Why I Got Arrested Outside The Supreme Court In Support Of Abortion Rights (And Considerations If You Are Thinking Of The Same)

October 4 was the first day of the new Supreme Court term. In a few short years since the Whole Woman’s Health case, the Supreme Court has radically shifted to a six-member super majority of justices opposed to abortion rights. In September, they allowed a cruel and blatantly unconstitutional six-week abortion ban to go into effect in Texas. This term they will consider Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in which the state of Mississippi is openly seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that affirmed the federal constitutional right to abortion. Against this backdrop, 2021 is the worst year on record for abortion restrictions enacted in the states — more than 100.

As I’ve said repeatedly, for nearly 50 years the anti-abortion movement has pursued a two-pronged strategy: to stack the Supreme Court to overturn Roe, and eviscerate access to abortion in the states. They now have the chessboard they’ve long sought. And what has been very bad — a reality where Roe practically and functionally disappeared for so many people years ago, especially people in red states, women of color, low-income people, and young people — is on the precipice of getting much, much worse.

I believe in direct action with my entire soul. When I’m taking action I feel a power extending from my veins to my feet, a rootedness that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. All the meetings and strategies and talking points, they play critical roles. But nothing brings change the way ‘breaking the agreement’ does, as a dear friend and mentor Zoe Nicholson has taught me. Direct action works. Direct action is not indirect action, such as lobbying an individual to take action on our behalf. It is using our bodies and the environment to literally change the equation.

So here’s what we did last week: Dozens of us marched up to the Supreme Court as the term officially began, carrying a “no abortion ban” banner, chanting Abortion Is Unstoppable, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, moving peacefully through abortion opponents shouting all sorts of invective toward us. After continuing to chant on the sidewalk outside the Supreme Court, we moved into the street and blocked traffic in an act of non-violent civil disobedience. We then sat in the street with our signs, continuing to chant. Capitol Police provided verbal warnings. With the final warning, activists who were not risking arrest got up and moved to the sidewalk. Twelve of us stayed down.

We were handcuffed, patted down, arrested, and brought to Capitol Police headquarters in wagons for detention and processing. Throughout we remained peaceful and dignified, in honor of the utter seriousness of what is at stake. Equality under the law, bodily autonomy, gender justice, racial justice, democracy, religious freedom, sexual freedom, and the right to sexual pleasure. After three hours in jail, we each paid $50, provided a fingerprint, and were released.

Would I do it again? Absolutely, in a similar situation in which all avenues for leverage have been exhausted. That is where we are with this Supreme Court. The best hope we have for the group project from hell taking place on First Street Northeast is Chief Justice John Roberts, who is hostile to abortion rights and still has five more justices who will overrule him, as they did in allowing the Texas abortion ban to go into effect. (This is to say: Not great hope.)

But this is important: Justices on all sides of the ideological spectrum appear to be concerned about the public opinion turning against their legitimacy, seeing them as politicized (warranted, given how Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett were rammed through). The leverage we have left is letting them know that if they further disrupt the legal status of abortion, outrage and protest will follow — and putting a pro-choice sticker on your Facebook profile picture isn’t going to change a damn thing as far as these justices are concerned. Breaking convention is an important piece of this puzzle.

All this is to say, I’m not a fan of people leaping to ‘let’s get arrested’ because something bad is happening. Strategy before tactics is Organizing 101, whether the tactic we’re talking about is getting arrested or selling cookies and flyering outside the grocery store. If we’re trying to be smart, we’ve got to define what we want, our targets and what we want them to do, relevant power players and pressure points, and a pathway to winning, before even thinking about tactics.

Also, importantly: Non-violent civil disobedience is a sacred tradition that I believe carries most impact when it’s saved for the times we most need it. We all know the story of Chicken Little. We need to act when it truly, actually matters. This is the time I believe we are now in with abortion rights.

We must be clear that non-violent civil disobedience is not for everyone. Due to systemic racism, risking arrest and encounters with law enforcement means very different — dangerous — things for people of color than it does for someone like me, who is mostly read as a white, middle-age, suburban mom-type. There are also times when for mental or physical health reasons, or caregiving reasons, or any range of personal reasons that radical action is not right for any given person at any given time. In any case, there are a number of roles for people who are not arrested during civil disobedience that are equally critical to the action. Further, risking arrest makes no activist cooler, more devoted, or more effective than another activists; a spectrum of activities are needed to bring change.

