Rebuilding our fight for choice

February 6, 2018

Alessandro Tinonga reports from San Francisco on the Rally for Reproductive Justice that brought Bay Area activists out to stand against an annual anti-abortion march.

"WALK FOR Life, that's a lie, you don't care if women die!" Dozens of reproductive rights supporters chanted that message at the anti-choice protesters who invaded downtown San Francisco as part of the annual "Walk for Life" on January 27.

The cynically named Walk for Life is an annual event organized by several anti-choice organizations to protest women's right to abortion. First held in 2005, it has grown every year since with minimal or no opposition.

The Rally for Reproductive Justice marked an attempt to begin to turn that around. A few hours before the Walk for Life began, dozens of pro-choice supporters rallied at the Federal Building to decry the crumbling state of reproductive rights.

"Abortion access in this country is plummeting," said Elena Larios of the San Francisco branch of the International Socialist Organization. "There are states where it is almost nonexistent. Women and people who need abortions have to take days off work, drive for hours, and pay thousands of dollars out of pocket to access necessary health care."

On the march against the anti-abortion fanatics in San Francisco
On the march against the anti-abortion fanatics in San Francisco (Alessandro Tinonga | SW)

Speakers also addressed how the freedom to choose abortion isn't enough--there also must be equality in health care.

"Choice is meaningless without access to resources," said Frances Reade of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America. "There will be no reproductive justice until everyone has access to resources and everyone has the freedom and the power to make the right choices for their bodies and their futures."

Over a dozen organizations endorsed the rally, including the University of California Student-Workers Union/UAW Local 2865, United Educators of San Francisco, International Socialist Organization, La Voz de los Trabajadores, several Bay Area chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, CODEPINK San Francisco, Refuse Fascism Bay Area, the Left Party and the Women's March San Francisco.

FOLLOWING THE rally, demonstrators then marched down Market Street, one of the city's busiest thoroughfares, and were stopped by a line of police near the Powell Street BART station.

While police seemed to move toward dispersing the crowd, organizers successfully held a peaceful rally and picket on the sidewalk. Moments later, the Walk for Life began marching down Market Street. Despite being outnumbered, the pro-choice protesters held firm, chanting "Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate" and other slogans at the anti-choicers.

Though small, the Rally for Reproductive Justice counterprotest was able to outlast the onslaught of anti-choice supporters, and marked a step forward in building a movement for reproductive rights in the Bay Area.

What's clear is that there are major challenges ahead. The Walk for Life has grown in size and confidence. This year, the number of anti-choice participants was bolstered by busing in supporters from all across the West Coast--some from as far away as Seattle and San Diego.

The anti-choice movement has been very effective in building its support, often posing as "pro-family" at its events and using the rhetoric of concern for the health of young women and their children. March organizers put young women at the front of the event and point out the eugenicist history of Planned Parenthood's founder, Margaret Sanger, to appeal to people of color.

This year, feeling emboldened by Trump's election and his speech at the Walk for Life in Washington, D.C., the March for Life organizers in San Francisco were more explicit in their aim to outlaw abortion entirely. Their signs included lies like "Abortion hurts women" and calls to "Defund Planned Parenthood."

In an interview with CBS News, Walk for Life organizer Terry Beatley of the Hosea Initiative had the gall to compare a women's right to control her body to slavery. "The day is coming when abortion will become illegal again," Beatley said. "We will look back at the abortion monster like we do with the history of slavery. Like, we'll shake our heads and think 'did we really do that to Black people?'"

THE POTENTIAL to build a resistance to the lies of the anti-choice movement is definitely present. Just a week before the "Walk for Life," some 80,000 people participated in the Women's March in San Francisco--one of dozens of similar mass rallies across the U.S., which took a stand against sexism and bigotry.

As members of the Rally for Reproductive Justice handed out fliers for the counterprotest the following week, the overwhelming response was supportive. Many native San Franciscans had not even heard about the Walk for Life and were shocked that such a hateful event occurs every year.

The endorsements from multiple organizations were also very important in building the Rally for Reproductive Justice, especially when the Women's March of San Francisco officially gave its support.

While endorsements from those larger organizations did not automatically translate into a major turnout from their respective memberships, they can help to lay a basis for building a larger response to the anti-choice onslaught in the future. Figuring out ways to mobilize larger numbers is going to crucial for success.

Another challenge lies in the fight to convince some pro-choice groups to take part in defense of their own organizations. Despite being the main organizational target of the Walk for Life, Planned Parenthood has remained absent from efforts to defend abortion from mobilizations by the right wing that threaten clinics and access.

Support for Planned Parenthood in the Bay Area is high, and could be mobilized--but this has proven to be difficult since that organization frequently abstains or discourages others from participating in clinic defense actions and counterprotests against the right.

While these challenges can't be overlooked, the momentum of the #MeToo movement against sexism and sexual assault has helped inspired new activists to get involved in a broader fight for women's rights.

Four participants in the Rally for Reproductive Justice were students from Mills College in Oakland. A week before the rally, they had been complete strangers, but when they met each other at the Women's March, they decided to join the protest against the Walk for Life.

"Our power is in numbers," explained Mills student Grace Patterson. "People need to see that we support them and this issue. This movement has backing."

Molly Hafer, another Mills student, added, "It's completely unfair for the Walk for Life to make our choice [for us], because it's not their choice. It's our choice, our right, and they can't take it away from us."

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