Filed under: Analysis, Anti-Patriarchy, Critique, Featured, Health Care, Southeast
Analysis and reflections on a recent march in Raleigh, North Carolina, as the state rolls out a new abortion ban.
On Friday, May 26th a nighttime demonstration against the new North Carolina abortion ban was organized for downtown Raleigh, NC. I was not an organizer of the event, but I wanted to offer my appreciation to those who put the demo together and also a few reflections from the march and on the general state of things.
The new NC ban restricts abortions to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and also sets in motion several other restrictions and requirements, like more in-person visits to be able to get medication abortion, and ambulatory access for clinics. This is designed to de facto shut down all the remaining clinics in our state, none of which currently comply with these inane, expensive, and medically unnecessary restrictions.
While not as egregious as the 6-week bans that have been passed in other parts of the South and Midwest, this ban is particularly strategic for the State’s anti-abortion wing: Since the Dobbs decision, North Carolina and South Carolina have been primary states where residents of the deeper South have traveled to for access and care. With South Carolina passing its own ban, North Carolina was the closest remaining state with access, and the numbers of people traveling here for abortions has increased dramatically. So, in a sense, a North Carolina ban is an attempt to close the cage door on the entire southeast.
Given all this, I was hoping for something impactful and motivating on Friday. Organizers promoted it fairly well, and word seemed to spread. Participants were told in flyers to “wear black,” a kind of not-so-subtle dogwhistle for black bloc, that became a common way in the triangle area for more militant marches in 2020 to gesture the expected “tone” of a demonstration. (It’s safe to say from the police response that Raleigh PD now hears this whistle more as a shout).
By around 8pm between 100-150 people had showed up to Nash Square. The crowd was extremely young, probably more white than most of the confrontational demos of 2020, and mostly dressed in black but very poorly or completely un-masked. Bike scouts took off and aided the march, and the crowd took to the streets immediately. Almost right away, we were trailed by a police escort of four to five vehicles, including the small all-terrain type vehicles (basically modded golf carts that can carry officers who deploy on foot) that Raleigh PD used quite effectively for snatch arrests during the smaller, later militant demos of 2020. But we held the street, and they stayed back.
Beyond a few folks breaking off periodically to put up stickers, the march stayed contained and there was no property destruction or directly fighting back against police. Numbers were probably too small for this sort of thing anyway. But the chants and the energy were solid and felt great. In contrast to the milquetoast white-lady-liberalism that suffocates much of abortion politics, it just felt great to be with some real comrades screaming, “Abort the state, we decide our fate!,” all over downtown. “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries!,” while outside a Catholic Church, was a good one, too. It rhymes!
The march snaked around downtown and ended awkwardly at the state capitol building, where an increasingly small group of people used a projector to shine “Our Bodies are Ungovernable” in giant letters on the building, and shared their own stories of abortions on a bullhorn. We were surrounded by State Capitol police, who looked bored. It felt more like a gesture of powerlessness rather than of strength, and my crew and many others chose to leave at that point. To my understanding it ended soon after with no arrests.
In a context where there has been very little street-level direct action against this ban, or against the recent wave of anti-trans and anti-drag legislation, the organizers of this deserve some respect and appreciation. Thank god there was finally something—anything!—in the streets. I appreciate y’all.
It felt clear that this march was organized with some of the later demos of 2020 in mind, in which typically 150-300 people in black staged a short march, smashed and painted certain targets along the way, and disappeared quickly with as few arrests as possible. The numbers, but also confidence, of the march on Friday was lacking in comparison with those 2020 demos, and the police response this time felt quicker as well. The model used here in late 2020 was largely successful but also carried a lot of built-in limitations due to the demos’ brevity, size, and the political context of September and October of that year. Last Friday felt to me like a less confident version of the same.
Relatedly—what’s up with this half-in, half-out black bloc? Small covid masks, or no masks at all, but in full black…What’s the point? This was not an issue in later 2020; our collective movement memory seems to have hit the reset button.
