Dispatch #2 from Jackson, Mississippi

Defending the Jackson, MS Abortion Clinic

by Sunsara Taylor | November 4, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


The last time Operation Save America (OSA) called for a week-long siege on the last abortion clinic in Mississippi back in 2006, I watched up close—and counter-protested—as they ran amok throughout the entire city. They targeted and terrorized women and staff at the Jackson Women's Health Organization. They held major press-garnering protests throughout the city. They hooked up a high-decibel sound system and had women wail and weep about how deeply they regretted their abortions and how desperately they sought forgiveness for "murdering their babies." Then Christian fascist men who love patriarchy and hate women would call forth vengeance and incite an atmosphere of dangerous violence against abortion providers. They terrorized not only the clinic, but also the Unitarian Church which had opened itself up to out-of-town protesters and they even burned a Koran!

Rally in front Jackson Women's Health Organization November 2, 2013

November 2, the first day of the anti-abortion activists' seige of the Jackson Women's Health Organization in Jackson, Mississippi, about 30 supporters of the clinic stood proudly in front of the clinic to defend women's right to abortion. Photo: StopPatriarchy

So, as we got ready for yesterday (Saturday, November 2), the first day OSA would be at the Jackson Women's Health Organization during their present siege, we were prepared for all of this and more. What we found instead was about 15 anti-abortion religious fanatics who set up lawn chairs and held a prayer circle across the street from the clinic. Meanwhile, about 40 supporters of the Jackson Women's Health Organization and abortion rights stood proudly in front of the "Pink House" (the informal and affectionate name given to the clinic after its owner painted it bright, vagina pink earlier this year).

We spent the morning chanting, holding signs up and cheering as people in cars honked in support. A few local media showed up and took statements from "both sides" (to then proceed to show extremely biased reports on the evening news—there is this common myth that when they show "both sides" of the truth and a lie, or of oppression and liberation, they are being "even-handed").

At Jackson Women's Health Organization November 2, 2013. Photos: StopPatriarchy

After a couple of hours, Diane Derzis, the owner of the Pink House, arrived and everyone gathered to honor her. Local activists with Hell No Mississippi (a group that formed several years ago to fight a law that would have granted personhood rights to fetuses, thereby criminalizing all abortions, and against voter ID laws that targeted Black and Latino voters) gave a moving introduction to Ms. Derzis. Derzis began running abortion facilities in 1974, just the year after abortion became legal nationwide. Back in 1998, her clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed, causing the death of one security guard and the lifelong maiming of Emily Lyons, a nurse. With deep courage, Emily Lyons has spent years speaking uncompromisingly on behalf of women's right to abortion. Immediately after her clinic had been bombed, Diane Derzis fought with incredible determination and heroism to open that clinic back up and she refused to be intimidated or to back down. She also did it with style and attitude,  walking out into a crowd of anti-abortion fanatics with a banana in one hand and a condom in the other and conducting a scientifically based and thoroughly comprehensive sex-education demonstration for the whole Dark Ages crowd!

Derzis was presented with a beautiful original painting of the Pink House by a local artist. She spoke a few words about how determined she is to keep the clinic open and how much she appreciates the staff and local support for the clinic. Then we all headed down to protest at the governor's mansion. Governor Phil Bryant has said of the Jackson Women's Health Organization, "My goal of course is to shut it down." Back in 2011, a woman who had been kidnapped, raped, and shot twice challenged him that the "Personhood Amendment" that he was pushing would force women to bear the children of their rapists. "Why can’t you men have any sympathy for women like me?" she asked him. But he demonstrated no sympathy at all, insisting that the fight to grant personhood rights to fertilized eggs was "a battle of good and evil of Biblical proportions," and that if the amendment was defeated it meant that "Satan wins."

Defending right to abortion in front of the governors' mansion, Jackson MS

In front of the governor's mansion, Jackson, Mississippi.

The fact that such a man is holding major public office and is treated as legitimate by this system speaks volumes about how fundamentally illegitimate this whole system is and of how badly we need a real revolution. He has openly declared his total disdain for women's lives and his determination to see women slammed back to the back alleys and under the harsh authority of men. It was righteous and uplifting to stand with Diane Derzis and others in front of his mansion to voice our determination to fight against everything he represents.

We Remain Tense for Anti-Abortion Protests, But Recognize Even Greater Legal Dangers Looming, and Take Advantage of Our Time Here to Build this Fight

It is hard to tell exactly what to make of the very small turnout of anti-abortion protesters yesterday. It is impossible to tell if this is a pattern that will continue throughout the week or if there will be a greater turnout and anti-abortion protests and terror tactics in the days to come. The fact that there is even the potential for such protests and tactics underscores how important it is that we are down here. It is necessary for many more people and organizations to take this approach of responding and politically countering the anti-abortion forces everywhere they mobilize, especially when they target abortion doctors, providers, clinics, and staff.

