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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Effective Support and Counter Tactics of the Pro-Choice Movement in Pittsburgh (2010)

This article may be triggering to people sensitive to issues of harassment, unwanted pregnancy, and assault.

One of the biggest hurdles to cross when doing pro-choice actions is that of tactics. How do we create a welcoming atmosphere for patients while also countering anti-choicers? How do we defend ourselves and our movement against the antis? How do we create a clear distinction between ourselves and the antis? How do we remain pro-patient while still allowing space for a diversity of tactics?
These questions and many others are those that created stress as we began learning how to organize a pro-choice presence in Pittsburgh. Through a lot of trial and error, a few mistakes and scuffles, and a lot of successes, we were able to find a few things that worked in order to please the patients, the clinic escorts, the clinic staff, and ourselves while effectively countering the antis.
One of the first things that seemed to cause issue was the dismissal by some of concerns raised by women, clinic workers/volunteers, and other vagina-bearers on the issue. There were problems with manarchy, stubbornness, and other things on the part of both participators and organizers. Perhaps most importantly, there was disagreement on where to place the majority of the actions' focus - countering the antis or supporting the patients - as if the two were mutually exclusive (which we believe are not).
To give a quick overview for those who have not experienced the varied tactics of the "pro-life" movement, the scene is one that can make even the calmest of people's blood boil. Keep in mind that patients in Pittsburgh often come from other states without clinics, are sometimes survivors of sexual assault, and may be experiencing increased levels of emotion and stress. We've seen patients yell and cry as a result of persistent harassment by antis.
At the clinic we've been at the past few weeks, the antis are broken into groups which carry out different tasks. Prayers and singers often crowd sidewalks, blocking the paths of patients and other people passing by. The police do nothing to change this (despite their willingness to tell an anti-authoritarian action to move at the drop of a hat). There is also a group that call themselves "sidewalk counselors" though we feel that more accurate terms to describe them include harassers, vultures, assailants, etc. The "counselors" rush patients as they walk towards the clinic, shoving pamphlets and images of aborted fetuses in their faces. Not only are patients stalked as they arrive, but even when temporarily leaving the clinic to grab a snack at a convenience store - yes, they were actually followed inside - and as they're walking back to their cars. Clinic workers are also periodically followed to their cars and bus stops. It's also worth noting that the harassers are often men (who will never know what it's like to be pregnant). Additionally within the group, there are a few individuals that put themselves up as "leaders" of the various activities. These people are usually priests or other men. They often have video cameras and will videotape women walking into clinics or will ask them to get into cars with them. At another clinic, we experienced the worst of the antis - the vocal harassers - who aim to intimidate and insult both patients and pro-choicers as well as clinic workers and volunteers. They yell things like "Women come out of there in body bags!" and give excuses such as "Pregnancy because of rape is God's way of letting you know your purpose". Many men and other antis will put themselves uncomfortably close to pro-choice people in order to try to intimidate them. So far, they've failed to do so with us.
In our first attempts at countering the anti's, many pro-choicers reacted by getting into verbal confrontations with them. We often positioned ourselves amongst and within close proximity to them, causing a more confusing and sometimes hostile environment for the patients we wanted to support. Some pro-choice passersby even yelled at us, assuming we were with the antis because of the conflicted jumble of people. Some of the pro-choicers attended the event masked and with signs targeting religion, which was viewed by others as creating an intimidating, scary environment for the patients. As a result, disagreements as to where individuals were placing their priorities and goals for the protest reached their peak and some people decided to step away from the organizing. Some groups divided from others until each group of people found their niche. Ours was on Saturday mornings from 7:30 a.m. to around 11:00 a.m.
The remaining organizers decided to approach the planning of future counter-protests in a way that we felt kept patients safety and comfort at the forefront. Future attempts attracted the attention of clinic escorts and security guards, some of whom were opposed to us showing up at clinics for the aforementioned reasons while others felt that a pro-choice presence at clinics was desperately needed. Despite our sometimes differing opinions, we all listened and communicated, allowing us to hear their concerns and implemented a majority of them. The next Saturday to come would end up being very rewarding as a result.

