The Abortion Freedom Riders

Sunsara Taylor went on an abortion freedom ride through the heart of red-state America. In Kansas, she met people who thought Christians were about to be put in concentration camps and that abortion was a plot from Satan.

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Sep 5 2013, 3:12pm

There’s no disputing that here in the US there seems to be some kind of state-level legislative epidemic hellbent on condemning female reproductive rights for ever more. Never mind the explosive support of Texas Senator Wendy Davis during her abortion-bill filibuster earlier this summer—Governor Rick Perry saw that the bill passed in the bat of an eye in an instantaneously appointed special session. A couple states away, in North Dakota, recent legislation aimed to prohibit abortions after six weeks but was paused by a last-minute injunction granted on July 31, mere hours before the new laws were set to take effect. Not that it matters much anyway: There's only one remaining abortion clinic in the entire state. Meanwhile, Arkansas has instituted its own ban on abortions after twelve-weeks.

So it sucks, but what are you doing about it? Probably nothing. Did you pile into a van and drive for a month straight through some of the most abortion-inhospitable states to protest in front of weird white men plaintively screaming at you to kill yourself? I doubt it.

But Sunsara Taylor gathered a crew of twenty-one fellow activists and embarked on a massive road trip—New York to Charlotte, North Carolina, by way of Fargo, Wichita, and Jackson, Mississippi. All for the purpose of demonstrating at last-remaining clinics, corrupt anti-abortion organizations, and state capitols. Their slogan: “Abortion on Demand and Without Apology.” Their name, a provocative homage to another tremendous civil rights protest that toured the Deep South: the “Abortion Rights Freedom Ride.”

I had a chance to speak with Sunsara as she and her crew wrapped up their tour in Charlotte, North Carolina.

VICE: How did it go in Charlotte?
Sunsara: Well, we went to Charlotte yesterday to make it to Moral Monday, which was a pretty major protest. In North Carolina, there are new restrictions that have been passed on abortion which would close down clinics in that state, but this is just part of the whole tapestry, nationwide, of drastic restrictions to women’s right to abortion, and really, it’s a state of emergency facing women’s rights. So we went there with that message—we had an incredible reception. We have this big, beautiful banner we’ve traveled around the country with that says “Abortion Providers Are Heroes” and people have been signing it at every stop along the country. But there, we were just mobbed with people who wanted to write a message on it and put their name on it, get literature and get connected.

Can you explain how you chose some of the stops on the tour?
[We chose] Wichita, because it’s the home of where Dr. George Tiller practiced for many years. He was stalked and hunted by Operation Rescue—Christian fascists, a very theocratic organization with ties into the power structure at the national level and who relocated their offices to Wichita to target Dr. Tiller for years, and he, as you know, was assassinated in his church, and we wanted to go there because there have been so many more restrictions passed in Kansas. Even though after four years, some people very heroically and courageously re-opened an abortion clinic, they can’t do abortions as late as Dr. Tiller had performed them. They have further restrictions there than were there four years ago. The new doctor who has been flying in there has now been outed by the anti-abortion protesters and she is being targeted and stalked in her home in Oak Park, Chicago. So we wanted to go there and rally support.

We also protested at Operation Rescue’s headquarters, one of their fake abortion clinics/crisis pregnancy centers in Wichita. And Jackson, as you know, is the only clinic in the state. Actually, that is a clinic where a law was passed that would close it as well, requiring hospital admitting privileges, and there is a temporary order from the judge that is keeping that clinic open, but a trial is set for a couple of months from now. So that clinic is targeted and we wanted to go down there and defend it.

Aside from the obvious, can you describe a little about the purpose of this bus tour?
Because there are all these attacks happening across the country, we really wanted to connect up and actually lift people’s heads to not just see these a local attacks but to see that there’s a national war on women and we need more than fighting on a local basis, we need a national counteroffensive.

The second thing was really to change the terms—this fight has never been about babies, the question of abortion has always been about what role women will have in society and the control over women and women’s enslavement. We have been very vocal in raising the slogan “Abortion on Demand and Without Apology” in order to reclaim and very very positively speak about and demand women’s access to abortion as something that there should be no compromise about, no shame about, and no restrictions.

Which town showed the most surprising amount of support?
Everywhere we went we met people who had felt suffocated until they met us. We met so many people who shared with us their stories of abortions when it was illegal. Horrifying stories, or stories of friends who didn’t survive those illegals abortions. Women got up and told these stories publicly; it required a lot of courage. It was very moving.