At the same time, the fact that their turnout thus far has been low is no cause for celebration. As I wrote about recently, there was a horrific legal decision from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans this past Thursday that had the immediate effect of shutting down abortion services at as many as thirteen clinics throughout the state of Texas. The media has reported about patients showing up across the state to find that their abortion procedures had been cancelled. Especially in the southern and western portions of the state, these patients as well as the clinic staff were weeping, freaking out, breaking down, and searching desperately for the means to get these women hundreds of miles to a clinic where they could get the care they need.

At the very moments that we stood gathered in front of the Jackson Women's Health Organization, women across Texas were going through this same experience again and again. Clinic owners were making tough decisions about whether to close their doors and lay off their staff because they have no legal means to run their regular practice and take in income. Not only is this denying women the services they need right now, not only will this concretely mean that many women this week will end up being forced to have children they had already decided they did not want to have, this will make it very difficult for these clinics to re-open even if the legal decision is later reversed (something that there is no guarantee of!). Just think about what actually happens if you are forced to close down your medical facility, lay off your doctors and staff but continue to pay rent and taxes on your property and other expenses. How many clinics will be able to do that? And how many will be able to reassemble staff and doctors many months, or years, down the road even if the decision were reversed?

But even all that is not bad enough. The Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans is the same court that will hear any appeal from the state of Mississippi over a similar law that currently threatens to close the Jackson Women's Health Organization! This only intensifies the very immediate danger facing this last abortion clinic in Mississippi.

Indeed, the emergency down here in Mississippi is even more intense than when we first got here!

As such, we are—as I stated before—very glad that we mobilized to be down here, and we are determined to take advantage of every minute here on the ground to both build support for the last clinic here and to build involvement in the ongoing nationwide movement to turn the tide in the vicious and murderous war on women. So, after our time at the clinic, then the governor's mansion, and then at a great picnic hosted by two local activists who escort regularly at the clinic and made up the core of Mississippi Occupy, we split our forces up, going in different directions to get to work on this in various ways.

I don't have time to report right now on the afternoon some of us spent out in the neighborhoods of Jackson, beyond saying that we found a good number of folks (both older and younger) in a low-income African-American neighborhood that is dotted with foreclosed and boarded-up houses. About half the men we spoke to told us of having spent serious time in prison (one had only recently gotten out after 14 years which began when he was only 15 years old!). And most knew very well the Jackson Women's Health Organization and spoke movingly about the women and young girls who rely on that clinic. They told the kinds of stories we have been hearing a lot down here, of young women and girls who have been either afraid to tell their families or unable to afford the services who have tried to take pills or stick sharp objects up inside them to self-induce an abortion and how this will happen even more if the clinic is forced to close. While there exists a lot of moral condemnation about the act of abortion among some (something we deeply explored and struggled over), many at the same time held great sympathy for the struggles of women with kids they cannot afford and spoke with deep conviction about the importance, the life-saving importance, of abortion access. We also heard harrowing stories of police brutality especially against Black boys and young men, routine humiliation, lack of jobs, torture in the prisons, and an overall situation of brutal oppression against Black people. I promise to write more about all this soon.

The Urgent Need for Massive Resistance, As Well As for Open and Principled Debate Over the Way Forward

Everything I have said thus far only underscores the extremely urgent need for people who care about women's right to abortion to get off the sidelines right now and begin fighting to change the whole direction that this society is going in. The three goals that were identified by Stop Patriarchy when we launched the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride are more urgent than ever. These goals were: 1. to wage a national counter-offensive against this national war on women, 2. to radically reset the political, ideological and moral terms so that people recognize that this is a fight over women's liberation or women's enslavement and that abortion must be available on demand and without apology, 3. to forge a movement that relies on ourselves, not politicians or the courts, to wage massive society-wide resistance of millions of people to defeat this whole war on women.

It is imperative that we fight to change the way people in their millions understand the fight over abortion. Most people still think that this fight has something to do with babies. It does not. Fetuses are NOT babies. What the fight over abortion is and has always been about is control over women. Women who cannot decide for themselves when and whether to have a child, women who are denied the right to abortion, cannot be free. And if women are not free then no one is free.

When I first got involved in defending abortion clinics almost 20 years ago, I thought that there was just a big misunderstanding about abortion between the pro-choice side and the "pro-life" side. I thought maybe the anti-abortion folks didn't realize that even if they made abortion illegal women would still get them but they would just die in their attempts to do so. I thought that we could seek "common ground" on the basis of trying to promote birth control and real sex education to reduce the number of abortions. This is the program that was being promoted at the time by Bill Clinton and it had its influence on a great many of us.

