Department of Justice Will "Deter Violence" Against Abortion Providers
The Huffington Post
reported that Attorney General Eric Holder gave a stern speech at the
Washington Lawyer’s Committee Tuesday condemning violent acts against
abortion providers like Dr. George Tiller. Holder promised the
Department of Justice would to "deter violence against reproductive
health care providers," and prosecute those engage in violence.
He told the Committee:
"Neither our respect for the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech
nor our clearest hope for common ground can justify the violence that
we saw in Kansas," Holder said. "We will not tolerate murder or the
threat of violence masquerading as political activism. Let me be clear,
the Justice Department will use every tool at its disposal to protect
the rights ensured under our constitution and we will do all that we
can to deter violence against reproductive health care providers and
prosecute those who use such violence to the fullest extent of the law."
comments were also relevant for other recent violence that has taken
place around the country, referring to the shooting at the Holocaust
Museum in DC, where a security guard was killed by a white supremacists.
Hillary Clinton Issues Human Trafficking Report Today, Hillary Clinton issued the ninth Department of State Trafficking in Humans Report, according to Feminist Daily News Wire.
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In the introductory letter
to the report from Clinton said,
"The human trafficking
phenomenon affects virtually every country, including the United
States. In acknowledging America’s own struggle with modern-day slavery
and slavery-related practices, we offer partnership. We call on every
government to join us in working to build consensus and leverage
resources to eliminate all forms of human trafficking."
report said that 5,212 human trafficking cases prosecuted globally in
2008, and out of that number, there were 2,983 convictions. The report
talked about punishments for traffickers, but also discussed ways to
protect trafficking victims.
Legislation to Eliminate Child Marriage is Passed in House of Representatives
The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of
2009 was passed last week in the House of Representatives by a 235-187
vote, according to Feminist Daily News Wire. The initiative is meant to eliminate child marriages in developing countries.
Betty McCollum (D-MN), author of the original bill, said, "child marriage is a human rights violation that undermines America’s
investments in foreign assistance to improve women’s and girl’s
education, health, and economic status."
marriage is common in rural, poor areas of developing countries. Child
brides are often given no education opportunities, pressure to have
children and lower long-term reproductive health, according to the article.
Just two days after NARAL Pro-Choice America submitted a letter asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate anti-choice activities as domestic terrorism, an extremist opened fire on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, murdering three people and injuring nine others.
On a frigid January afternoon this year, a day before the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, about a dozen fresh-out-of-college feminist campus organizers marched the halls of Congress after divvying up a list of representatives to visit.
Smartly dressed under bulky winter coats, organizers Kelli Musick and Chelsea Yarborough, who work for the national nonprofit the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), dropped by the office of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).
Blackburn chairs the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee’s Select Investigative Panel, created last October principally to investigate Planned Parenthood. The panel formed after the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released a series of heavily edited videos in which it claimed—though never proved—that Planned Parenthood was illegally selling fetal tissue.
As part of their mission that day, Musick and Yarborough left written materials with a staffer asking Blackburn to either redirect her panel’s focus to violent attacks on abortion clinics, or to dissolve it. Specifically, the FMF wanted the congressional panel to investigate the leaders behind CMP, whose rhetoric has fueled a recent spate of threats and attacks against abortion providers, the foundation’s president, Eleanor Smeal, told Rewire in an interview. Though the investigative scope of the panel is actually quite broad, it does not specifically include abortion clinic violence as an area to probe.
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But in the four months since Musick and Yarborough submitted their request to Blackburn’s staff, the panel has forged ahead with its investigation, not just into Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue donation practices, but into abortion practices generally. This week, House Democrats requested that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) disband this panel, arguing that it amounts to little more than a biased, expensive witch hunt on fetal tissue researchers and abortion providers.
Really, though, the FMF’s mostly symbolic ask is part of a recent, ongoing push by abortion rights groups to demand that the federal government start taking violence and threats aimed at abortion providers more seriously. National organizations last year began identifying a spike in violent acts, such as arson, vandalism, and death threats, directed at reproductive health clinics and staffers.
NARAL Pro-Choice America started a campaign last November asking the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate these types of activities as domestic terrorism. Just two days after NARAL submitted its letter to the federal agency, an anti-choice extremist opened fire on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado murdering three people and injuring nine others.
