Friday, June 27, 2014

On Buffer Zones, Free Speech, and Women’s Safety

An anti-abortion protester confronts a clergy escort/monitor protecting a Planned Parenthood Clinic.

It’s the time of year that the Supreme Court—which now usually goes by the alias SCOTUS in the avalanche of words by Court watcher pundits of every stripe—dumps a bunch of high profile, potentially controversial cases and then heads for the hills of summer vacation.  See ya in October…And it is an emotional roller-coaster for progressives who generally fear the worst from the Right wing dominated court.
Lately, the court has sometimes handed surprising victories to the left like last year’s Marriage Equality ruling that opened the floodgates that now seems to add a new state to the rainbow column every week.  This year on the Court unanimously ruled that police will need a warrant to search to search cell phones when citizens are stopped or arrested by the police, a huge and unexpected victory for privacy and civil liberties.  By a split decision they upheld the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) right to regulate greenhouse gasses despite a well funded full court press by allegedly libertarian fossil fuel industry fat cats, but also put new limits on the administration’s main program to control power plant emissions. 
On the other hand the court agreed to allow sectarian prayer to open the meetings of government bodies, and struck down cumulative limits on total campaign contributions by individuals and PACs, a ruling that will send tsunamis of new money crashing against the battered beaches of democracy.
The Supreme Court giveth, and the Supreme Court taketh away.
Angst rose to new levels Thursday when the court released a unanimous decision in the case McCullen v. Coakley, striking down a Massachusetts law requiring protesters to stay at least 35 feet from abortion clinics entrances and walkways.  And perhaps by implication  statues on the books of 12 other states and the District of Columbia that offer protection to patients and staff from harassment by anti-abortion protestors.  Or maybe it does not threaten all of them.  Defenders of a woman’s right to choose including NARWAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood, whose clinics have  been the targets of anti-abortion protests that often amount to near riotous sieges were shocked, not so much that they lost—that was expected—but by the unanimity of the Court, including its liberal wing and known supporter of choice.  So were many Unitarian Universalists, a denomination that has long been committed to choice and safe, easy access to abortion services.
All of these organizations reacted with predictable outrage.  But a closer examination of the ruling seems to indicate it is far less sweeping than it seems at first. Only three other states, Colorado, Montana and New Hampshire, have buffer zone laws on the books, but the Massachusetts zone was the largest. In 2000, the Supreme Court upheld Colorado’s 8-foot floating buffer zones around individuals as they walk into and exit an abortion clinic.  It is unclear if the new decision reverses Colorado’s more modest and defensible bubble protecting individuals from direct confrontation and harm.  All of the other states with clinic protection laws rely on other enforcement mechanisms and are unaffected by the ruling.
The news arrived as thousands gathered in Providence, Rhode Island for the annual General Assembly (GA) of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  The UUA had joined with other religious groups in filing an amicus curiae brief in support of buffer zones.  President Peter Morales was quick to issue a statement:
…This is a major defeat in the fight for reproductive rights and may put clinic workers and individuals seeking pregnancy-related care at great risk. I am disappointed and deeply troubled by the potential repercussions of such a decision… Just as citizens have the right to vote or attend religious events of their choosing, they should have the right to access legal medical services, including abortions and reproductive counseling, without harassment or violence. These acts have been effectively protected by buffer zones in the past. They help law enforcement officers to minimize intimidation and abuse in these public spaces which are all too often scenes of violence.
I pray that the harassment and violence endured by the employees and clients of these healthcare facilities will end. Unitarian Universalists believe that women possess the dignity and conscience to make their own decisions about pregnancy-related healthcare in consultation with their family, doctor, and faith. The government must play a role in helping all people access their fundamental rights.”