Based on my experience, I urge you to consider the following if you’re considering non-violent civil disobedience in support of abortion rights during these tenuous times for equality and justice:

  • Plan in advance. Getting arrested in the heat of the moment affords far less time to build maximum visibility and security strategies for your participants.
  • Be prepared that abortion opponents will probably be there. I recommend complete and total non-engagement. Don’t talk to them, don’t let them touch you, and raise your hands and ask for help if they get too close to you. Sadly, a common tactic they have is to get close to you and then claim you assaulted them. Don’t let them get away with it.
  • Know the laws, and work with lawyers in advance. Some groups will want to engage with police prior to the action, whereas others will very justifiably not. The time to have these serious discussions is well in advance of the action.
  • Approach the action with a clear message. You’ll want everyone looking at you to know what you’re doing and why. Have clear signs, clear T-shirts, and clear chants. Have people on press detail who will not be risking arrest. Event advisories, press releases, social media, photographs, videos — if you’re not letting people know it happened, it didn’t happen.
  • Root in purpose. Meditate. Feel the importance of what you are doing and why. Know who you are acting for. Take your time in the moment of civil disobedience. You will feel an incredible closeness during the action. Do not forget, direct action doesn’t just change the circumstances — it changes the activists. In action we feel our power. Root it in purpose.
Marching up to Supreme Court on October 4, 2021
Chanting outside Supreme Court on October 4, 2021 – wearing a green bandana in solidarity with Latin American feminists who have been fighting for the right to abortion in their own countries
Blocking the street outside the Supreme Court on October 4, 2021
Activists are handcuffed, waiting transport to Capitol Police headquarters
I was released from jail three hours later (All photo credits: Kristine Jones)

Looking for more? I wrote When It Comes to Abortion Rights, Civil Disobedience Could Be the Only Option for Teen Vogue after the fateful nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Read it here.

What Distance Running Has Taught Me About Activism

Whether you’re a runner, an activist, both, or neither, the ability to set goals, adapt, and persevere is critical to success. I’ve been distance running seriously for a few years, and doing activism my whole life.

Here are things I’ve learned that aren’t covered in political, organizing, and direct action trainings (but should be!):

1. Pacing is going slower than you want to now so you can maintain energy to keep going. I get it, 2020 is a dumpster fire and, at the time of writing, we’re days from the election. But it does not all need to be fixed by you right now. If you are acting like it does, you are very likely to drop out. Success comes from protecting your ability to show up 17 miles later.

2. If you’re working so hard you can’t keep up in a conversation, you need to slow down. Literally. Physically. Now.

3. Take injury seriously. If it hurts your body is telling you to stop. Rest for as long as you need to, which is often weeks or even months. Nothing is more important than your health. ‘Pushing through’ is amateur, and a threat to your ability to continue doing what you love. Breaks and down cycles, including the ones you didn’t plan for, are part of the work.

4. Planning and goal-setting is as important as doing. Accomplishing large goals requires months of advance planning and committing to bite-sized daily goals on your calendar.

5. The smaller slogs are more profound than the flashy moments. The four-mile run on a Tuesday when the weather sucks and you have an early-morning car repair appointment is what makes a marathoner far more than a long-distance run on the best trail or a personal record on the GPS. Phone-banking at home by yourself to catch one person live for a real conversation makes an activist far more than the rare instances of having your picture at a rally on the front page of the news.

6. Journal. Write down what worked and what didn’t, every day. Take the journal with you everywhere you travel.

7. Take fueling seriously. Make sure you’re eating enough throughout the day (every day, not just big run days) and being strategic to eat substantive food that will give you energy, won’t upset your stomach, and doesn’t set your body on edge.

8. Quality sleep is everything. It’s not just the number of hours per day. I’ve found my sleep quality and feeling of being rested upon waking improves markedly when I abstain totally from alcohol.