However, what I came to learn—both through my personal experience at the clinics interacting with anti-abortion fanatics, in examining legislation pushed mainly by Republicans but also by Democrats, and even more through my study and in particular the analysis on this that had been brought forward by Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party—was that there is no misunderstanding. The anti-abortion leaders are completely aware of the fact that denying abortion will  put women’s lives at risk and they have never been motivated by concern to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies. All of them are against birth control! Their real motivation is to take women back to the days when they were openly the property of their husbands and reduced to breeders of children. Bob Avakian points out in his book, Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones; We Need Morality But Not Traditional Morality, and I have directly witnessed this, that the anti-abortionists raise prayers like, "Lord, break this curse of independence that has afflicted women." They rail against abortion and against birth control because they are dead-set opposed to the idea that women should have full equality together with men, which requires that women be able to control for themselves their own reproduction.

Many abortion providers who have been stalked and terrorized for years know this deeply. However, very few in the "pro-choice" movement will say this. Very few in the pro-choice movement will say the word abortion and very few think it's okay to set out to change people's thinking. Largely, they are still trapped in the deadly and losing strategy promoted by the Democratic Party leadership to seek "common ground," to conciliate, and to defend abortion mainly by appealing to the needs of women in the most extreme circumstances (women who have been raped, might die from their pregnancies, or are as young as 11 years old and victims of incest). While of course it is an incredible and outrageous exposure of the misogyny of the anti-abortion movement that they would deny abortions even to women in those most extreme circumstances, it is just as unacceptable to deny abortions to other women for whatever reason they might choose them. And reducing the "pro-choice" argument to only (or mainly) those extreme cases ends up conceding to the idea that abortion is somehow wrong (and should be restricted) for other women.

The same holds true for the very common insistence (offered repeatedly by Hillary Clinton, a war criminal who is now being promoted and championed by "pro-choice" organizations and websites as the "great feminist choice" for next president) that abortion be "safe, legal and rare." Why the hell should abortion be "rare"? People who raise this slogan should be asked, "Which women do YOU force to have a child against her will, who would YOU deny an abortion to?" At a time when abortion is already unavailable to so many women, when women and young girls across this country already face incredible hardship seeking abortions and at least one in four who are low-income and seek abortions cannot afford it and are forced to have a child against their will, and when young women are TODAY already doing great self-harm in their attempts to self-abort in ghettoes and barrios and rural areas throughout this country, what are the real-world implications of making abortion more "rare"? The implications are enslavement, humiliation, possible death and great harm for women, straight up. We need more abortions, more abortion access, more abortion providers, and a much greater and more vibrant movement of resistance to fight for these things—not less! Besides, saying that abortion should be rare implies that there is something wrong with it, adding to the stigma and shame that already heavily presses down on women. There is nothing immoral about abortion; what is immoral is forcing women to have children against their will!

All this needs to be fought out, and it must be fought out now. It is on the basis of changing people's thinking, really waging major political battle with people's thinking, that we will be able to unleash the kind of massive and determined resistance among literally millions of people throughout this country necessary to turn the tide. And this resistance must be more than just fighting each battle one by one, constantly losing ground to the whole onslaught. This must be a national counter-offensive and it must be one that relies on ourselves. The courts cannot be relied on to protect these fundamental rights of women, as is being shown in devastating living color right now. And the politicians—not only the very large fascist wing of them that glorifies pregnancy through rape as a "blessing from god" but also the Democratic Party that conciliates and seeks "common ground" with this Dark Ages lunacy—cannot be relied on to do anything but continue the dynamic we've been on for decades where yesterday's outrage becomes today's "compromise position" and tomorrow's limit of what can be imagined.

We have to break out of this dynamic. That is what Stop Patriarchy is determined to lead and everyone who recognizes the true state of emergency facing women must join with us in fighting for this.

Let Us Not Talk Falsely, the Hour Is Getting Late—A "New Underground" Is Not the Answer!

Finally, I want to speak to something that I have heard advocated with increasing frequency as these attacks on abortion rights escalate to this fevered pitch. Some within the pro-choice movement insist that it is time to be developing networks and schemes to continue to provide abortions to women even if it becomes illegal.

The first time I heard this advocated more than 15 years ago at a women's conference, I found it extremely attractive because it had the appearance of defiance and determination not to be stopped by unjust and illegitimate laws. However, now when I hear this advocated I hear the air of defeat and honestly a degree of self-delusion.

To be clear, the stand and orientation of being willing to risk one's own safety to provide women with basic, life-saving and fundamental rights is undoubtedly righteous. More people need to be willing to put themselves on the line, to risk great sacrifice, for the lives and freedom of women. That is not the problem I have with this "strategy" and that is not the criticism that I have of people who advocate for it.

