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.
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.