activism Paul Street

Paul Street: Only Mass Protest Can Save Abortion Rights

Democratic Party “elites” and leading establishment “pro-choice” organizations are giving up on Roe without a major fight in the streets, schools, workplaces, and public squares. That is unconscionable.
[Lorie Shaull / CC BY 2.0]

By Paul Street | CounterPunch


We need protests not endless millions of dollars poured only into elections. The majority support access to abortion but can’t see themselves as a majority without demonstrations. The autocrats in SCOTUS can’t feel their illegitimacy without protests. We can’t rebuild a movement without movement in the streets.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, May 3, 2022

Don’t listen to those who tell you that it is more “realistic” to channel our fury in the next election (after Roe has been overturned). No! It is far harder to win back a right once they have ripped it away than to defend it when you still have it…the Democrats and others have for decades sought “common ground” with those driving the fanatical attack on abortion. What is needed is an uncompromising fight for the lives of women. Only the people can stop the Supreme Court from decimating abortion rights!

* Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights Flyer, May 14, 2022

As the ridiculously right-wing United States Supreme Court stands poised to defy majority public opinion by reversing its 1973 Roe v. Wade (hereafter “Roe”) decision and thereby stripping away women’s half-century constitutional right to an abortion, it is important to reject the approach of Democratic Party “elites” and leading establishment “pro-choice” organizations. They are engaged in advance surrender. They are giving up on Roe without a major fight in the streets, schools, workplaces, and public squares. That is unconscionable.

These misleaders justify their advance capitulation to a “post-Roe America” with six basic interrelated narratives. Below I list and criticize each these appeasement narratives.

+1. “A judgement reversing Roe is inevitable. Look at the Court’s composition. Look at Sam Alito’s draft decision backed by four other justices. There’s nothing really that can be done to stop it.”

False. If millions take to the streets and engage in mass demonstrations now, with the critical understanding that it is much harder to win back a lost right than to keep an existing one, the Court can possibly be swayed by their realization that a decision reversing Roe will cause irreparable damage to its institutional legitimacy and lead to the unprofitable mass disruption of business as usual. The Court is ultimately a capitalist ruling class institution that does not want to contribute to societal destabilization. The leaking of the right-wing woman-hater Alito’s draft decision killing Roe (a document that attacked numerous other liberal precedents) three weeks ago is a great opportunity to organize such disruption. At the same time, the need to destabilize US society and confront and further de-legitimize the right-wing Court will only intensify if the five lying far-right Supremes (Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavenaugh, and Coney-Barrett) follow through with the autocratic action promised in Alito’s draft. Movement building now helps develop our capacity to “shut shit down” later in militant opposition to a Supreme Court that is at lethally and absurdly far to the right of public opinion on this and other matters (the Court is also poised to insanely permit open gun carry a New York-based case that has become all the more horrifying in the wake of the recent racist and openly fascist mass shooting in Buffalo, New York).

+2. “Look at the bright side: the reversal of Roe will work to the pro-Roe Democrats’ advantage in the November 2022 Congressional and state level mid-term elections.”

Seriously? Besides sounding like cynical embrace of Roe’s reversal, this is magical thinking. The party in the White House has lost U.S. House seats in all but two mid-term elections since 1932 (1934, when the Great Depression and the rise of the New Deal expanded the Franklin Roosevelt Democrats’ House majority, and 2002, when 9/11-fueled hyper-patriotism helped the Republicans expand their House majority). Right wing gerrymandering and voter suppression and the preposterous right-leaning malapportionment of the US Senate (more on this below) will combine with rampant inflation (the main thing explaining the currently higher-than-unusual percentage of US Americans who say that “the country is on the wrong track”) and the predictably dismal and uninspiring presidential performance and related low popularity of the vacuous and bumbling neoliberal Joe Biden to make a Republifascist take-back of Congress a near certainty this fall. And how much difference would it make if the Dems were to miraculously defy the historical odds and keep the House and the Senate? Even then it is almost unimaginable that they and their president would act to expand the Court to reinstate abortion rights. That’s not how the deeply conservative Biden and his party are wired. He and his other centrist Dems have long sought bipartisan “common ground” with the Republicans on the abortion and many other issues.

To repeat, it is much harder to win back a right after it has been taken away than it is to keep it while it still exists.

+3. “…and Blue [Democratic Party-run] states will remain legal for abortion. The reversal of Roe will send theabortion issue back to the states. Yes, that will be the end of abortion rights in 25 or more states, there’s a lot of blue states that support women’s right to an abortion. All is not lost.”