There are three major problems with this so-called "strategy."

First, this approach totally underestimates the power of the state. Already women who attempt to self-induce abortions, or who simply have miscarriages, have been arrested or thrown in prison. Already, an award-winning abortion doctor, Dr. James Pendergraft, has been forced to spend time in prison based on bogus charges, and other providers are currently facing bogus lawsuits. If abortion is made illegal today, it will not simply take us back to the days before Roe v. Wade (as bad as that was). We will go back to that plus a situation in which millions have been mobilized into the anti-abortion witch-hunt. Activists and repressive state agencies will hunt down and imprison those who dare to provide abortions against the law. We will face a situation more like El Salvador, where women who come to emergency rooms with perforated uteruses face criminal investigation and are often thrown into prison. And where doctors and nurses are required to report these women to the state or risk going to prison themselves.

As heroic as the attempts to provide women with abortions may be in such a situation, and as much of a life-saving difference as they might be able to make to a small number of women, it is impossible to imagine that such networks would last very long unless they were kept extremely close to the vest. And if that were the case, there is just no way they could be made known to and available to all the women who will need them. Most women throughout the country, and again especially those who are poor and live in rural areas, would have no access at all.

Second, this approach doesn't even aim to challenge the broader stigma and wrong thinking that surrounds abortion. Already, a great many women who objectively need abortions do not even seek them because they believe doing so is "sinning." And women who do get abortions face incredible stigma from their families, communities, churches, and themselves—all owing to the fact that the moral assault on abortion waged by Christian fascists has been conciliated with repeatedly for decades by most of the "pro-choice" movement. Most people have never heard of abortion spoken of positively! If we do not fight right now very broadly and publicly to change this, if we do not raise the slogan Abortion On Demand and Without Apology and tell the truth that fetuses are NOT babies, abortion is NOT murder, and women are NOT incubators, then we will not lift the crushing weight of this shame off millions of women.

Third, and most urgently at this decisive moment, this "strategy" concedes wrongly that we are destined to lose the fight for legal abortion rights in this country. I know we have been steadily losing ground for decades and it can be hard, especially for those who have been on the front lines, often all by themselves, to imagine reversing this tide in a society-wide way. But this is possible! It is actually true that forced motherhood is female enslavement and that criminalizing abortion is against the fundamental interests not only of women (that is, half of humanity) but of humanity as a whole. Millions and millions and millions of people objectively will be negatively impacted by the loss of this right.

If we refuse to base ourselves simply on "where people are at" right now (after decades of relentless and nearly unchallenged anti-abortion rhetoric and attacks), but instead root ourselves in what is objectively truth (abortion is NOT murder!) and what is objectively in the interests of humanity (Abortion On Demand and Without Apology!) we can go out and fight to change people's hearts and minds, and correspondingly their actions.

There are already millions of people who feel very strongly that they do not want to see this right taken away. If we tell them the truth about how extreme the situation is, if we set new moral, political and ideological terms in this fight, and if we give people concrete forms to take part in organized resistance, this can have an enormous effect right now. This can have the effect of taking on and potentially reversing some of the most extreme restrictions being hammered into place right now and it can have the even greater effect of changing the terms in which millions and millions more are thinking about this fight and relating to it. It can re-polarize the huge numbers who are currently in the "murky middle" on this fight—who feel that maybe there is something wrong with abortion but that it should really be allowed at least for "other women," or various shades of this thinking—so that increasingly they come to recognize the truth that there is nothing wrong with abortion and that this is a fight over the future of women. Acting on the truth and acting in resistance together, we can change these terms throughout society. Acting on the truth and acting in resistance together, we can bring forward a powerful movement to turn the tide and defeat this war on women. Acting on the truth and acting in resistance together, we can take a big step towards the kind of re-polarization necessary in society to go even further, to contribute to a real revolution that can bring about women’s full liberation as a central part of the emancipation of all humanity.

This is what all of us must be aiming for. Not only that, these are arguments we need to open up very broadly among those who are fighting back or who are just now waking up to the need to fight back. We cannot win if we do not understand the nature of the problems we confront and if we do not have a correct strategy to go forward. It is NOT a distraction from the needed resistance to open up dialogue and debate, principled polemics and struggle of real substance over how we got into this situation and how we get out of it. Everyone, including those of us who are communist revolutionaries as well as others coming from a great many different perspectives, need to put forward our understanding of these questions, and everyone needs to be engaging the substance of these arguments. We need understanding as badly as we need massive resistance—and we need that resistance even more urgently now than ever before. I offer this second dispatch from on the ground in Jackson, Mississippi, at this moment of intensifying danger to women's fundamental rights, as both an update from the road and a contribution to this process.

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