South Carolina abortion protest

Abortion rights defenders protest outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia on August 30, 2022. (Photo: Alexandria Shaner)

Rising Up Down South: A Strategy for Radical Togetherness

A strategic focus on South Carolina, and other red states who are fighting for their lives against a regressive tide, could shed light on the crux of wider struggle and provide guidance for how to rise up, and how to win.

South Carolina has some of the worst reproductive health outcomes in the country, and many South Carolinians are already facing extreme economic hardships. South Carolina also has one of the widest gender and racial wage gaps in the country. Criminalizing abortion will push healthcare further out of reach and continue to widen already monstrous levels of inequality.

With the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the institutional tentacles of a deeper regressive and anti-democratic movement are now very clear.

With the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the institutional tentacles of a deeper regressive and anti-democratic movement are now very clear. Our hard-won freedoms and our budding multiculturalism itself is under attack via an instrumentalization of the courts and the weaponizing of "wedge issues" like abortion, designed to divide and conquer.

This reality affects the entire nation. Yet, a strategic focus on South Carolina, and other red states who are fighting for their lives against a regressive tide, could shed light on the crux of wider struggle and provide guidance for how to rise up, and how to win.

From D.C. to Columbia

For South Carolina, it started on June 27th. After being blocked by federal courts since 2021, South Carolina's ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy (Senate Bill 1) took effect just 3 days after Roe v. Wade was overturned.

On August 16th, the South Carolina House of Representatives Judiciary Committee rushed to advance H.5399, a total abortion ban.

On August 30th, even after thousands of South Carolinians raised their voice in opposition via phone calls to House representatives and hundreds more packed the statehouse in protest, the House of Representatives passed the extreme abortion ban.

H.5399 will be debated on the South Carolina state Senate floor on September 7th.

During these last 2 months, there has also been a valiant effort to block anti-abortion legislation via the courts. On July 13, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and Greenville Women's Clinic sued the state over the unconstitutionality of the abortion bill.

Leaving aside whether there is merit, let alone justice, in the Federalist's strict constitutional interpretation line of argument, it turns out that in South Carolina, the right to privacy is explicitly enshrined. Article 1, Section 10, of the South Carolina Constitution states: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures and unreasonable invasions of privacy shall not be violated..." The legal logic enshrining privacy (and therefore a pregnant person's right to privacy and autonomy in their healthcare decisions) is plain as day, yet the case is ongoing and has faced every hypocrisy and method of legal chicanery imaginable.

Give the People What They Want

At the national level, it is common knowledge that this harmful legislation is not reflective of the will of the people. A national poll by PRRI from July shows that 72% of Americans and 52% of Republicans oppose an abortion ban that would provide an exception only for the life of the pregnant individual.

What is not usually assumed, is that even in South Carolina, in the heart of the Bible belt, anti-abortion legislation is something being foisted upon the population. Activists must understand this dynamic, refuse to allow the likes of Fox News to control the narrative, and seek wide and diverse support for their organizing efforts. The popular support is there, it's only a question of organizing and leveraging it.

The people want women to have the right to make their own personal health care decisions.

To drive home just how deeply unpopular this new abortion legislation is, Katherine Patterson of Public Policy Polling published this memo on July 6:

"A new Public Policy Polling survey finds strong support for abortion rights in South Carolina, with nearly two-thirds of South Carolinians (63%) saying it is important to them that women have access to all reproductive health care options, including abortion.

South Carolinians also oppose an abortion ban in their state with nearly two-thirds (61%) saying they believe that abortion should be legal, and just 8% saying they think it should be illegal in all cases.

Three in four (75%) respondents agree that women should have the right to make their own personal health care decisions."

It doesn't get much more explicit than that. The people want women to have the right to make their own personal health care decisions.

