Arguing with Strangers
Last year, an organisation called Protest Planned Parenthood, or #ProtestPP, put out a call to people opposed to abortion to demonstrate outside Planned Parenthood clinics across the US. The message went out through pro-life networks, conservative social media, churches and local Republican Party organisations; by 11 February, the scheduled day of the protests, more than 120 anti-abortion demonstrations had been organised in 45 states – no clinic left behind. Pro-choice Americans vowed to turn out too. On Saturday, many thousands of people went out to do in person what they typically only do online: argue with strangers about politics.
I was in Poughkeepsie, a small city on the Hudson River about an hour north of New York. Poughkeepsie was a mill town, then a brewery town, then a town heavily reliant on a large IBM plant. Each industry abandoned it. Now, the major local employers include Central Hudson Gas & Electric and Vassar College. As I walked towards the clinic, I passed a large mural of Nelson Mandela. On the next block, a sign read: ‘$100,000 PER REFUGEE – WHAT ABOUT OUR HOMELESS VETERANS?’
Planned Parenthood in Poughkeepsie is a windowless single-storey building, tucked between a hardware store and a Catholic Church advertising mass in Spanish. It is unmarked, except for a blue sign above the door too small to be read from across the street. But it was easy to see where it was, because of the crowds.
There were around two hundred Planned Parenthood supporters, holding handmade signs and wearing bits of pink, as they had been told to by organisers. There were pink scarves, pink mittens and many pink pussy hats, a relic of the Women’s March in mid-January. Two white men had brought tubas, and were leading a march around the block; a woman followed behind holding a tambourine, a baby strapped to her back. A college-age black woman with waist-length purple braids held one end of a banner that said: ‘BODILY AUTONOMY NOW’. A very tall white man in a green hat held a sign that said: ‘Keep Your Rosaries off of My Ovaries.’ Because it was nearly Valentine’s Day, a few of the signs were heart-shaped, or featured Cupid. Some people carried drawings of wire coat hangers, crossed out with big red Xs. Lots of people were singing. I had a puppy with me, and protesters kept bending down to pet it, asking in a sing-song voice: ‘Are you pro-choice?’
About forty anti-abortion protesters were clustered across the road. They were quiet, unsmiling. Two red-faced little girls ran among their legs playing tag, but otherwise the group was silent. Their signs said ‘PRAY TO END ABORTION’ and ‘PLANNED PARENTHOOD LIES TO YOU’. A few of them clutched rosaries.
ProtestPP is a coalition of anti-choice groups, formed last summer to foment support for the 11 February demonstrations. Its website includes advice for DIY anti-abortion organisers, and encourages supporters to get involved locally. Following the surprising turnout at Women’s March, anti-abortion groups were anxious to drum up displays of support from anti-choice politicians and voters, and so the call for a day of protest became a rallying point.
Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, may be the only explicitly feminist organisation in the United States with political power. Among left-leaning Americans, supporting it is a symbol of a general belief in full citizenship rights for women and LGBT people – a once anodyne position that has become endangered under the Trump-Pence administration. Support for Planned Parenthood has surged under these conditions, but it may be that the organisation is being asked to carry more political weight than it can bear. Among the pro-choice protesters, chants of ‘My Body, My Choice’ quickly gave way to ‘We Fight for Trans Rights’, and then to ‘Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Fuck Trump, Fuck Trump.’
I crossed the street to the anti-abortion side, to talk to some of the Protest PP demonstrators. My girlfriend was with me. At one point, a young black man in glasses stepped forward from our side: ‘How can you stand with them?’ he yelled at us. ‘They’re fucking you!’ When I asked a man how long he had been involved in the pro-life movement, he said: ‘I’m not talking today, I’m praying.’ His sign had some handwriting on the back of it: ‘Do not talk. Pray.’ Beneath it was the text of the Nicene Creed. An old woman next to him frowned at me and said: ‘I will pray for you.’ The people on the anti-abortion side were older, paler; they wore different clothes from us and spoke with a different accent. It felt like being among foreigners. If it hadn’t been for how deeply we disagreed with one another, we would never have met at all.