What Would George Tiller Do?
Today is the third anniversary of Dr. George Tiller’s assassination. On May 31, 2009, Tiller was shot and killed by Scott Roeder while he served as an usher in his Wichita church. Tiller was one of the only abortion providers in the country to provide late-term abortions. He often wore a button that said “Trust Women.”
I wonder, if Dr. Tiller were alive today, what he would think about the unwavering attack against women’s reproductive freedom and bodily integrity—if he could ever of imagined that American women would still not just be fighting for the right to abortion but for birth control. Or that there would be a national debate on whether or not it’s appropriate to call a woman who wants contraception coverage a “prostitute.” I imagine that even for a man who had seen a lot of misogyny in his life, the current climate against women would be shocking.
Since Tiller’s murder, the legislative agenda against reproductive justice—and common-sense decency—has been staggering. (via The Nation.)
Here’s something I wrote about the murder of George Tiller, back at the time it happened:
Well, I will probably continue to think about the murder of Dr. Tiller and the issues it raises, but there’s only so much I want to say about it here. A friend of mine cautioned me against saying anything at all, pointing out that, the way things are, no one ever changes their mind on the topic of abortion anyway. But as I said in my first post, it had more to do with standing up and being counted, registering my anger, than with any notion of changing any anti-abortion fundamentalist’s point of view. That being said…
I’ve been hearing – for instance on NPR this morning – other people echoing the view that the violent and inflammatory rhetoric of groups ranging from Operation Rescue to Army of God must be seen as bearing some of the responsibility for acts of violence such as the murders of Dr. Tiller and Dr. Bernard Slepian, the bombings of reproductive health clinics, etc. And I’ve also been hearing calls to restrict or criminalize such speech.
Much as I disagree with – and loathe – the vile sludge that issues from groups like Operation Rescue, and much as I believe that it contributes to these acts of violence, I can’t see myself agreeing with attempts to legislate those groups into silence. For one thing, it’s hard to see any such attempt succeeding.
Some have suggested that laws aimed at anti-abortion rhetoric would probably be deemed unconstitutional, as a violation of the First Amendment. However, looking at the history of Supreme Court rulings in this area, it doesn’t seem quite so clear cut. It does seem possible that a law of some kind, that could be used against anti-abortion groups spouting views that lead to violence, might pass muster with the Court. For instance, in Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969), the Supreme Court decision stated:
the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.
[For a discussion of the First Amendment and analysis of Supreme Court decisions on the subject, see the Wikipedia entry.]
It seems possible that some of the more extreme speech by fanatical anti-abortion groups like Army of God might be found guilty of “inciting or producing imminent lawless action” in a few, very specific cases, but that test of “imminent lawless action” would make prosecution or conviction in most cases extremely unlikely. For instance, it would, I think, be impossible to argue for a strong enough linkage between any specific speech act and Dr. Tiller’s murder to pass this bar. And of course there are already laws in place against “inciting to riot” in various forms which might be used in those few cases against anti-abortion groups. A narrower law, targeted specifically at anti-abortion speech and/or with a looser standard of linkage between violent speech and violent act, would almost certainly get struck down by the Court.
So, laws aimed at anti-abortion rhetoric seem unlikely to succeed. In any case, as I wrote earlier in discussing a related group of hate-mongering nutjobs, such laws and related efforts so often seem to backfire, to end up being used as much or more against targets on the left as targets on the right. But if new laws aren’t the answer, what is?
Well, maybe old laws for starters. Like that law against “inciting to riot.” During one of the Democratic National Conventions, I was involved in some street protests, at which a lot of people were arrested, and charged with offenses like rioting, incitement to riot, failure to disperse, etc. As far as I know, no one was convicted. But we were dragged through hearing after hearing, for months. In the end, some of us probably spent more time in the holding cells and court, combined, than we would have in jail if convicted. But even those charges were finally dropped. It was clear that the whole process – arrest, detainment and lengthy court proceedings – was intended as punishment and deterrent, and was pursued for precisely this purpose, rather than with any serious aim of securing convictions. It was not a SLAPP, but a SAAPP, a “strategic arrest against public participation,” or maybe a SPAPP (“strategic prosecution…”).