The crowd attire on Friday was tactically pointless bordering upon bizarre. Black bloc is not a political performance. It is not political-militant virtue signaling. It is a tactic used to achieve anonymity so that a crowd can act more decisively and confidently in confrontation. If anonymity isn’t being achieved, or isn’t even the intention, then there’s no point for the silly uniform. There seems to be a genuine, honest confusion around this. And as one comrade observed, the inexperience and ambiguity around this use of bloc “aesthetics” draws into question all the security practices of those present. This tendency where we just make a flyer declaring “Wear Black” appears to be insufficient, or has run its course altogether. How do we call for a bloc in a way that broad networks of people understand, but that remains as illegible as possible to police? How do we tactfully educate newer folks on how to do this better? From the perspective of both organizing these demos as well as our movement culture in general, what do we need to do to shift this dynamic?
Where Was Everybody?
While innumerable badasses are hard at work “behind the scenes” making sure that medication remains available, that clinics can stay open and are defended, and that funds are raised for people who need to travel here—all of which is becoming increasingly difficult and criminalized—there is almost no direct action seeking to push back on these laws or their enforcement. It feels as if a quiet, creeping dread, rather than mass outrage, greets the announcement of each new ban.
Given this context, the turnout on Friday was disappointing to say the least. Where was everybody? Numbers at the few autonomously organized demos around other issues in the triangle recently have been low, but I was hoping that an abortion ban which shatters 50 years of legal and cultural precedent, and will change the lives of millions, would still attract far more.
This demo represented an opportunity to begin to challenge liberalism’s local monopoly over street action around abortion. In spite of the admirable efforts of organizers, we failed the test. While networks of rad healthcare people have and continue to build impressive networks of care and access, within and beyond the law, our movements against these bans have demonstrated little collective power and force in the streets. We are currently a football team with only defensive players on the roster.
This stands in stark contrast to the Green Wave in Latin America, especially in Mexico, in which largely non-electoral, autonomous, and often highly militant movements have used street demonstrations and direct action pressure campaigns to achieve the decriminalization of abortion in a number of countries, at precisely the same time that the Democratic Party here accepts defeat after defeat with nary a peep of protest.
The hegemony of electoralism, gradualism, and white-people-comfort-politics in the American “pro-choice” movement has walked us into this dead-end. It is a dead-end that already has had serious consequences for many, especially black and brown folks and people without the money to travel to an increasingly far-away state. The approach of liberalism is one that slowly surrenders to fascism at every turn, and on a practical level offers no meaningful tools to social movements once the dull instrument of procedural gradualism fails. As was to be expected, that instrument has now catastrophically failed.
In thinking through how we can move forward, I see two current fronts in this battle. (It should be pointed out that many of these observations and suggestions could also apply to the movement against bans on gender affirming care and drag, which run parallel with the abortion bans and operate with much the same Christian-nationalist/fascist understandings of biopower.)
First, many of our comrades working inside and beyond the bounds of professional healthcare already have their hands full with preparing for the quotidian realities of criminalized abortion care. Secondly, many other comrades center their efforts around defending others against street-level fascist groups. Both are important priorities. But now that the far-right has generated enough institutional access to be able to turn much of its energy away from street-level fascist organizing to passing actual state legislation, the latter appears wholly inadequate and the former both isolated and mainly defensive. How do we open up another front in this conflict to aid these efforts?
When the first abortion clinic in an anti-abortion state publicly refuses to close, how will autonomous movements be positioned to defend that choice? This strikes me as one of the key questions that lie before us. Practically speaking, what kind of power and force will we be able to demonstrate that can prevent or dissuade local municipal bodies from enforcing state law? And how will that force connect and coordinate with those already doing clandestine healthcare work?
Combative street demos strike me as one among many key ingredients here. 2020 proved that, even without the revolutionary power to actually abolish the police, militants have the ability to force local municipalities to interfere with their own law enforcement’s priorities. Demonstrations in Durham, NC in 2014 achieved this as well: in the wake of the police murder of Chuy Huerta, a wave of angry demonstrations and hell-raising by family members and friends forced out the police chief and changed a whole range of the police department’s enforcement priorities. There’s no reason we can’t show that kind of power again. But it takes practice and repetition, and those muscles have clearly atrophied.
Our strength does not lie in directly influencing legislative chambers. We are not lobbyists. But there is a strategic weak link in the anti-abortion states’ plans for implementing their laws. What would it take to prevent enforcement? There are also serious weaknesses in the anti-abortion states’ plans due to internal divisions in their political class, from city to city. What would it take to leverage and lean into these ruling class divisions, in such a way as to open up the possibility of actual “sanctuary” cities, where abortion clinics remain safely, publicly open in spite of state bans? Are there broader revolutionary and abolitionist possibilities in this tension of city versus state, in which we undermine and displace the legitimacy of liberal municipal governments when they refuse to act autonomously from a right-wing state assembly?