We learned a lot more than we knew when we left. Probably about 50 percent of the people we met most places were supportive of abortion rights on some level, and about 50 percent were against them. Within that, it broke down to where it was probably  about 15 percent who were pro-choice were enthusiastic about what we were saying and the rest of them felt that maybe it was too extreme. That was part of our point, to actually reset the terms. There’s so much defensiveness among pro-choice people. One, people don’t know how many restrictions there are, they don’t know how close we are to losing this right and our message is, “If you support this right and you are sitting back and doing nothing, then you are actually complicit in letting these rights be taken away.” You can’t hold people accountable if they don’t know, but we were telling them and then giving them a way to fight. The other thing we’d tell people is, “If you’re pro-choice and you think ‘abortion on demand’ is too extreme, then you tell me which women would you deny the right to abortion? Which women would you force to have children against their will? Which women would you want to feel ashamed and be forced to apologize for getting an abortion?”

In Wichita, I have to say, that city has been ground zero in the abortion wars for a number of years, which is why we went there. There’s been a lot of work done and public opinion created against abortion. People who were pro-choice there were a lot more timid. We went a number of places, but we went to a major mall and just kind of talked to people and did social investigation one day—it wasn’t a day of flyering, just a day of kind of getting a sense of the mood of people and what they’re thinking—and we met people when we were just asking questions who thought that Christians were about to be put in concentration camps and that abortion is a plot from Satan. I mean, they were like shaking they were so upset. A lot of fanatical people. And we met a lot of people who were pro-choice but timid about it.

This has been a city that the Christian fascists have worked on for years. It culminated in Dr. Tiller’s assassination. This is a city that has had a culture of violent demonization and harassment of women in clinics and doctors, actually for two decades now. I do want to say that, the same day we were in the mall and other days when we were out and around, we did meet women who’d had their abortions from Dr. Tiller. A lot of people who remembered him and had a lot of love for him too. One group of friends that we met at a technical school, they were in their late twenties and three of them had had abortions, one of them from Dr. Tiller, and none of them had told each other these stories before, because there’s so much shame and silence about abortions. Only when we were there, one of them spoke about it, then the other one did, then the other one did, and the next thing you know, you had a whole dynamic that took hold. So in that microcosm, that was some of the work that we were fighting to do on a bigger scale.

To me that was one of the interesting things about the locations selected for the Freedom Ride campaign, because these places were in Middle America and the Deep South, where a lot of “socially proper” behavior is expected of you. As frank and forward as you guys are with your message, did that frighten off these more timid people?
Texas! That was a place you could have said the same thing about a month and a half ago. You could have said, “You can’t say this there.” But you see what’s been suppressed, what’s beneath the surface. We know there’s a reservoir of millions and millions of people who really, if they understand what this battle is about—right now most people think it’s about babies or most people think it’s about late-term abortions; most people don’t understand how extreme the anti-abortion movement is. The whole anti-abortion movement is against birth control. They’re against abortion in all circumstances. When that became more clarified in Texas with that law, you saw the silent reservoir, which has been on the defensive for years, because major politicians like Bill Clinton have said “We should make abortion rare,” as if there’s something wrong with it. Hillary called it “tragic.” Major pro-choice organizations like NARAL took abortion out of their name. Even though we’re pro-choice, even in the beginning it was a defensive maneuver to stop saying the word “abortion.” So there’s been a lot of defensiveness cultivated for years by the Democratic party. When that fight became clear about how extreme it was, you saw that reservoir move. That’s who we’re trying to speak to. But also to change the terms so that we’re back on the moral, political offensive. We have right on our side; we have morality on our side. Forcing women to have children against their will is immoral, and it shouldn’t be allowed to posture as if it is.

Were your demonstrations always met with vicious anti-abortion counter-protests?
It is very striking to me—and we don’t know fully what to make of this—but the anti-abortion people seemed to have really hidden from us this whole trip. And I mean actively, because, in North Dakota, we were scheduled to debate them on local TV, and we arrived for the debate and they didn’t show up. Even the reporter was surprised. When we announced to the press that we were going to do a protest at Operation Rescue’s headquarters and their fake pregnancy crisis center that they have in Wichita, and normally, they are there every day. We went into their offices and talked with them the day before. They had the schedule that they were going to be there. We showed up for the protest the next day and they had closed their offices and shuddered them, even though it was their business hours. Down in Jackson they got a permit to be outside the clinic the day we were having our protest. When the protest happened, like one or two of them showed up. Normally we see them; they’re at the clinic every day! We see them at all of these places. For whatever reason, they made a decision that they didn’t want to be confronted by people who were not defensive about abortion. That’s all I can gather. It’s easier for them if they’re harassing women who are already feeling vulnerable, when they’re protesting people who don’t want to say the word or who maybe feel like it’s tragic or something else. I don’t expect that they’ll always ignore us, but this round anyway, it seemed like they made a decision that they didn’t want to counter-protest people who were unequivocal, the way this Freedom Ride was.