If Operation Rescue and Army of God activists had to spend all that time in court after every major protest, it might slow them down. For one thing, they probably aren’t scruffy, unemployed anarchists with nothing better to do than hang out with their lawyers and go to court hearings.
Or this. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been pretty aggressive in the past in their investigations of domestic groups with political orientations. Undercover agents, agents provocateur, surveillance, midnight visits at home, disruption of communications, office break-ins, etc. – all these and more have been employed against groups with which I’ve been associated over the past twenty years, groups active in areas like Central American solidarity, ecology, and anti-nuke and anti-war protests. Maybe law enforcement can take that zeal we’ve seen applied to America’s enemies abroad and apply more of it against home-grown fundamentalists, fanatics and terrorists.
[Digression: In the first season of the BBC television show, "Spooks," the first episode has the MI5 team going up against an American anti-abortion extremist who is in England to organize a series of bombings, while the second sees them in action against a right-wing leader trying to incite a race war in Britain. Maybe we can get MI5 to come over here...]
Ugh. I can’t believe I’m calling for bogus arrests and FBI operations against “radical” groups, even somewhat facetiously - talk about tactics likely to backfire! So let’s scratch that, too.
No, the answer has to be in confronting these extremists directly. Let’s counter their violent, distorted vision with a different, clearer vision.
Counter-protests against anti-abortion fundamentalists in the past don’t seem to have done much good. They don’t stop these nutters from getting the publicity that is one of their primary goals, and of course, as my friend pointed out, no one’s mind seems to ever change on this topic. And when the counter-protests have been for “clinic defense” – that is, keeping the anti-abortion protesters off the grounds of reproductive health clinics and attempting to insure that visitors and patients can get access to the facilities – they haven’t always been too successful at that either, and you can understand why. If I were trying to visit a health clinic and saw a big, loud, angry protest outside, I’d turn around and come back some other day if at all possible, even if there were valiant counter-protesters using their bodies as a shield to defend access.
So let’s try a different approach. These people – not just the anti-abortion crowd, but also anti-gay fundamentalists, people protesting against birth control education and the teaching of evolution, etc. ad nauseam – often seem to be motivated in part by some deep-seated neuroses about the body and about sex in particular. So the next time we have a counter-protest, instead of meeting abuse with abuse, anger with anger, accusation with accusation, maybe we should just take off our clothes and start making out. It could be a thing: Coed Naked Clinic Defense™ or Queer Kiss-In and Clinic Defense™. I imagine a lot of these right-wingers would be unable to sustain their protest if it meant looking at a bunch of naked lefties with unshaved armpits, piercings and tattoos, smooching and carrying on. Plus it would cheer up people visiting the clinic. And as well as the publicity, think of the spin-offs, the merchandising opportunities – like pin-up calendars featuring a different Naked Clinic Defender each month, or a porn website, hard- or softcore, with similar images, all profits going to pro-choice and LGBT groups.
Where they have posters with hideous medical imagery, let’s hold up our own signs – with that poster of a soaked kitten, say, or Far Side cartoons by Gary Larson (particularly ones dealing with religion or evolution, of course) – fun, happy, goofy images and slogans. They already know we support a woman’s right to choose, so let’s give them something else to read – jokes, non-sequitors, what have you.
Since the righteousness and anger of our counter-protests seem to fuel their martyr complex, and feed into the apocalyptic visions that are prevalent among America’s Christian fundamentalist extremists, let’s give them laughter and humor instead. Let’s confront them with the scorn and derision they deserve.
As I have written elsewhere, at this stage in the struggle, culture is the commanding height that we need to seize. We won’t seize it from these people by matching their tactics – protests with counter-protests, anger for anger. Let’s try love and laughter in the face of their hate and violence.