Wow. So too f#*king bad for women and girls in half the country. Too bad, so sad, for the vast swath of the US female population stuck in revanchist red (Republican-run) states, where social policy runs far to the right of national majority opinion (which has consistently supported women’s right to an abortion by at least 2 to 1 since Roe was decided in 1973). Gosh, whatever were these females thinking by living in places like Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas?

Many Dems seem to think the war on abortion rights is just a red state thing. It isn’t. It’s a national movement with many advocates and forces in the blue states. And with the path to full Republican (patriarchal white nationalist) national power across the “checks and balances” trifecta (legislative, executive branch, and judicial) being cleared by the dismal, dollar-drenched neoliberal Democrats, the coming stagflation, and the vast right-wing voter suppression and election cancellation industries, moreover, the Republifascists are going for a nationwide abortion ban in 2025. The likely future return Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently pretty much said this out loud.

+4. “Big rich blue states like New York, Illinois, and California will respond to the reversal of Roe by ramping up their capacity to function as sanctuary states for abortion seekers. They’ll expand their abortion facilities and raise funds to run a modern-day underground railroad for red state women and girls who need abortions!”

Busing, flying, training, and driving and lodging women across untold millions of miles in a time of escalating energy, hotel, and medical costs: this is a vastly expensive and exhausting undertaking that will not meet the need, especially when it comes to disproportionately nonwhite poor women and girls. It will involve a massive transference of money and energy from the activism required to reshape policy to the provision of direct services within an overall system titling towards revanchist patriarchy and neofascism. And oh, by the way, red states are already moving to make it illegal for women and girls to leave their home states for abortions and for people in other states to help them get abortions. The woman-hating Christian fascist anti-abortion movement is a dedicated national force with plenty of blue states allies. It has no intention of letting an underground abortion railroad flourish.

+5. “Medical abortion pills mean that the right can’t really stop abortions in the red states.”

Is that so? Red state legislators and governors are already scheming to make abortion pills criminal. Texas has already banned sending abortion medications by mail. The reversal of Roe would likely lead most if not all red states to do the same. A triple-branch Republifascist nation (a distinct possibility in 2025 thanks in no small part to the dismal Dems) will launch an effective War on Abortion Drugs. Mifepristone, (which blocks a hormone needed to continue an early pregnancy) Misoprostol (which contracts the uterus to expel an early pregnancy) are not full or magical solutions.

+6. “Voting is how people get heard in our great American democracy. When you have the vote, you have the power. If you don’t like the Court’s decisions, you can vote.”

This is laughable on numerous levels. On one issue after another, majority opinion is trumped and defied in the American “electoral democracy.” Part of the explanation for this is the controlling influence of concentrated corporate and financial wealth, which translates into political power through numerous means including but hardly limited to the funding of campaigns. Another part of the explanation is the undemocratic, minority rule nature of the US constitutional electoral set-up, which drastically overrepresents the nation’s most revanchist, white, and rural sections and states through a slew of interrelated institutional mechanisms including the anti-democratic presidential Electoral College, strictly time-staggered elections, an absurdly bicameral legislatures with a strong upper chamber (the US Senate) whose powers include the approval of presidential Supreme Court appointments, a profoundly undemocratic Senate apportionment regime that gives every state two representatives regardless of population size[1], absurdly lifetime-appointed and unelected judges on the absurdly powerful Supreme Court (currently occupied by a revanchist majority absurdly far to the right of the populace thanks to the lethal fascist Donald Trump’s appointment of three absurdly reactionary jurists who were absurdly approved by an absurdly Republican Senate). The power of judicial review (strongly implicit in the original Constitution and established as common law in Marbury v. Madison [1803]) gives the Court full autocratic power to declare legislative and executive acts constitutionally null and void.

One of the open secrets of US-American “democracy” is that the USA is not a democracy and (by the way) was never intended to be.

Those who tell you that your voice is heard and that majority voices make US government policy via the franchise (the vote) are either liars or fools. Those who tell you to direct your political energies into voting under the US system are trying to mislead you. Name the modern social reforms that matter and merit applause and defense in American history: the outlawing of child labor, Social Security, the federal minimum wage, union organizing and collective bargaining rights, workers’ compensation, subsidized housing, the end of formal segregation in the South, occupational safety, environmental and consumer protections, and yes, the right to an abortion. None of these things were won simply by voting and/or Supreme Court benevolence alone. They were more fundamentally won through mass popular resistance and disruption[2]: strikes, marches, sit-ins, sit-downs, occupations, work stoppages, movements and movement cultures beneath and beyond the big money major party time-staggered big media candidate-centered electoral extravaganzas that are sold to us as “politics” – the only politics that matters. The franchise itself – the right to vote – was won through mass popular disturbance.