9. Sturdy underwear. Seriously, what the hell are you trying to do with a wedgie?! I’m sad for you.

10. Make a point to enjoy life along the way. Like running, organizing and activism involves doing a lot of stuff outside — make time to enjoy what you see, smile, and say hi to people.

Parenting + Homeschooling Resources for Indigenous Peoples’ Day (We’re Making It A Week)

Monday is Indigenous’ Peoples Day, and we’re going to make a week of it for my second grader. Here are resources we’re going to be using next week:

Build A Teepee School Art Project

Native American Counting Song

Pocahontas, followed by critical discussion about what and whose purpose is served by narratives like the ridiculously implausible and offensive one about Pocahontas and white man colonizer John Smith

Native American Folk Songs for Kids

Brain Pop Unit: American Indians

America’s Great Indian Nations

Meet the Youth at Standing Rock Protests Against the Dakota Access Pipeline

Art Project: Native American War or Medicine Shield

We’re also going to be exploring Native American agriculture by looking at corn fields and areas where Native Americans grew wild rice, perhaps eating some, too!

Note: I’m sharing these resources because frankly I was disgusted by how hard I had to look for them on the Internet while preparing for the upcoming week. I share these resources with acknowledgement that as a white person I live on stolen land and that surely there are other resources that Native Americans might prefer; however, as a white woman committed to anti-racist work and anti-racist parenting I also think it’s important for white people to do our own damn work rather than pushing it onto others. So here I am sharing mine. Feel free to add additional resources for the kids in the comments!

Lessons From Alice

Alice Cohan is on the short list of most effective living feminist organizers in the United States. The principal organizer of the Equal Rights Amendment marches on Washington, she is in a category of her own: There is no other Alice. For those of you, who like me, were not alive then, perhaps the best way to acquaint you with Alice’s work is to tell you about the 2004 March for Women’s Lives that brought 1.15 million people to the National Mall in support of abortion rights. At the time, it was the largest such march in history.

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2004 March for Women’s Lives demonstration in Washington, D.C.

Today Alice is political director for Feminist Majority, a role she previously held for the National Organization for Women. Many know Alice as the indispensable right-hand woman of Eleanor Smeal. I have been fortunate to know Alice for nearly 20 years, meeting her when I was in college. She has been a mentor ever since, and while I have been blessed with several, no other feminist mentor has had the longevity and, frankly, the patience with me that Alice has. I would not be doing the work I am today if Alice had not invested in me.

In honor of Alice, I’d like to share some of the organizing lessons I’ve learned from her over the years:

1. Invest in young people. Freely share information, and invite them to ask questions. Invite them to the meeting, whether or not they ‘belong.’ Do the work of today’s movement and fostering the next generation of the movement at the same time. Alice and I first developed a relationship when I spent a semester cleaning out her office, which remains a fire hazard in spite of my best efforts. I will never forget her telling me not just to put the files away, but to “read them, and ask me questions.” The following summer while she was visiting my (then) home state of Minnesota, she invited me to accompany her to a private, important meeting between top feminist leaders and a big-time lawyer representing victims of abuse by Catholic priests. Who does this with a 21-year-old kid? Alice. This is not about me, it’s about Alice, and I know there are trails of young people she has encouraged and fostered over the years.

2. If you disagree on strategy or tactics, say it plainly and without hesitation, and explain why. Alice is not one to stay silent when she disagrees. There’s a no-bullshit frankness about Alice that eschews some of the gendered teachings that women should be passive and/or passive aggressive when we disagree. Because of this, we’re all smarter, more honest, and often more well-rounded in our approach when we air differences openly and respectfully.

3. Organizing a national march is a tremendous amount of work. It is not the solution for every problem. When it is to be deployed, carefully thinking through strategy and timing helps us use our resources most wisely. This is an important point that still has its place in this era of social media-declared marches. For example, a demonstration on the National Mall shortly before elections is not a great idea because it pulls people away from door-knocking in communities where turnout is critical.

4. Actions look bigger when we all wear one color. White, in particular, really looks big.

5. Support for abortion rights will always be one of the most critical parts of feminist work. If they say they’re feminist but are not explicitly pro-choice, we must object vehemently and with all that we have. I’ve written about this extensively, including here for Rewire, “Melinda Gates, and Why We Must Talk About Abortion in Progressive and Feminist Circles.”