This rise in threats and attacks—further documented in a report published last month by the National Abortion Federation (NAF)—has also prompted abortion rights groups to demand that the government strengthen and fully enforce the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, a 22-year-old federal law intended to ensure access to abortion clinics and to protect the lives of abortion providers and patients.
“The time for us being quiet is over,” Smeal said at a news conference held in January. “We are determined that we are going to bring the anti-abortion violence issue to the forefront of decision making.”
A Call for More FACE Investigations
The FACE Act, which allows for criminal and civil remedies, makes it a federal crime to use force or the threat of force to prevent people from accessing or providing reproductive health care. For example, the law bans the destruction of clinic property and the practice of blocking someone’s entrance into a clinic.
Before President Bill Clinton signed the FACE Act in 1994, some abortion foes would travel the country and barricade themselves in front of clinic doors. Such blockades came to be known as “operation rescue,” pioneered by the national group of the same name whose current president, Troy Newman, was involved in the aforementioned video campaign targeting Planned Parenthood.
“It’s called ‘interposition,'” Rev. Rusty Lee Thomas told Rewire in a phone interview. He said that this blockading practice is based on a biblical and historical concept, where “someone stands in the gap between the sort of tyrant and its victim.” Thomas said in this case, the doctors providing abortions were the tyrants and the aborted fetuses the victims.
Thomas now runs a group called Operation Save America. Back in the 1990s, he joined anti-choice activists in these ventures. But Thomas said he gave up this particular brand of protest after the DOJ sued him and others under the FACE Act in 1998, after he had attempted to block the entrances of reproductive health clinics in multiple cities in Ohio. Though the federal government ultimately dropped the charges, the threat of prison time and hundreds of dollars in fines ended his blockading days, Thomas said.
“Like anything else, when the price tag goes up, people really do have to weigh that,” he said. “By that time, the government was successful at scaring people and shutting it down. The tactic of ‘operation rescue’ was put to an end.”
Many abortion rights supporters agree with Thomas that the FACE Act curbed clinic blockades. They say this federal policy and similar state laws helped decrease violent attacks, such as clinic bombings and murders of clinic workers and doctors. Smeal said that, according to the FMF’s frequent clinic surveys, the year the FACE Act went into effect, more than 50 percent of abortion clinics reported experiencing violence; today that number has dropped to 20 percent.
Since 1994, the DOJ has filed a total of 27 civil FACE cases in 17 states, a Justice Department spokesperson told Rewire in an email. The spokesperson said the DOJ receives “a great deal of information” from national abortion provider groups, as well as from victims, local law enforcement, and media reports.
As Rewire has reported previously, both criminal and civil prosecutions under FACE tend to fluctuate based on which political party controls the White House: During President George W. Bush’s administration, for example, criminal prosecutions under the FACE Act declined by more than 75 percent to about two a year, compared to an average of ten prosecutions a year under the Clinton administration. During President Obama’s first term, the DOJ reported prosecuting 11 criminal cases under the FACE Act, charging 12 defendants.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March on the oversight of the Justice Department, Attorney General Loretta Lynch testified that her agency increased criminal prosecutions and civil cases filed under the FACE Act within the “past five or six years.” But she did not give the total number of cases prosecuted under the act. She estimated that under the Obama administration, the DOJ has charged a total of 12 criminal cases criminally and nine civil ones.
Advocates and providers say these figures pale in comparison to the number of acts of violence and harassment annually committed against clinics and providers nationwide.
Since the NAF began tracking abortion clinic violence in 1977, the organization reports that as of 2015, there have been 185 arsons, 42 bombings, 26 attempted murders, and 11 murders, three of which occurred last year.
Advocates are currently waiting to see whether the government will bring a FACE complaint against Robert Lewis Dear Jr., who invoked anti-abortion animus upon arrest and during his first media interview after he admitted to shooting up the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic last November. During her testimony in March, Lynch said the DOJ is reviewing “a possible FACE Act violation” against Dear while his murder case proceeds in state court.
