abortion forces in New York City, looks at the political questions raised by this success.

ON FEBRUARY 11, anti-abortion groups targeted 200 clinics across the country for protests they hoped would build support for pending legislation that would cut off all federal funding for Planned Parenthood. But when they showed up Saturday morning, they were met with counterprotests that mostly outnumbered them at 150 of the 200 clinics.

For the first time in a long time, there was a national day of action defending abortion rights and directly countering the bigots who have become an institutionalized--and largely unopposed--presence at clinics.

The reach of these counterprotests was all the more significant because they were largely organized by small or new groups of activists who felt the need to confront the right. Planned Parenthood's political arm had opposed the counterrallies at clinics nationally on the stated claim that they would make things more stressful for patients.

Some local affiliates of Planned Parenthood did organize counterprotests, like in the Twin Cities, and these had the largest turnouts, reaching into the thousands. This shows what could have been done if the organization had seized the opportunity to galvanize the large numbers of people wanting to support them.

Supporters of a woman's right to choose face off against antis at a Twin Cities Planned Parenthood facility
Supporters of a woman's right to choose face off against antis at a Twin Cities Planned Parenthood facility

Instead, in the weeks before February 11, Planned Parenthood mounted what felt like an unprecedented campaign against counterprotesting.

Major liberal media outlets such as the Huffington Post and Slate ran articles acknowledging that many people wanted to counterprotest, but repeating Planned Parenthood's arguments about why they shouldn't. Instead, people who wanted to support were told to write letters to politicians, send Valentines to abortion providers or donate.

Here in New York City, the counterprotest--a loud and bold demonstration of some 300 people who drowned out the bigots and gave confidence to everyone who participated or witnessed it--almost didn't happen.

As someone centrally involved in organizing the protest here, I think it is useful to look back and describe how and why we organized it, the responses we received and what we accomplished. I believe our experience points to important strategic issues we need to address if we hope to resist the current tidal wave of attacks on our rights.

LIKE THOUSANDS of others, when I heard about the call to defund Planned Parenthood, my instinct was to organize a counterprotest.

I am a member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), and we began reaching out to groups we thought would be interested. We discovered that an individual had already put up a Facebook event for a New York City counterprotest that had received thousands of responses in its first day. We decided to mobilize to support that.

But the initial call to action was replaced with a call to wait for a decision from Planned Parenthood about what to do--followed by the directive not to counterprotest. There was some debate on the Facebook page, but anyone who defended counterprotesting was quickly pushed back.

Nonetheless, thousands of people had expressed interest. It was obvious that large numbers of people not only wanted to protest, but felt emboldened by the resistance developing to Trump. Having participated in the airport protests that put the pressure on to halt Trump's Muslim ban, ISO members and others felt that now was the time for direct, mass mobilization.

But there was no space to discuss these questions. How could we know what other people were willing to do? Should we just give up the idea and let bigots go unopposed because Planned Parenthood's leadership said so?

We had limited time--February 11 was just over a week away--but we wanted to find a way to take the debates off social media and bring people together.

I was troubled by the Facebook discussions. Those supporting Planned Parenthood's position were saying that the organization's strategists have been doing this for a long time and know what's best.

Right now, we have millions of people becoming involved in protest for the first time. The massive Women's Marches on January 21 gave people confidence and left them wanting to do more. If your response to that is "Here's everything you don't know" or "This is how we've always done it," then you're going to miss this moment--and the costs of that right now are high.

We decided the best thing would be to call an open organizing meeting where we could discuss what to do and provide a way for people to get involved. We put together an announcement, invited Planned Parenthood to attend and posted it to the existing Facebook event.

ON TWO days' notice, more than 50 people showed up to the meeting. I wasn't sure what to expect, but then people started talking, and it was like a dam had broken. One after another, people expressed the anger that has been building as we have watched our rights stripped away without a fight.

Some of the comments were: "I'm here because I'm angry, and I'm sick of losing. I'm here because I'm tired of being apologetic about abortion. Why does Planned Parenthood always talk about pap smears, but they won't talk about abortions? I feel like our side has been on the defensive for too long."

One woman said, "I came because I was on the original event page, and when I asked what we could do since we aren't counterprotesting, someone said to write a letter. I'm tired of being told to write letters that never get read. I'm done with writing letters!"

We openly discussed the fact that Planned Parenthood did not support counterprotests. At least half the people speaking up were or had been Planned Parenthood patients. Many had experience in reproductive justice organizations or had done clinic escorting.

Everyone expressed gratitude for what Planned Parenthood provides, but also disagreed with the organization's political strategy. After an hour of discussion, we unanimously decided to go ahead with a counterprotest and rally, and broke into working groups to plan for it.