6. Get on the phone. Have a meeting. Sending messages back and forth pales in comparison. Nothing beats a call, or a real meeting with several people around the table, in order to get things done.

7. Never stop trying. It is 2019, and Alice and Ellie are still giving their all to bring the Equal Rights Amendment into the Constitution. If Virginia’s elections this fall go well, we could get our last state to ratify and … this has not been an accident. They have never, never stopped working and organizing for this moment.

8. All issues are women’s issues. There is no such thing as single-issue feminism. Make it intersectional. Work for it all, ask for it all.

9. Make time to laugh and invest in personal relationships with other feminists. Do not let ‘factions’ or issue disagreements get in the way. Maintain those relationships. This point is critical, and I don’t think it can be understated. At times, Alice and I have disagreed deeply on issues. At others, we have run in different circles that included people who were vehemently, in some cases, even toxically opposed to one another. In these situations Alice never gave up on me — even when she would be angry with me — and she continued initiating regular contact and encouraging me to ask her questions about organizing.

10. You can get a tremendous amount done if you don’t worry about taking credit for it. To be honest, I don’t know if Alice would agree with me that this is one of her biggest lessons. But it’s one of the biggest takeaways I’ve had from watching her work, working with her, and listening to her, and I come back to it often.

11. Ask for what you want, loudly. Don’t waste a room full of people without asking them for money, or to sign a petition, or to come to an event. If you’re reading this now and feel so moved, please make a donation to Feminist Majority in honor of Alice, who is on the verge of receiving a lifetime achievement award from NOW. Proceeds will be used to fund critical organizing work for the 2019 Virginia elections.

I fear I’ve butchered this all horribly, as there is so much more to learn from Alice. However after nearly 20 years I wanted to share with you directly a small portion of what I’ve learned from this organizer extraordinaire.  And if you have been mentored by me, or in any way have felt some learning from my work, know that because of the profound influence this woman has had on me, I consider you as linked to Alice’s generosity of teaching, as well.

(Please, learn more about Alice here at the Veteran Feminists of America Pioneer Histories Project, including a long video interview with Alice conducted by yours truly.)

Resilience For Activists

We are living through an age of authoritarianism and fascism. It is global and heartbreakingly local, including our own failed leaders who are openly embracing white nationalism and using biological sex as a weapon against women and LGBTQ people. It is easy to get overwhelmed — overwhelming you is core to the strategy bad leaders and bullies use to amplify their power.

So, we must practice resilience.

Resilience is a practice, a verb. Rather than judging yourself for being resilient or not, my encouragement is that you focus on building daily awareness of resilience and moving yourself more deeply toward a state of sustainable resistance. What is one thing you did yesterday that represents a victory in your daily practice of self-care? What is one thing that could have gone better in this regard? Write them down. I do this every morning.

For activists, practicing resilience looks like:

  • Saying no. Not every request made to you needs to be fulfilled by you.
  • Stepping away from your phone. You don’t have to be on top of everything, all the time. Activism is intense work. Take extended breaks, with family or friends who have nothing to do with your activism, and leave the damn device off the table.
  • Rest, hydration, and good food. This stuff is basic but real. Give yourself adequate sleep. Keep drinking water. Eat good, real food. Breathe. Go for walks. Stretch your muscles. Your body is not your container; it is yourself. Treat it well.

There are times that call for working ludicrously hard, when the work is a strobe light in your face for prolonged moments on end. We are living through such an age. Pacing is going slower than you know you can most of the time so that you are able to speed up when the moment absolutely calls for it. Doing so creates space to surge, finish, and stay in the work for the long haul. Where we need you.

Take care of yourselves, friends.

You See A Trump Administration Official In Public — Now What?

“Hi, I just want to urge you to resign because of what you’re doing to the environment in our country,” Kristin Mink said to former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt in a restaurant while hoisting her baby on her hip. “This is my son. He loves animals. He loves clean air. He loves water … We deserve to have someone at the EPA who actually does protect the environment. Someone who believes in climate change.”

Days later, Scott Pruitt resigned.

Taking direct action is effective. What makes this video so mesmerizing is how casually Kristin Mink strides up and speaks. Perhaps you think you can’t do this. But you can.