I believe we have the movement knowledge and experience to “convince” police departments that its not in their interest to enforce the abortion bans. We know how to keep politicians in their McMansions up all night. We have the ability to occupy buildings and set up clinics. We have the crews to steal supplies and the networks to share them. We have the fists and voices and hammers and rocks to make every fancy area of town shake until their politician friends rescind these laws, or refuse to enforce them. I believe there are millions of people affected by these bans who want another way, who want to join in something more direct and meaningful. How do we invite them? This is an opportunity to challenge the control of the movement by middle-class white cis-women and open space for more people to take the lead.
I know I’m not saying anything new. I apologize if my tone is pedantic—please take it as a function of desperation rather than condescension. Thank you to the badasses organizing healthcare access and funding no matter what the law says. Thank you to those who organized last Friday’s demo, especially all y’all teenagers hoping to wild out who didn’t get the chance. For my older comrades: when the youth stick their neck out to do something like this, let’s strap on our knee braces, pop some ibuprofen, and be there with them. I love all y’all and we can do this. More of us will show up next time.
Love and rage,
A Few Ornery Suggestions on Bloc Attire
There is no point to wearing all black with just a covid mask on.
There is no point to wearing all black with your face uncovered.
A bandanna covering the bottom half of your face like you’re about to rob a train in 1875 Oklahoma does not hide your identity. It makes you look like a Labrador puppy on a bougie family Christmas card. So just, like, don’t.
Masks should probably be either a t-shirt or a ski-mask; t shirts are great cus’ theyre not weird to have on you afterwards and its nbd to ditch them.
Cover your ears.
Cover or blacken out your shoes, which should also be black, and should be a pair you don’t mind throwing in the trash if you realize you did some wild shit on camera.
Wear an in-distinctive black bag with no visible labels (or cover them with black tape).
Don’t wear distinctive jewelry.
Wear gloves. Black latex is tempting but keep in mind they hold prints on the outside as you handle them, that can sometimes then transfer to objects you carry or touch. Cloth or thick cut-proof canvas work gloves in black are inexpensive and ideal.
Communicate ahead of time with your crew about how you plan to look, what you’re wearing, and what tools you’ll have on you. Talk about how you plan to look after you change out of bloc, so it “makes sense” that y’all would be walking together, etc.
Wear cheap thrift store clothes you don’t mind ditching, not your everyday street clothes that someone would immediately recognize as yours.
Typically you should aim for, whenever possible, three distinct outfits: 1) what you wear walking from you or your comrade’s registered vehicle to the demo, until you’re in the crowd and can change safely (aka OMG DON’T WALK TWO BLOCKS FROM YOUR CAR TO THE DEMO IN FULL BLOC BY YOURSELF LOL); 2) Your cool-guy full black ninja suit etc.; and 3) Whatever you’re changing into afterwards (or wearing underneath your black layer to make your exit. Ideally this last outfit has some intention behind it—what are other random passersby likely to be wearing at the time of day and location you’ll likely be escaping into?
We should all step up our cheap disposable wig game.
Even if you yourself are not planning on engaging in anything illegal, your appearance being uniform helps others who may be. It can also keep you from getting doxxed and losing your job or getting harassed by Nazis for fucking years. Even if you think ahead of time that “it won’t be that kind of demo,” come with a backup change of bloc clothing in case you’re wrong. Optimism is contagious!
It doesn’t make sense to be the only person or crew in bloc. If you came expecting one thing and turned out it was another, don’t put on your bloc. It just weirds people out, actually makes you less anonymous, and perpetuates the idea that this attire is mere political virtue-signaling. Come prepared, but just leave that shit in your bag if it turns out not to be the vibe that day. This is another good reason to NOT SHOW UP in bloc, but rather change into it when appropriate. If you need to be unrecognizable in photos, but no one else is in bloc, you can wear casual street clothes with a t shirt mask.
Even when we think a demonstration isn’t that serious, we are always practicing for the ones that are. Let’s take this shit seriously y’all. You fight how you train!