It appears, however, that this case will be in limbo for a while. Earlier this month, a judge ruled that Dear lacks the mental competency to stand trial, after forensic psychologists diagnosed him with a delusion disorder they claim is based on the accused shooter’s fringe political beliefs, among them that federal agents are spying on him. Dear, meanwhile, has been very clear that he does not want to plead insanity; rather, he wants to argue that the attack on Planned Parenthood was legally justified because he was fighting against the greater evil of abortion. For the time being, Dear will be treated at a state psychiatric hospital until, if ever, he is deemed competent to stand trial.
In any case, it might seem unnecessary to charge Dear with a federal felony crime of obstructing access to abortion when he’s already on trial for multiple murders. But some advocates say that charging these crimes under FACE is important symbolically because, as with hate crimes, the FACE Act helps draw the link between crimes like vandalism, arson, and murder, and a specific bias against a group of people. Being able to illustrate a pattern of anti-abortion crimes is necessary in order to bring awareness to law enforcement and the public and to potentially deter anti-choice extremists from threatening or committing acts of violence, they say.
It’s for this reason that physician assistant Susan Cahill wanted to bring a FACE claim against Zachary Klundt, who destroyed her All Families Healthcare clinic in Kalispell, Montana, in March 2014, forcing her to forever shutter her clinic.
According to testimony that surfaced during the sentencing hearing, Klundt had texted his mother hours before the break-in, asking her for information about the “abortionist,” and had told a psychiatrist evaluating him after the break-in that Cahill was a “murderer.” Notably, Klundt’s mother sat on the board of the anti-choice pregnancy center that purchased Cahill’s old building and evicted Cahill.
Yet despite this circumstantial evidence, Klundt testified that he smashed all of Cahill’s medical equipment and personal photos and poured iodine on her patients’ medical records because of serious drug addiction, not anti-abortion animus.
“Even though everybody knows why he did it, legally it wasn’t tried that way,” Cahill told Rewire.
Though third parties can bring civil suits under the FACE Act, Cahill said she likely would be unsuccessful trying to use the statute in this case, because Klundt was only found guilty of vandalism and the court did not make a specific finding about his motivations in committing this crime.
Instead, she is suing Klundt, his family, and the crisis pregnancy center that forced her from her old building, for negligence, nuisance, and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” She said she hopes that if the case moves forward, discovery proceedings will surface what she suspects were Klundt’s anti-abortion motivations.
To be sure, not all anti-choice activists and abortion clinic protesters escalate to violence. And abortion opponents like Susan B. Anthony List national campaign chair Jill Stanek say the FACE Act goes too far in regulating the actions of protesters. Stanek told Rewire that most of these activists peacefully exercise their free speech rights to protest what they believe is a form of murder.
As an example, Stanek pointed Rewire to a FACE claim in 2010 in which the DOJ sued an activist in West Palm Beach, Florida, accusing her of blocking the flow of traffic at an abortion clinic while she tried to give pamphlets to a couple in a car. A federal judge dismissed the claim as baseless.
Stanek argued that it is a political strategy among abortion rights supporters to “play up” acts of anti-choice violence and threats. She added that abortion opponents also receive their share of attacks and threats, including herself. Upon returning from vacation in late January, Stanek said she found a brick thrown through her window with a note reading: “Quit the pro-life bullshit.” Her local newspaper in Mokena, Illinois, reported the alleged incident. Stanek posted photos she says depict the brick and busted window to Facebook.
While Stanek maintained that most abortion protesters organize peacefully and called people like Dear part of the “lunatic fringe,” she did concede that protesting in front of abortion clinics is, in part, an attempt by her movement “to stigmatize abortion doctors.” The goal is also, she said, to convince patients to turn away from clinics and for clinic staff to quit their jobs.
It’s this stigma and endless, sometimes hostile, presence in front of reproductive health clinics that, abortion providers told Rewire, can help breed eventual violence. But Stanek said the movement is not about to abandon this crucial aspect of their multi-pronged strategy to end legal abortion.
“As far as we’re concerned, the last front, the last place that we have a chance to save a baby is at the abortion clinic,” Stanek said. “Laws haven’t worked, pregnancy care centers haven’t worked, educating hasn’t worked. Now we have the mom going into the abortion clinic. And so that is what compels certain people to go to abortion clinics and try to get women to change their minds.”