Honestly, based on the social media discussion I had seen unfold, I didn't expect such a high level of agreement. I knew people wanted to fight back against the anti-abortion side, but I wasn't quite prepared for the level of intensity and confidence.

People knew that by organizing this counterprotest, we would face criticism. But they were prepared to do it anyways. Everyone understood this as not just a single action, but as a first step in fighting for a different strategy for the movement. This gave me confidence that we were doing the right thing, and that the women and men in the room represented a real and widespread sentiment. Part of our goal was to provide a visible outlet for that.

Nonetheless, I'm not sure we could have anticipated the amount of outright hostility we would face when we went ahead. A week later, it's still somewhat shocking to me.

I'm one of the moderators of the Facebook group we set up, called NYC for Abortion Rights, and within hours of announcing that we were going ahead with the counterprotests, we were deluged with attacks. Calling them "attacks" is not an exaggeration--many were personal and seemed deliberately hurtful.

We decided to moderate the page, both to protect people from verbal abuse and to keep a debate between those who should be allies from escalating and causing permanent damage. Instead, we tried to open lines of communication with Planned Parenthood staff to work together for a successful event, despite our disagreements.

Throughout the week, our group of about 50 kept in touch over e-mail and made all of our decisions collectively. When Planned Parenthood asked us to move our counterprotest away from the clinic, we discussed their proposal and decided together to continue with our plans.

The process of organizing together bolstered our confidence, as did the tremendous support we were receiving. Away from social media, I found that almost everyone I spoke with in person agreed with us. I attended several meetings that week--mostly new activists wanting to get involved in something. Person after person talked about why they were so glad we had organized this action.

THIS IS why Planned Parenthood's central claim--that organizing counterrallies against the anti-choice side outside clinics would increase distress and confusion for patients--became increasingly unconvincing. If this was such a self-evident objection, then why wasn't it being raised by people we were talking to--many of whom had themselves been to clinics for an abortion or been patients at Planned Parenthood?

Many of the organizers were patients themselves. Most of us--and most of the people we talked to--believed that a pro-choice, pro-woman counterprotest would be welcomed, and not greeted by confusion from patients who couldn't tell the difference between the two sides.

What became clear over the course of the week is that those who argued against counterprotests in the name of protecting patients were ignoring and dismissing the voices of actual patients. They were so wedded to a particular strategy that they couldn't seem to hear what people were saying if it contradicted their established methods.

Many of the arguments against us became paternalistic--assuming a divide between patients and advocates. As activists, we were told, we had a different experience than patients who were immigrants, or for whom English was a second language, or who were working class, poor, young or otherwise vulnerable.

The problem with this argument is that our organizers and the people who came out to protest included all of these kinds of people--a fact that becomes clear if you watch videos of people speaking at our counterrally. Their case underestimates the potential for those most directly affected by attacks to be a part of a fight on their own behalf.

Despite criticisms that we were being selfish or failing to show respect for Planned Parenthood, our decision to organize a counterprotest really reflected a divide over strategy and what kind of movement we need to build.

This became evident at the counterprotest itself. We had argued that a policy of "non-engagement" with anti-choice protesters--something Planned Parenthood routinely counsels, which amounts to ignoring the bigots--meant that their presence at the clinic had become normalized, and that there was no political counter to them.

We were told that the right wing just wanted attention, so ignoring them was the best thing we could do--and that the best way to support patients was to allow trained clinic escorts to assist them.

BOTH OF these propositions turned out to be fundamentally wrong. I was genuinely taken aback to discover that the Manhattan Planned Parenthood clinic has a regular anti-abortion protest of about 60 people on the first Saturday of every month--a church group performs a mass and sprays holy water on people. In 2015, 250 anti-abortion activists protested at the clinic.

Clearly, ignoring the antis hasn't made them go away. In fact, what I realized is that the bigots have a regular routine in place to try to harass and dissuade patients.

The anti-abortion activists set up in multiple locations. Usually, their main clinic presence of a couple dozen people sets up across the street from the front entrance. Because we were there first, they had to retreat around the corner.

They also had people handing out literature at the front door to patients going in. We were told by the clinic that as long as they weren't holding signs, the bigots were allowed to distribute the leaflets. If we hadn't been there, there would have been no one to counter this message.

Most disturbingly, there was a group of antis a little over a block away. They were not obviously protesters, but posed as people distributing helpful literature and assistance--all of which was encouraging women to reconsider abortion.