The poll also finds that South Carolinians overwhelmingly want their legislators to stop focusing on abortion and get down to the business of supporting families and addressing the state's woefully inadequate social and healthcare program. Here is a cue to organizers to frame the conversation around positive vision. Effective mobilization will describe what reproductive justice, healthcare, and social support could look like and give people something to fight for.

After the August 30th rally at the Statehouse, Ann Warner of the Women's Rights and Empowerment Network, told the press, "The outcome of today's committee vote shows disrespect for the people of South Carolina who have not had sufficient opportunity to understand and weigh in on what's at stake with the proposed extreme abortion ban. Our state began enforcing the six-week abortion ban only a few weeks ago, and it is simply unfathomable why legislators would want to rush through an even more dangerous and radical ban at this point. Their votes to advance this dangerous bill indicate that they don't really care about our opinions or our lives. We must make sure they hear from us now."

Yes, legislators need to continue to hear from us, louder and stronger than ever. But as legislative and judicial actions continue to diverge ever more brazenly away from public opinion, we can also be more sure than ever that they are not listening, and that the dual-pronged approach of legislative advocacy and fighting in court will not be enough. We must organize at all the pressure points, going beyond calling and meeting with politicians, beyond rallying at the Statehouse, and beyond suing in court.

We need to stand up and raise some hell, and we need a strategy.

No Strategy, No Victory

When the South Carolina House of Representatives Judiciary Committee advanced H. 5399, as Judiciary Committee members debated the many consequences of the proposed legislation, many insisted that they were only at the beginning of this process and needed to hear from their constituents in advance of the vote on the House floor.

I joined a growing coalition of organizers and urged every single person in South Carolina to take them up on this invitation to call and email their House member immediately, telling them to vote NO on H. 5399 before the bill was debated on the House floor. Thousands of calls poured in. On August 30th, hundreds of people showed up to pack the Statehouse during the House debate, yet the bill was passed.

Many fellow activists will scoff at my suggestion that to call your representative is a worthy method of action. Well, I'll also tell folks to get out and vote. Cynicism must not cloud strategy. Local and state level officials are much more accessible than national officials via phone and in-person meetings, and dedicated advocacy campaigns can yield results. However, I agree that we can't stop there, just as we can't stop at voting every 4 years, or even every 2 years, and call it a day, or a democracy. The skeptics will again sigh and remind me that we can also protest all we want - 'they' are not listening. Again, I don't disagree. That has certainly been the case these past months. Protesters waited outside the Statehouse for 8 hours at a June rally and were denied even the opportunity to enter, let alone to give testimony.

This pattern of authoritarian rule will not stop at abortion and cannot be allowed to continue to operate in the shadows.

However, strategists know the importance of understanding the wider context of "wins and losses", to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Yes, we have been ignored by our legislators thus far, but abortion is what the mainstream media calls a hot button issue, and unlike many other issues that movements fight for, the media is giving it intense coverage. This is an opportunity to leverage media coverage to simultaneously spread awareness and increase pressure on our government officials until the social cost of ignoring us and denying us is greater than the cost of giving in to our demands. If our legislators are blind to our protests, we'd better make sure the media sees us. If we are outraged at being ignored, we can spread that outrage via media coverage - make the world watch us being ignored, and see how the pressure builds.

We have a chance to frame reality in the spotlight for what it actually is, an attack on our basic human rights, an attack on the remaining democratic mechanisms in our government, and an attack on the hope of multiculturalism. It is a stealth and illegal offensive via the courts, beginning with reproductive justice. This pattern of authoritarian rule will not stop at abortion and cannot be allowed to continue to operate in the shadows.

We should also learn from our neighbors in Latin America, who have shown, and continue to show, an unbelievable sticking power in each of their national social movements over recent years. Movements in Chile and Colombia, in Panama and Guatemala, with rumblings again coming from Brazil and elsewhere are models of sticking power and strategic organizing. A protest, occupation, or rally is not something that happens once and everyone can go home and expect to have won. We must come back again and again. We must stay and leverage all opportunities until we can no longer be ignored. And every time we gain an inch, we must be prepared to push for a mile.