Abortion Rights Advocates Say FACE Is Weak on Threats, Harassment
It was lunchtime during the summer of 2012 when Dr. Willie Parker walked outside of Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Jackson, Mississippi. It was his first day at the clinic, which happens to be bright pink and the last standing abortion clinic in the whole state. As such, it’s a regular fixture for protests.
As he walked to and from a nearby sandwich shop, Parker said he was accompanied by a protester who “berated” him the entire way. He felt intimidated and threatened.
Parker, who currently divides his time among six clinics in five states, told Rewire in a phone interview that the FACE Act is a “mixed bag,” arguing it does not fully protect providers, especially when they are not on clinic property. He added that abortion foes have learned all of the federal and local statutes to know how close they can physically reach patients and providers while staying inside the law.
“At what point am I out of the safety created by [the FACE] Act simply because I chose to walk across the street from an abortion clinic to get a sandwich?” he said.
Many abortion providers think FACE is a relatively weak law, particularly when it comes to harassment and threats made against them, an element of clinic violence many advocates say is often ignored at the federal level. Though it forbids “the threat of force,” such a provision is open to interpretation by the courts.
Drexel University law professor David Cohen, who co-authored a recent book about anti-abortion terrorism, told Rewire last year that the FACE Act should be amended to specifically include stalking and harassing abortion providers within the law’s current definition of “intimidate.” Additionally, Cohen recommends directing the courts to assess threats from the perspective of an abortion provider, and increasing penalties.
Threats to providers have drastically increased in the last year, say advocacy groups. They attribute this increase, in part, to the incendiary rhetoric that Planned Parenthood “sells baby parts,” a recurring mantra from the Center for Medical Progress’ smear campaign against the reproductive health-care network.
The NAF tracked 94 threats of direct harm in 2015, compared to just one threat in 2014. According to its latest report, NAF hired an outside security firm in mid-November last year to track online threats, which helped to identify more than 25,000 incidents of hate speech and threats within six weeks.
Meanwhile, researchers at FMF also witnessed a sharp rise in threats against abortion providers last summer. Smeal said researchers were so concerned that they postponed a clinic violence survey that they were prepping to come out earlier this year and instead tried to help clinics prevent threats from escalating into actual attacks.
“We were very, very concerned about the increasing level of threats,” Smeal told Rewire in an interview. “Most of us who have been involved in this for a long time thought it was one of the highest threat levels we’ve ever seen. We were waiting for the violent acts to occur.”
They didn’t have to wait long.
Dr. Savita Ginde, the medical director at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, was one of the doctors featured in one of CMP’s videos. After the video streamed online, Ginde allegedly received online death threats, as well as picketers outside of her home. In November, Dear was arrested for shooting up her clinic, declaring afterward, “no more baby parts.” Ginde was not harmed.
The connection of threats to violence worries advocates like Smeal. Extremists do not always act on their threats, but they sometimes do, she said. Or they create a climate that motivates someone to act out what the crowd is cheering for.
It’s for this reason that the reproductive rights community eagerly anticipated the recent trial in the Justice Department’s civil lawsuit against abortion foe Angel Dillard in the hopes that the result might strengthen future enforcement against threats under FACE.
In fact, the opposite might have happened.
The DOJ sued Dillard in 2011 after she mailed a letter to family practitioner Dr. Mila Means. Means was, at the time, training to perform abortions in Wichita to fill the gap left by Dr. George Tiller, whom Scott Roeder murdered two years earlier, admitting it was because Tiller performed abortions. In the letter, Dillard, who has ties to Roeder, told Means that thousands of abortion opponents across the country were monitoring her movements and that should she begin offering abortions, she should take care to check beneath her car for explosives every day “because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.” In the letter, Dillard also referenced Tiller speaking to Means from hell.
The agency interpreted this letter as a threat of violence that violated the FACE Act. Means ended up not opening an abortion practice in Wichita. She told Rewire after the trial that she backed out, in part, because of the cultural and political climate against abortion in Kansas. “The threats work,” she said.
This climate was evidenced in the Wichita jury’s decision reached earlier this month. While the eight jurors did conclude that Dillard’s letter constituted a “true threat” not automatically protected by free speech, they also accepted Dillard’s attorneys’ arguments that her threats were religious in nature rather than violent.