I found this out when I got a message midway through the protest asking me to have a clinic escort come over. When I went to ask for this, I was told by the clinic staff stationed outside that they were aware of the situation, but there was nothing they could do--escorts weren't allowed to leave the area directly in front of the clinic, which was monitored by security cameras.

Of course, clinics face hard questions of how to protect the safety of their workers and patients in an environment in which the anti-choice movement has terrorized them. If there is a reason that clinic escorts can't leave the front door, that is something I think we have to respect.

But it means the reality is that patients have to make their way through a multi-step gauntlet of bigots just to get to the front door and be assisted by clinic escorts. They must do so without any visible, political message telling them that they aren't alone, that they are supported, and that there is a movement ready to stand behind them.

In the face of these limitations for the clinic in how they can respond, it seems particularly problematic to tell counterprotesters that there is no role for them and that they should not be there.

From my experience, we played a really important role. We sent a group of close to 10 counterprotesters with big signs to confront the bigots down the block, and they promptly packed up and went away.

Overall, many patients seemed relieved and happy to see us, and many gave us the thumbs-up signs as they went past. Certainly all the fears that had been expressed about chaos or increased tensions did not materialize. If anything, it was the presence of as many 30 police officers, which Planned Parenthood asked for in response to our action, that could have increased tension or distress, particularly for patients from New York City's most vulnerable communities.

MANY OF the debates around the counterprotest revolved narrowly around whether or not it would increase distress for patients.

We, of course, care about the safety and comfort of patients and made the case that our action would not be jeopardize this. However, our central point was that we need to build a confident, unapologetic movement for abortion and full reproductive rights that is willing to confront the right wherever it tried to advance.

We didn't choose to protest at clinics--the right did. If we ceded that territory, we were letting them win without a fight.

Just like ignoring the anti-abortion movement at the clinics hasn't made them go away, relying on a legal strategy and hoping for the support of Democratic politicians has done nothing to stop their advance.

The anti-abortion forces are confident and organized. They have pushed through hundreds of restrictions at the state level, and since 2011, we have lost more than 162 abortion providers--more than one every two weeks. Now they are trying to push forward at a national level, starting with defunding Planned Parenthood, but also aiming at even more sweeping limits to abortion rights.

The President of Susan B. Anthony's list, an anti-abortion group that put significant resources into Trump's presidential campaign, claims, "There's never been a time, ever, when the muscle of the pro-life movement has been so strong."

It is true that the pro-choice movement has been losing ground--both legislatively and in terms of public opinion. While nearly 60 percent of people support legalized abortion, even larger numbers--including more than half of those who consider themselves pro-choice--support significant restrictions on abortion. A majority believes that abortion is morally wrong and half believe that it has negative, lasting impacts on a woman's well-being, even though 95 percent of women say they do not regret their abortions. Anti-abortion arguments have gained ground with millennials--in stark contrast to their more left-wing positions on most other questions.

We can't lobby our way out of this situation. And we certainly can't hope for elections two or four years away to reverse our fortunes.

The problem isn't only that anti-abortion politicians have gained office. Our side is on the defensive and has conceded many of the right wing's arguments--that there's something wrong with abortion, that we should work together to reduce abortion rates--while failing to advance an argument about why reproductive freedom is essential to women's equality.

THE WOMEN'S Marches and the immediate response to the attacks on Planned Parenthood show there is a groundswell of potential opposition on our side. Mobilizing this will require not just a new political strategy, but also moving beyond organizing based on passive advocacy, toward one that directly mobilizes people who want to fight. The fact that Planned Parenthood in New York City has a long waiting list of people who want to become clinic escorts shows how many people want to be involved beyond the passive forms of support currently available.

There is no shortage of struggles to be fought or people who want to fight them. We can and should debate the young anti-choice activists who are recruiting on campuses. We can protest at and expose the fake abortion clinics that call themselves crisis pregnancy centers. We can drive the antis away from the clinics. We can organize teach-ins that arm our side with the arguments, and we can build protests and resistance that forces politicians to listen to us whether they want to or not.

But we also need to build collective, democratic spaces and organizations where new people can easily get involved, and where we can discuss and debate strategies to build larger, stronger grassroots campaigns.

This is one of the central lessons I took from this experience. By providing such a space, we discovered that there are large numbers of people, probably larger than we think, who agree with the need for a different strategy. This is what gave us the confidence to persist in the face of attacks from supporters of Planned Parenthood's political arm, which questioned our motives, credentials and even our basic right to have a different view.

This collective process is the only way we can determine the best ways to fight back. As we did around this protest, we will have many debates as we move forward, but we should welcome them as an indispensable part of building the renewed movement we so desperately need.

Further Reading

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