Here’s what to do if you see Trump administration officials in public:

1. To paraphrase my friend Susie, remember that they are YOUR government and accountable to YOU.

You have every right to speak to government officials — and expect a response — no matter what they are doing. In line at Target? Fair game. Eating at a restaurant? Go for it. Out at a swanky show on the town? You got it, friend.

2. Don’t worry about civility.

You can be firm and you can be polite, but if to be civil means to let an autocratic government attack a free press, rip families apart, decimate reproductive rights, destroy environmental protections, and embrace bald racism and nativism under our country’s flag — that kind of civility is actually just enabling, and nope, you don’t have to do that.

3. Assess where you are, who you have, and then start filming. 

Is a friend or family member with you? Decide who will record and who will speak. Are you by yourself? Grab your own phone and hold it up to record while you start talking. If you don’t record the interaction, it didn’t happen. You can put the video on Facebook Live if you are familiar with the tool, otherwise don’t worry about the program and record now to share later. Turn on the camera and keep it focused on them.

4. Walk up. Don’t wait. Do it now.

Your opportunity to speak truth to power may not last long. Do not let it slip you by. Your goal is not to be perfect. Your goal is to be a real human, which brings me to the next point:

5. Don’t worry about the finer points of policy or the right talking points or language. Speak from your heart.

Plain language is your friend. If I saw a Trump administration official right now, I’m not sure I’d have all the policy right, but I would feel confident speaking from my heart. “I have a little girl and I’m tired of having to turn down the radio because the president is using racial slurs.” “I’m scared about the direction the country is going in and I’m terrified about what is going to happen at the Supreme Court. You should be ashamed of yourself.” Speaking from your heart is perfect — you don’t need to be a commentator on TV. Be yourself, in the moment now. That is your moral authority.

6. Demand answers from them and go quiet strategically, keeping the camera on their face.

Keep asking your follow-up questions, but remember that the point of interacting is to make them answer TO YOU. If they start running away, move quickly after them, continuing to ask the question.

7. Once it’s over, post it online. 

Post the recording on social media, share it with people you know, and let people know how the interaction made you feel. By doing this work, you are making it more likely that others will feel comfortable confronting this corrupt, deathly administration.

Remember: You got this. Don’t let these opportunities fly by. You don’t need to be perfect. You have incredible power, just as you are, the moment you run into these folks.

 

Ready For Change? Try Direct Action

As an activist, advocate, and leader for social change, one of my favorite places in the world to be is on the sidewalk, holding a sign. It is calming. I am focused. I feel closer to the equality and justice I seek.

Direct action is when we put our bodies directly on the line. It is physical demonstration. It is one of my happiest places. I came into the women’s movement twenty years ago as an activist, and while I’ve accumulated a number of experiences and skills that go far beyond activism, I will never stop being an activist in my core.

If you’ve never tried direct action before, I encourage you to give it a whirl.

Unlike online activism, which often devolves into talking with (or worse, at) each other rather than reaching out to new people, the debates are not about who has the right lingo or runs with the right activist crowd. While internal debates are important within the progressive movement, there is no time for them when we are directly confronting power.

Direct action in a group means standing together and reaching new people — people who usually have no idea that the particular injustices we are attempting to reverse are happening. We put unmistakeable pressure on others to make the world a better place, now. Direct action is not a polite whisper, although it needn’t be accompanied by loud chants. Direct action is a moment of clarity – it is an accelerant for change that can’t be ignored.

 

Vote In Your Primary Election

I want YOU to vote in every election you are eligible to vote. That includes your primary election.

If you care about winning, primary elections are where the magic starts. Where we decide if more women are going to advance. Whether candidates who support our issues will advance. And who is best poised to beat the opponent in the general election.

No election is too small for your vote. This morning we took our daughter along to vote in a primary election for a county board race. We discussed with her, who we were voting for and why. We can not take our right to vote for granted, even when primary candidates seem more or less equal or there is no one who seems “just perfect.”

When our president flirts openly with anti-democratic moves, to vote in 2018 is an act of resistance.

People went to jail so you could vote. In a primary, you often don’t need to even stand in line. Just. Go. Vote.