“The letter was intimidating, but it was a more spiritual threat, a more emotional threat,” Adam Cox, the presiding juror, told Rewirein an interview following the verdict.
Thus, they found the letter did not violate the law and did not warrant civil damages or a protective order to keep Dillard away from Means.
Smeal said she was disappointed by the verdict in the Dillard case.
“It just shows you how hard it is to enforce this law,” she told Rewire in a phone interview.
Smeal said she is working behind the scenes with other advocates and lawmakers on efforts to eventually expand and strengthen the FACE Act. In the meantime, she said, law enforcement at all levels should be employing other existing laws to prosecute but also try to prevent violent attacks against abortion providers.
Some advocates, for example, have called on the federal government to treat demonstrated acts of anti-abortion violence, bomb threats, or murder as domestic terrorism.
Since NARAL launched its campaign last fall demanding that the DOJ begin investigating anti-abortion violence as domestic terrorism, NARAL Vice President of Policy Donna Crane said her group has seen more congressional members speaking out about abortion clinic violence as domestic terrorism.
“We think [the campaign] has raised important questions about why all too often anti-choice violence at women’s health centers is seen somehow as different, maybe even somehow a little bit more acceptable,” Crane told Rewire in a phone interview. “We believe that it’s just another flavor of domestic terrorism, and it should be talked about as such and treated as such.”
Smeal said her organization is similarly not backing down from its campaign asking the House committee investigating Planned Parenthood to take to task the activist groups that have, she believes, contributed to a dangerous climate for abortion providers and their patients.
Already, Smeal said, supporters have sent the committee thousands of emails as part of this campaign. And though she said it is difficult to know what effect the FMF’s campaign has had so far, she said she knows congressional members are listening.
Earlier in May, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the committee’s ranking Democratic member Rep. Janice Schakowsky held a press conference asking Speaker Paul Ryan to disband the House select committee, arguing that its investigation is putting access to reproductive health care as well as the lives of doctors and fetal-tissue researchers in danger, a point Smeal’s group has been making for months now.
“We’re going to keep it up, because we’re worried [the committee is] endangering health-care providers,” Smeal said of her group’s campaign. “We want to continue to shed light on this anti-abortion violence and basically are doing that in every way we can.”
Misogyny may evolve as new tactics are put into practice, but the systematic harassment of women, whether it be for speaking up or for accessing reproductive health care, continues to be about power.
In her book Gendertrolling: How Misogyny Went Viral, Karla Mantilla defines her new term, “gendertrolling,” as a separate phenomenon from the standard “annoying or disruptive” troll behavior, placing it squarely in the tradition of male entitlement.
“[G]endertrolling is exponentially more vicious, virulent, aggressive, threatening, pervasive, and enduring than generic trolling,” she writes. “[G]endertrolls, as opposed to generic trolls, take their cause seriously, so they are therefore able to rally others who share in their convictions to take up the effort alongside them resulting in a mob, or swarm, of gendertrolls who are devoted to targeting the designated person.”
The editor of a women’s studies journal makes it clear that the bombardment of gendered, personal, and prolific harassment of women online is simply the newest manifestation of a patriarchal culture. Her thorough analysis and suggestions for creating change purposely parallel offline and historical gendered attacks—even calling for readers and activists to draw additional parallels in the hopes of critiquing and expanding her recommendations for change.
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“I am … attempting in this book to call attention to the fact that gendertrolling is not a new phenomenon that has arisen as an inevitable consequence of the Internet, but to demonstrate that it is simply a new form of age-old misogyny,” writes Mantilla. “I am hopeful that this book makes a contribution by identifying not only gendertrolling, but the patterns that it shares in common with countless other modes of misogyny.”
The clearest parallel for me to the pervasive, coordinated, and nearly universally ignored harassment of gendertrolling is the intimidation and violence against abortion providers in this country. Both attempt to restrict the autonomy of those who are marginalized and both rely on ignorance and/or apathy to thrive. Additionally, both create a culture of fear where the collective memory of the afflicted groups intensifies the effect of individual threats in a way that is reasonable—but only to those with a working knowledge of the medium and intent of the harassers. Law enforcement, in both cases, is often woefully lacking in the knowledge necessary to take threats seriously and/or the tools to address complaints.