Let’s be candid about one of the key roles of the nation’s not-so leftmost major capitalist political party: to keep the people off the streets and out of the public squares, the places where gains are actually won through mass action.

The right to an abortion, without which women cannot be free, was won through mass women’s resistance led by militant feminists, not simply by voting. The same will be true when it comes to saving women’s abortion rights. It is essential therefore that thousands and indeed millions come out into the streets, starting with the mass school and job walkouts being called by Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights (RU4AR) at noon in two days (on Thursday, May 26th). For details and reflections more eloquent than I can provide here, see this.

Notes

+1. The racially and ethnically diverse and liberal-progressive New York City borough of Brooklyn is home to 2.6 million people, nearly one million more people than the combined total population (1.67 million) of North and South Dakota, two states that each have (like all US states) two Senators. If Brooklyn were a state with the same populace-to-US Senator ratio as North Dakota, it would have 6 US Senators. If liberal and progressive, multiracial and multi-ethnic California (home to 39,237,836) had the same populace-to Senator ratio as super-white, rural, and far-right Wyoming (pop. 578,803, less than 5% of the total population of Los Angeles), it would have – wait for it – 135 US Senators. If Brooklyn were a state and US Senators were apportioned there with the same populace-to-Senator ratio as red Wyoming, it would have none 9 U.S. Senators. Think about all that. And then think about this: due to “a growing population shift from the agricultural interior to crowded corridors along the coast,” the US Constitution critic Daniel Lazare noted five years ago, it had by 2018 become mathematically possible to “cobble together a [Republican] Senate majority with states that account for just 17.6 percent of the popular vote.” The US Senate is loaded with giant de facto “rotten boroughs” that abhorrently inflate the power of the nation’s most reactionary sections. This (and much else in the US set up) is abject, Monty Python-esque mockery of the core democratic principle of one person, one vote.

+2. Some critical texts and writings here: Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States; Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail; The American Social History Project, Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s History (two volumes); Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality; Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astride Henry, Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of Women’s Movements; Noam Chomsky, “The Disconnect in US Democracy;” Howard Zinn, “Election Madness.”

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).

16 comments

  1. Only Mass Peaceful Protest Against Empire can win in destroying the Fascist ‘Pro-Empire’ Republic Party in 2022 — which will lead to destroying the Democratic Party in 2024.

    Then, instead of having TWO ‘Pro-Empire’ Parties we can progress to a seriously progressive and ONE United ‘Anti-Empire’ democratic socialist party — which was within sight, nearly a century ago, in 1944 with FDR’s brilliant socialist VP, Henry Wallace, who was torpedoed by the OSS & DNC, and which even Albert Einstein’s 1947 letter, “Why Socialism” sent to the little gutless and captive un-Truman corporate faux-President — and the “Double Government” [Michael Glennon] exposed in his book of the same name.

  2. Good grief, Paul ….
    As you crap on and reject the whole concept of representative democracy – by which we the people elect representatives to pass laws, enact policies, appoint administrators, etc. – and instead encourage what amounts to mob rule – “in the streets”, I am sure the testosterone is flowing ..
    In the meantime, all those rights you mentioned were legislated, including the overruling of SC decisions via Const Amendments and laws – and not through folks who rioted in the street, but made their desires known in the polls. It is true that pressure from the people is necessary – but the only thing our Congresscritters respond to is not “moral persuasion” no matter how it is expressed or how many express it, is fear of loss of office – and that is what we must make clear – We say it all the time – “I will not vote for you if you x,y,z” but when they do x.y.z. we vote for ’em anyway. We gotta take our outrage and rebellion to the polls, march to the polls in large numbers as we do in the streets – BUT the key is, when we get there we have to refuse to vote for any duopoly candidate – they are ones at the core of the rot …

    Sorry, Paul, but no matter how much you rail (and rale) on this subject – the fact is that demos without voting and vice versa is like a one legged man – he can hop around a lot, but he won’t get too far …

  3. This government, all three branches plus the intelligence, military and the political parties have delegitimized themselves and exposed themselves as fascist traitors who serve themselves while they exploit everyone and everything in their paths. Sometimes corporate and sometimes private, they stomped through this land and the rest of the world killing and stealing at will. They use the support of the greedy, the oblivious, the gullible, the self-righteous, and the delusional. Mass protests? I think not. Was that their road to power?

  4. The idea protests are the only way to save abortion rights is a delusion that is dangerously ignorant of the current state of US political landscape. The supreme Court would not be swayed by public outcry, Republicans would continue to ignore people’s wishes and wants and would use mass protests to increase suppression and demand more violent methods, and pro-choice zealots, armed to the teeth, would terrorize the streets.

