NEW YORK —“I’m Symone Sanders, I’m a CNN political commentator, and I’m pissed off...” Before she can finish, the room bursts into applause, but over the clapping and cheers, she gathers steam and completes her thought: “I’m ready to stop Kavanaugh!”
It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon in Manhattan and the first stop on the Rise Up For Roe tour—organized by Planned Parenthood Action Fund, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the Demand Justice Initiative—is indoors, and with Sanders’ introduction, it has officially kicked off. Around three hundred people have shown up at a large warehouse space in the Flatiron district to hear Sanders and three other women—columnist Lauren Duca and Hillary Clinton campaign alums Jess Morales Rocketto and Jess McIntosh—talk about why they’re so worried about abortion access in the U.S. right now.
Securing safe and affordable abortion access is an ongoing fight, one that’s increasingly distressing—but Sanders, Duca, Morales Rocketto, and McIntonish are specifically activated on this issue. In the nearly two years since Donald Trump took office, his administration has succeeded in appointing extreme judges to the federal bench and naming anti-abortion ideologues to oversee crucial agencies. The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court that inspired the Rise Up tour. As a lower district judge, Kavanaugh successfully side-stepped questions about his personal views on Roe v. Wade, but abortion activists believe that, based on his history of conservative rulings, it’s likely that he will work to overturn Roe—a promise Trump has made to his supporters.
Early on in the talk (Duca compares the structure of today’s event as something like a podcast, and there will be no questions at the end), Sanders reiterates that Kavanaugh is dangerous. “I don’t understand why we’re being gaslit!” she says.
“I know why,” McIntonish says. “Because we’re powerful as hell and we’re mad.”
The fear—which at various points throughout the hybrid panel-rally grips me too—is that the livelihood of every woman you know is at stake if Kavanaugh is appointed to the court. “If you’re in this room right now,” McIntonish says moments later, “you have to understand that you’re the center of the resistance.”
The crowd goes nuts. They’re excited; they seem hungry for action and for answers—I wonder how many we’ll find here today.
Rise Up For Roe is a response to a moment of grueling uncertainty. The roving cast of self-described pissed-off women on tour throughout 10 cities won’t be the same at every stop, but Duca, one of the event organizers tells me, will be at most. If you remember, the freelance journalist rose to resistance fame after her column for Teen Vogue, “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” went viral.
Or it might just be that the women onstage are tired of being dismissed as hysterical (the tour’s tagline is “It’s time to get maximum hysterical”). Duca says that the way the media has covered the mainstream feminist movement is “tepid and embarrassing,” citing a CNN chyron during a segment on the Women’s March that read “Movement or moment?” “Fucking MOVEMENT,” she responds.
The panel points out that the issue of abortion access disproportionately affects poor women and women of color. “In 1973,” Morales Rocketto says, “which is right before we got the right to abortion, 90 percent of the women who died in New York City were black and Latina women. So this is especially about women of color, that is who will be affected here. That’s what always happens right?” Someone in the audience lets out a loud “woo.”
Two women seated in the audience do have a chance to speak during the panel, even though there’s no Q&A portion: Dr. Glenmarie Matthews, an OB-GYN who currently practices in the Bronx, talks about counseling two patients through the process of deciding whether or not to get an abortion, and Clara Williams, a woman from New York who’s had two abortions. Matthews ends her story by saying that politicians should stay out of exam rooms.
Both women are black, and the necessity of their stories, Sanders says, is of the highest order. She says it’s Williams’ first time sharing her story. “It’s so important, Clara is not going to be a part of the silent majority,” she says.
The necessity of speaking up is emphasized over and over again. McIntonish points out that remaining silent allows the conservative right to take hold of the moral narrative around abortion. The subtext is that people who seek abortions should be completely comfortable talking about it, and comfortable with doing so loudly. I wonder—even as I’m mad at myself for being pessimistic—whether more access to information and real-life stories can really change conservative lawmakers’ and judges’ and voters’ minds. Self-disclosure seems, admittedly, like one of the most powerful tools in the face of unmaking taboos—but as I watch Matthews and Clara talk, I am wary of an organizing strategy that demands this particular emotional labor from a class of people (particularly women of color) who are already tasked with too much.
This strategy has been in place for decades. In 1972, before the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Roe, Ms. Magazine published a cover story where 53 women announced they had a (then-illegal) abortion. That strategy has been repeated many times since, most recently during 2015's viral hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion which encouraged women to share their abortion stories in order to destigmatize the procedure. Storytelling can indeed be a powerful tool, but given the proliferation of stories and the proliferation of increasingly restrictive abortion law, it’s worth asking if narrative alone can save us.
But talking is frequently ticked off as a readily available tool for anyone who wants to get involved. That means, of course, calling your senators, but also talking to family, friends, and colleagues, especially those who share your concerns and maybe even more importantly, those who don’t. The belief that conversation can be a radical act and a catalyst for change, I gather, seems to be the whole idea behind this tour.
The crowd is largely white, but there’s a fair mix of ages, and several men too. Most of them, like New Yorkers generally, are left-leaning and already believe that abortion should be legal. Morales Rocketto mentions at one point that Kavanaugh believes employers should have a say in women’s medical choices. She is likely referencing a dissent Kavanaugh wrote in 2015, after a DC Circuit court’s decision not to hear a case involving Priests for Life, that strongly implied he sides with employers who express objections, on religious grounds, to covering their employees’ contraceptives. For the first time since the event started, the crowd starts booing.
“This isn’t about politics, it’s about power,” Morales Rocketto says, “and it’s about white men who want complete and total power over our bodies and over our lives.” Duca reminds everyone: “This is a motherfucking democracy.” Later, Morales Rocketto adds, “I think it’s actually really important to say that we have a president and an administration who believes that they are above the law.” From Trump’s point of view, she says, the law only applies to women, to black women, and to poor women.
At the end of the talk, Chelsea Clinton comes out to speak, and everyone stands up and cheers. People are taking photos and video; Duca asks Clinton about how she deals with online trolls, how she can be kind to others at a time like this, how we can continue to add supporters to the movement. Clinton talks, among other things, about how citizenship doesn’t just happen on voting day. She suggests that those who want to change things don’t just have to move others on the issue of abortion; they also have to move them on the very issue of getting out and voting, period.
I remember that there are just a handful of senators are considered swing votes on Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and I wonder what voting can do now. It certainly can’t prevent him from ascending to the Supreme Court.
The talk ends with a list of familiar action items: calling your senators, texting your friends, using social media to get the word out. Morales Rocketto leads the room in a chant of “I believe that we will win,” and it’s the highest-energy moment yet for this crowd who have largely been seated and mostly silent for the event.
Then it’s over and the room empties out; I see an older woman with short grey hair wiping away tears as she leaves. There’s a blown-up version of the Rise Up For Roe logo by the merch table (proceeds go towards Demand Justice’s campaign opposing Kavanaugh). A few people linger to chat or catch the panelists for more detail, and some stop on their way out to take a picture next to the Rise Up For Roe sign. For all the talk about “talking” and “starting conversations,” I don’t see much of that happening now (except for Dr. Matthews and Williams, who field thank yous and interview requests from a television reporter).
Whose job is it, really, to change minds—and how far can the effect of that trickle up? Can talking to your neighbor really change Congress? Rise Up For Roe’s next stop is Portland, Maine—a state represented by Susan Collins, a Republican senator whose vote was crucial in stopping the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and who pro-abortion groups are actively trying to win over in the effort to block Kavanaugh’s nomination. The Rise Up for Roe tour will continue the conversation there. I wonder if Collins will be listening.