Hard to disagree with most of that, particularly in light of a frightening history of intimidation and harassment orchestrated by anti-choice leaders at the highest levels.  That has included the mass actions of Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue,  Joseph Scheidler’s Pro-Life Action League which resulted in a decade long court case brought by the National Organization for Women (NOW).  In some cases hundreds of protestors were mobilized at targeted clinics for months on end, angrily confronting and harassing staff, and especially frightened patients and their families.  Intimidation including waving gruesome signs, screaming, physical altercations, and ostentatious displays of surveillance including recording license plates and taking photos and videos that were posted on line.  Some women were injured.  Many more were traumatized.  And no one can ever know how many women were essentially denied their reproductive rights by fear of these howling mobs.
Violence was sometimes lethal.  UU’s even have our martyr.  Retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Barrett, an active and committed member of the Pensacola Unitarian Universalist Fellowship was a volunteer escort at the Ninth Avenue Ladies Center abortion clinic, the site of an earlier bombing and numerous confrontational protests.  On July 29, 1994 he drove to the clinic with Dr. John Bayard Britton by his side in the passenger seat and his wife, June, in the back seat.  As he stepped out of his pick-up truck, Rev. Paul Hill, a regular protester at the site known to Barrett, opened fire with a shotgun. Barrett and Dr. Britton were killed instantly and June was wounded and left for dead.
U.U.s around the country distinguished themselves as escorts, clinic volunteers, and visible supporters, often at great risk.
I know all of that.  I understand it with my head, carry it in my heart, and feel it in my gut.  Yet when the news of the Supreme Court ruling came in, I found my lips moving silently.  “They got it right.”
At this point you might be as angry with me as with the court.  What right have I, who am not a woman whose life and choice are now endangered have, to dismiss the concerns of those who are?  And perhaps I have no standing.  I have, however, shared private moments of family and friends, even at the gates of a clinic, that have given me some small, bitter taste of that reality.
In a similar situation, when I voiced opposition to a proposed state law to ban protests from the gates of cemeteries, a knee jerk reaction to the disgusting shenanigans of the Westboro Baptist Church at the funerals of Iraq and Afghanistan war dead and any one remotely sympathetic to Gays and Lesbians  an instantly former friend and close associate in justice work hissed at me with loathing and contempt. “Oh, so you are a First Amendment Absolutist,”
Yes, I guess I am.
The State makes a poor  choice as a defender of rights for some at the expense of others.  It often fails to distinguish between peaceful dissent and riot or near insurrection.  This is particularly true with the increased militarization of police.  Moreover, if it protects your particular ox from being gored over here, it is likely the gorer over there.  The State tend to reflexively come to the defense of property and power so that the arguments for “zones of special protection” extend to labor disputes, civil protest—think the Occupy Movement—and peaceful civil disobedience.
To protect our own rights of dissent, we must unfortunately defend some one else’s right to be an asshole.
That does not mean we have to step back and let wolves lose upon the sheep.  It means we have to take action to confront the wolves ourselves, to offer our bodies, if necessary, in their protection.  It demands a lot from us.  Giving up comfort, giving up safety.  It means, as the theme of this year’s GA says Reaching Out in Love.
The battle over abortion rights, once thought won, has been long and exhausting.  Many activists have turned to other urgent issues, putting that old commitment on the back burner.  There is always so much that demands our attention.  Perhaps the muscles for the old struggle have atrophied a bit.  But if the removal of safety zones around clinics causes the mobs to reassemble, we will have to get back in the game.
The response to all of those funeral protests may show us the way.  No protest ban stopped even one.  But time after time angels—sometimes with literal wings—appeared to screen the bereaved from the haters.  They were church people, school children, bad ass looking bikers, grannies with walkers who stood for Love.
I know that some of the anti-abortion crowd is much more dangerous than the pathetic Kansas cult.  Extremism swathed in righteousness has festered and grown, seldom denounced or even isolated from the “respectable” Right to Life people who are, on the whole non-violent themselves.  Now another set of righteous extremists have arisen—the open carry crowd who have taken to swaggering around intimidatingly with military style fire arms.  Some of them, as recent events in Las Vegas have shown, have moved to insurrectionary violence.  There is undoubtedly some overlap between these two far right movements.  How much is anyone’s guess.  But it doesn’t take a vivid imagination to consider armed thugs joining abortion clinic blockades.
The arc of the universe may indeed bend long toward justice, but no one ever said it bent without your back to the bow….

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