We made positive signs that focused strictly on a pro-women, pro-choice, and a light-hearted anti-antis stance including "Abortion is OK!", "I trust a woman's choice," "We support your choices," "Keep your rosaries off our ovaries," "Ignore the preyers," and others. We assembled across the street from the clinic which gave us a significant separation from the antis, making an obvious distinction between us and them. Despite our love of masked actions, we requested that people come to our event unmasked in order to create an environment that was as unintimidating for patients as possible. We decided to be as non-confrontational as we could with the antis, especially when patients were entering the clinic. This was perhaps the most difficult part of the action. Misogynistic men said harassing and abusive things to us and we struggled to keep our cool - though we did much of the time. We danced, laughed, smiled, and enjoyed our comrades standing with us in the damaging environment we found ourselves in. And, it worked.
The antis were frustrated by our presence and that we took over some of their usual praying grounds. While there were now more antis on the sidewalk next to the clinic entrance, we still saw the space takeover victorious as the only thing patients could see was us and our positive signs through the clinic windows. We were approached by several staff members who were excited about our presence and positivity. Escorts, including our detractors, came over to thank us and some told us they changed their minds about us being there (in our favor). Most importantly to us, patients expressed to clinic workers the comfort they felt knowing they had supporters on the outside during this often difficult time. We finally figured it out. But, as always, things evolve and change and we had to as well.
The antis attempted to step up their game on a recent Saturday. Little did they know, they played right into our hands. They showed up an hour late and moved all of their people en masse to our side of the street. They now shifted a majority of their focus on trying to minimize our impact which left only a few harassers on the sidewalk next to the clinic entrance. They brought a large religious banner and began praying loudly. It was about 100 of them to 5 of us. But, we acted quickly. We immediately moved our banner and signs to be directly in front of theirs. They tried desperately to stand on their tip-toes and stretch their arms up high but our messages still covered theirs. While our initial attempts resulted in many of us being mistaken as antis, people driving were now mistaking antis for pro-choicers!

Antis were now in close proximity which allowed us to counter them both verbally and visually with minimal impact on patients entering the clinic. Each time they pushed their banner towards us, we pushed it back, until they had little space to hold it. The "pro-choice" and "friendly" cop who often seemed to be an ally at the clinic allowed herself to be duped by one of the harassers (we refer to him as K-Fed, if you saw him you'd know why). She tried to ask us to move and so forth but we worked it out so we did not. She did not ask the 100 praying antis behind us to move, even though they blocked the entire sidewalk. We held our ground, sang "row your boat" over top of the sing songing of the antis, and finally got the chance to verbally and physically fight back a little. While unfortunately the antis could now be seen from the clinic windows, our messages of love and support still dominated. We laughed and sang over their prayers and harassment. We got to tell them how we felt for once without creating a scene of conflict for patients. We thanked the antis for failing miserably and expressed desires for them to continue to do so. We know they will.

There are a lot of actions in which the reward is not immediate. We have to hope that we're creating change and that we or at least others down the line will get to see results someday. When fighting an oppression it's important to keep in mind that one victorious demonstration does not negate the need for further actions, opposition, and solidarity. However, we've agreed that that pro-choice clinic actions are by far one of the most rewarding events that we've ever participated in. We've been extremely pleased with the effectiveness in supporting patients, volunteers, and clinic workers and the feedback received - despite the lack of sleep, harassment, and misogynistic comments from military men driving by. While it’ s unfortunate that our numbers have dwindled as a result of disagreements on tactics, we believe that the pro-patient focus has been vital to our success.
Our struggle for liberation is an ongoing one, with two assailants (of many) being Patriarchy and State Repression. Being that these are both multifaceted institutions within our society, it's sometimes difficult to pin down a physical, cognizant manifestation of these ideologies that we can directly confront and attack. People who hold the misogynistic belief that they should control the reproductive rights of women are an excellent example of both of these oppressions at work. They are right out in the open to be targeted and countered at your neighborhood clinic. There are patients there every day who are being actively attacked and oppressed, who need our support and solidarity. We hope this essay will help more people share in the joy that is a pro- female, pro-reproductive freedom, anti-hierarchy, and pro-support and choice environment.
The Pittsburgh Pro-Choice Welcoming Committee

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