That’s so surprising to me, as a Southerner. I would expect the opposition to be vitriolic and very present.
We did have a couple lone people, but when we went to Little Rock, there was a woman who really was vitriolic and threatening. She tweeted the home address of the person who had volunteered to house us, which really, if you’re an anti-abortion fanatic, you don’t do that for any other reason except to incite physical violence against somebody in their home. If you send that out to a whole bunch of people who believe they’re on a mission from God to stop what they believe is baby-killing or sinning or whatever, you don’t put out that address, the address of where the Freedom Ride is staying, unless you’re trying to incite violence. So that did happen, and we took it very seriously, both for our safety and our host as well. I’ve been at clinics many times over twenty years and seen the anti-abortion forces and the pro-choice forces face off. I’ve been involved in it all. But I’ve never seen them systematically steer clear so consistently as they did on this trip.

They’re still very active. As soon as we left Wichita, they’ve been out at the clinic, they’ve been pressing for the clinic to be re-zoned and closed down. They’ve been very, very active everywhere across the country. I can’t read their minds and it’s not like they’re one big machine that thinks the same way, but all I can deduce is that, in a more or less organized fashion, they chose not to be facing off with people who were really unapologetic about abortion, who are really unapologetic about calling them Christian fascists and women haters and we’re not mincing words about what kind of women-enslavers they are. Usually they protest and they’re used to be people—even in Texas, even in the halls of power—people seeking “common ground.” That’s what Obama has done, that’s what a lot of the Democrats have done. Even Wendy Davis—she filibustered, but then afterwards when she gave her pre-election speech, she said, “I want to make clear I will work with Republicans, I will reach across the aisle” about a week ago. She made a great effort to say “I’m interested in many other things, not just abortion.”

Has there been any negative backlash about the name “Freedom Ride” and its reference to the Civil Rights movement, considering it was a landmark protest of a very different nature?
People have said a few things. There’s nobody that we’ve reached out to, who is a major voice out there fighting in a major way in the civil rights battles [of today] who we have reached out to who has taken issue with us. There are a number who have supported it very deeply. I don’t want to misstate it—there have been people who have raised criticism, but they’re not people that I know of who have been active, either in the past or today. They’re sort of people sitting on the sidelines, taking issue, as people will do with anything.

There’s a number of people who have supported it. There are two major reasons why we drew the analogy. One is because the stakes for women really are as serious. If women are forced to have children against their will, their lives are foreclosed. Their futures are determined for them. Their dreams are extinguished, or they never flourished to begin with, because when you grow up in a world where every woman you know is dropping out of school, having a child, getting trapped in an abusive marriage, having a child every time they get pregnant. If you see that, it’s not that your dreams are extinguished, it’s that your dreams don’t even flourish in the first place. You grow up a little girl in that environment, it’s like trying to grow a plant underneath a rock. You don’t dream that big. There are women who go to desperate measures—8,000 women died every year when abortion was illegal. So the stakes for women really are as serious.

There were a number of people we connected with, black people throughout the South, who went out of their way to state how important they thought it was that we took up the mantle of the Freedom Ride. A lot of this is because there has been, for decades, an attempt by the anti-abortion movement to claim the mantle of Civil Rights, just like they’re trying to claim the mantle of the Holocaust—right now, they terrorized the Holocaust museum in Albuquerque, insisting that they install an exhibit on fetuses. So a number of people, including one of the doctors who flies into Jackson, and he grew up in Alabama, when he spoke at one of our events, he made a point of speaking very deeply of how much he understood the significance of the Freedom Rides, the original ones, and how grateful he was that somebody was doing an abortion rights freedom ride, and how it was appropriately named. There were a number of people including Davey D, who is a hip-hop radio host who had us on in New York before we left, and a number of people around the clinic down in Jackson who made a point of speaking on the power of that connection.

Was there a single image of a moment that you experienced on this tour that resonated with you?
Man, there’s a lot of them. I have to be honest. One of them was when I was in the clinic in Jackson, and we’d been there escorting, talking with the patients (some of them). I was talking to [clinic director] Shannon, she was telling me the stories of the different women, and how angry she was at the people who’ve harassed them, and then—it was very heavy—she discussed what it would mean if the clinic were closed down. Then I asked her, given everything that she has to go through, why does she do what she does, given the harassment and the burdens that she has to deal with every day and all of this, and her face, I swear, it went from being so pissed off and actually living in the hardship of the women she’s telling the stories of, and suddenly her face just lit up. She said how much she loved what she does for a living. It’s not just one image, the same kind of expression happened again.

That, and the people hulahooping out from of the Jackson clinic. The escorts had so much defiance, and our younger volunteers were doing this with them. They were trying to make this experience of walking through this phalanx of people screaming at them, calling them murderers, telling them lies about what an abortion was like, calling it slaughter; they told our volunteers they should kill themselves. So when women come through they not only escort, but they try to make it festive and celebratory entrance, so they kind of ridicule the anti-abortion crowd, so they’re out there escorting, but they’re hula-hooping, and playing music, and they’re telling jokes. But the images of them hula-hooping will stick with me.

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