Write An Advance Directive That Considers Religious Discrimination And Refusals

An advance directive is a written document that specifies your wishes for medical treatment if you become hurt or sick and are unable to speak for yourself. While it’s not always pleasant to think about these things, it’s important — it can save you and your loved ones additional heartache and second-guessing.

As I previously wrote for Rewire, I refuse to be taken to a Catholic hospital. As I outlined in that piece, I think it’s wise for women and LGBTQ people to consider the same, for the simple reason that it’s not possible to fully trust that one’s health care needs and wishes will drive the care that they are offered.

My advance directive contains language that I do not consent to be taken to a Catholic hospital, and that I wish to be transferred to another provider if I am taken to one. Further it specifies that under no circumstances should an actual or presumed pregnancy be used as an excuse to supersede my instructions for my medical care. In one advance directive draft, I actually wrote, “If someone tries to tell you otherwise, sue until you get a different result.”

My suggestion is for you to write an advance directive if you don’t have one (AARP offers acceptable advance directive forms for the state you live in here), or review yours if you already do. In addition to the replying to prompts in your state’s form, consider the denials of care that are taking place in religiously affiliated hospitals. Is there language like mine, or specific to your own situation that you would like to insert?

While we can’t all collectively self-help our way out of denials of health care — there needs to be policy change that requires a timely way for people to access the care they need if they are interacting with a service provider who refuses their wishes — this is one little step we all can and should take in the meantime.

Hey, Feminists: If You Went To A Catholic College, Make Yourself A Visible Alum

Recently I learned that a colleague working in reproductive rights had graduated from the University of Notre Dame. My eyes nearly popped out of my head. “Stay active in your campus community,” I said. “You’ve got to do it.”

I am a proud alum of Georgetown University, which provided me an excellent education and foundation for the social justice work I do. I’ve made a point to stay active in the campus community over the years — interviewing prospective undergraduate students, serving on panels and at speed mentoring events facilitated by the career center, mentoring students through the Women’s Center, speaking to the H*yas for Choice unofficial student group, and providing direct financial support. I was very honored one year to serve as a judge for the Merrick Debate for the Philodemic Society. I have weighed in on a debate through the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affiars as to whether you can oppose abortion and be a feminist (spoiler alert: not possible!). Basically, anything they ask me to do, I will do it.

I have also undertaken activism with regard to my campus community. Every time I interact with H*yas for Choice, the group on campus which advocates for abortion rights, I give them a financial donation. Most times when I donate directly to the university, I will add notes about how I would donate more if student activities funds could be allocated to H*yas for Choice as well. Simply put, there are brilliant women at Georgetown who deserve to have their basic humanity respected.

I enjoy following the lead of the brave students of H*yas for Choice who are not officially recognized by the campus community and have had their rights trampled on by the university, as happened a few years ago when campus police removed them from tabling on a public sidewalk that was not university property. When that happened, I organized more than 200 alums to sign an open letter to the university president requesting that the situation be rectified to support free speech on (and in this case off) campus, which was met by an apology to the students and a formal explication of free speech rights on campus (and after which I gave the university the largest donation of my life).

I’m sharing this because if you attended a Catholic university and are a feminist, I’m asking you to remain engaged as an alum within your campus community. Students do not need us to lead their battles on campus — young people are inspiring and so fully capable — but it is helpful when we back them up. Further, it’s critical. There is a well-organized right wing that organizes a small but vocal minority of alums to place pressure on their Catholic universities when, for example, speakers who support birth control are brought to campus. This has led to protests of speaking engagements by presidents, cabinet secretaries, and other major players such as the president of Planned Parenthood as if consideration of all sides of an issue is against the principle of higher learning. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I love my world-class university and all it has taught me over the years, including a non-profit management executive certificate I recently completed. What I have also seen is that the right-wing is well-organized in trying to pull Catholic colleges further to the right, at times making threats that they will petition the Vatican to revoke their Catholic status. Such efforts are widely out of step with the base of alums who need you, dear feminist alum, to take leadership. Please stay engaged in your alma mater. Even if you partake in other forms of activism, staying engaged with your former Catholic college could be some of the most important work you do in your lifetime for young women.