    Given that practically every progress made in the past 100 years or so was a result of a Democrat effort and a Democrat Congress and presidency, the only way to save abortion rights, and any civil rights for that matter, is to ensure a Democrat majority in Congress in the upcoming mid-term elections, and to elect Democrat presidents in the foreseeable future so that a liberal majority at the Supreme Court is ensured.

    Left-ish Neo Progressive demagogues and propaganda buffs like Street might have given up on democracy.

    We must not follow them.

  5. Why did Dems not pass appropriate law while having complete majority in Congress? Because they are liars. They always wanted and did repeatedly use the issue as blackmail to herd Dems to vote for their anti American people agenda.

    If they passed the law this blackmail would have ceased and the lesser even would become the same evil as Republican evil.

  6. A conspiracy minded person might be lead to think this is another subtle article to lead people once again into voting blue no matter what come election time. Our country is falling apart and people are being stretched to breaking, our government all the while is working feverishly to get us in a world war, our entire medical system is corrupted…I could go on forever and none of it is enough to get the people of America to unite or resist in any way. Our mutual economic, social, environmental, and military destruction is upon us and nobody can agree, unite, take action on anything.

    But we should all magically unite over Abortion Rights? In what fantasy world is Paul Street living in. Abortion rights will always be an issue because those who rule want it to always be an issue. It’s part of the plan to keep us divided and at each other’s throats while they take away everything else that makes life worth living. Like all the other social issues.

    Nobody ever figures it out. Nobody ever learns. Nobody ever takes action and in fact much more often take stances that are against their very own welfare, through ignorance and propaganda.

    This country is lost.

  7. Stop The Steal.

    Isn’t that the correct slogan?
    Aren’t rights being stolen?

    Nooooo…. that would involve the “left” actually committing to a struggle, and nothing scares the whole “left”, from ‘centrist progressives’ like the millionaire Sanders to ‘democratic fascists’ like the millionaire Biden (or has he made billionaire?) like the thought of organized, energized people fighting for their rights.

    Who knows what that might lead to, no one can say, but it likely wouldn’t be good for billionaires. And everyone on the ‘left’ wants to put up a sign that says “no billionaires were harmed by this demonstration.”

    Besides, the whole left is too busy declaring World War III to care about this anyways.

    1. @Had enough yet?
      The people you mentioned are not leftists, in fact far from it. There are no leftists in Congress, unless you count the meaningless blather that comes out of the mouths of hypocrites like Bernie Sanders of The Squad. There is virtually no “left” in this country.

      I’m not a leftist, but even I’m offended by calling right wing a-holes like Biden or the Democrats leftist.

  8. I do not understand why politicians should have the power to give females the RIGHT to an abortion nor have the power to take it away….It is apersonal decision, having no connection to politics in the first place.

  9. If our only hope lies in mass demonstrations, you may as well wave the white flag now. We Americans are way too consumed and distracted with ordering dumb shit off Amazon and indulging in adolescent flame wars on social media for there to be any kind of unity, which would be a requirement for a mass demonstration. If we can get the band to play just one last song before this ship snaps in half…

  10. Mass demonstrations don’t work unless they stop business as usual (i.e., they must be during business hours and in business districts) and unless people STAY in the streets until they get what they want. Politicians just ignore Milquetoast demonstrations regardless of how large they are.

    This column fails to consider that the religious fanatics who push the anti-abortion agenda (it’s not “pro-life,” BTW, that’s a dishonest name) have been fanatically working on overturning Roe v. Wade for 50 years. These jerks are a minority, so it wouldn’t take that long to reinstate Roe and codify it, but this isn’t going to happen overnight. And instead of denigrating one method of fighting back like voting, we should embrace all tactics so long as they’re not counterproductive.

  11. Go ahead abort your child. The earliest born premature baby on record was born at 4.5 months, right? So go ahead and allow abortion until 4.4 months, right? But after that, it would be murder, right? Follow the SCIENCE, right?

    1. @dipshierus
      Human overpopulation is the biggest problem on Earth. Your anti-abortion comments are disgusting for that reason alone, not to mention a woman’s right to control her own body.

      And BTW, it’s not a “child” until it’s born. Until then, it’s just a fetus.

    2. To dip,
      That is assuming, right, that the real issue is not about a woman’s choice as to whether to bring a child into the world – because only an individual woman can do that …

  12. Thank you for the piece. If only we lived in a nation that gave a damn about the state-owned vessels for mini-mes. They say they do, but they lie.

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