To the argument that "a protest won't do anything", I say that doesn't mean we shouldn't protest, it means we must keep protesting, bigger, better, and smarter, with more community, more solidarity, more mutual aid, more voices, and more determination. And we must seek further creative and flexible tactics to advance our strategy over developing contexts.

Building a Bloc

In South Carolina, the Sept 7th Senate debate will be another opportunity for a rally. This rally should not be thought of as a protest to let off steam and generate photo-ops. It is an opportunity for community building, consciousness-raising, and intersectional solidarity. It will be attended by WREN, Planned Parenthood Votes South Atlantic, ACLU of SC, SC United for Justice and Equality Coalition, and other organizations and people from all around the state who stand together not just for reproductive justice, but beyond single issues for a better world. A protest can be a place both to be heard and to dream big.

There is an immediate and urgent need to fight for reproductive rights, and in doing so, to proactively defend further rights that have been not so subtly summoned to the executioner's block. There is also an opportunity to escalate this fight to realms beyond abortion access. Yes, we want abortion access, but truly what we want is a vision called reproductive justice. We want feminist and gender justice. Why stop there? We want justice, full stop. We want a better world built on equity, solidarity, participation, self-management, diversity, and sustainability, for all.

The networks of solidarity and outreach that are forming around the issue of abortion must be solidified beyond a single issue coalition into a progressive power bloc. This bloc should be non-hierarchical and intersectional, taking leadership from the specialized areas of expertise of each of its respective member groups, while fostering a commitment to preserving a diversity of thought and practice. This bloc would represent the robust sum of all of its membership, rather than a lowest common denominator coalition that can only get behind the measly scraps that remain after every disagreement and cancellation has run its course.

Such a progressive bloc would be equipped to simultaneously apply pressure on all possible points. It could achieve so much more than calls to representatives, lawsuits, and rallies alone - it could also demand a referendum, organize strikes, student walkouts, boycotts, public occupations, and other disruptive power plays available to a diversified portfolio of aligned organizations. It could seek out and target the underlying causes when representatives ignore constituents. Rising up through this fight for reproductive justice, a progressive bloc would then be ready to take on climate justice, labor issues, institutionalized racism, debt issues, money in politics, healthcare, education, and beyond from a position of organized and participatory power.

Dum Spiro Spero - While I Breathe, I Hope

The tired divide and conquer method has kept down, out, and divided our various communities, from working-class people, to women, to Black people, to Indigenous people, to LatinX people, to immigrants, to Muslims, Jews, Atheists, to LGBTQ people, to everybody - divide and conquer cannot be allowed a resurgence. To rise up above "wedge issues", which are divisive by design, the solution is to come together in solidarity and community to stand up for justice for all. It is exactly this refusal to acquiesce to false divisions, this radical togetherness, that is our best strategy to win abortion access and every other victory we envision.

South Carolina's lesson is everyone's lesson--it is time to pressure every possible point and leverage collective power.

South Carolina's lesson is everyone's lesson--it is time to pressure every possible point and leverage collective power. Well-intentioned efforts in isolation will yield burnout rather than success. As those occupying the seats of power have already made clear, it will not be easy. We need to be strategic and let a wider positive vision guide us towards worthy alternatives in community with each other. We must be in a frame of mind fitted to run towards something that we want, rather than merely running away from all we don't want. And we need to take care of each other while we carve this path.

The good news is that when we succeed in radical togetherness, the rewards are exponential and the possibilities for fundamental change open wide. The imaginary is powerful when we seek and engage with worthy vision to help guide our efforts, spark social innovation, and to inspire hope. Community is powerful when we embrace and organize diverse intersectional participation. The people are powerful, but only together.

Now is the time to forge a lasting strategic bloc to force hands that will not yield willingly nor play by the rules. Now is the time to change the rules.

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