At the time that I picked up Mantilla’s book, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was drilling Planned Parenthood’s president to “examine the use of taxpayer funding” by Planned Parenthood and its affiliates, and a founder of the #ShoutYourAbortion Twitter campaign was doxxed and ended up leaving her home city. Also, the Clinic Vest Project, a nonprofit of which I am a founding board member that provides free vests to clinic escort groups across North America, began seeing a significant uptick in resource requests from Planned Parenthood clinics with new or increased picketing. I immediately drew a connection between the steady rise in gendertrolling and the increase in abortion provider targeting as detailed by the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project Surveys and lawyer-authors David S. Cohen and Krysten Connon in their book Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism.
Both types of harassment intimidate, silence, and often bodily injure the targets. Anti-choice individuals who target abortion providers—inadequately dressed up in a concern for life—seek to end reproductive autonomy. The targeting of vocal women in a traditionally male space—such as a new public forum—seeks to shut down any foothold for those who dare express an opinion. Whether there is traceable crossover between those who commit these two kinds of targeting, both stem from a compulsion to control voices and power.
Mantilla effectively places gendertrolling in context as part of “a long-standing historical tradition of harassment and abuse of women, in which women have been barred from full participation in cultural, social, and political discourse.” Any campaign by legislators or anti-abortion groups to reduce or eliminate women’s bodily autonomy—and therefore control over their present and future—should be seen as part of the same tradition.
Abortion providers and those affected by gendertrolling also share an unfortunate frustration with law enforcement. Cohen and Connon interviewed medical director Inez Navarro, whose initial experience with local police was one reason she moved to a new neighborhood. When the picketers at her clinic began using her name and yelling more direct threats like “No one is going to protect you,” she decided to alert the police.
“If anything did happen, I wanted them to know there was a history, it wasn’t just a one-time random incident,” Navarro explained. When the police laughed rather than taking her complaint seriously, she was “irritated and pissed and emotional all at the same time.” Being brushed off changed her perception of law enforcement drastically.
“Maybe I had a naive faith that the police were there to protect me,” Navarro said. “I can tell you right now, I no longer trust that this police force is here to help. That was kind of my eye-opening experience with them.”
Journalist Anna Merlan’s experience reporting gendertrolling harassment was similarly frustrating. “[T]here are pretty good harassment and stalking laws on the books in most states that could be used to prosecute people who make clear threats online,” she told Mantilla. “But something about the online environment makes police lose interest.”
Navarro and Merlan are hardly anomalies. Having volunteered as a clinic escort in several states and cities as well as helped to launch new abortion access programs, I have experienced a wide range of law enforcement responses. In fact, one of my first questions to new team leaders and clinic staff is: “What happens when you call the police to report harassment?”
A discouraging lack of interest extends to prosecutors and the courtroom. Widespread mainstream coverage of GamerGate targeting high profile women in the gaming industry with rape and death threats wasn’t enough for the justice system. Of those targeted, Brianna Wu in particular had a very solid, high-profile case, and yet Merlan confirms that “not a single violent threat made against Wu, Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn has result[ed] in an actual, prosecuted criminal case.”
Abortion providers are fighting legal battles in the face of a proliferation of restrictive laws (51 this year; 282 since 2010), openly hostile governors and prosecutors, and ideological judges. This summer, pro-choice advocates praised an unexpected ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit’s that will put Angel Dillard on trial for threats she made to Kansas abortion provider Dr. Mila Means. Dillard has ties to other anti-abortion extremists like Scott Roeder, who killed longtime Wichita abortion provider Dr. George Tiller after years of targeting and murder attempts by anti-abortion groups, but was attempting to hide behind her First Amendment rights, contending her comments did not constitute a “true threat.”
From Rewire’s coverage of the case:
At the time Dillard sent the letter, Means was preparing to start offering abortion services at the clinic of the late abortion provider [Dr. Tiller]. In the letter to Means, Dillard presented a “vision” of what Means’ life would look like should she start providing abortions in Wichita, Kansas. In that letter, Dillard explained how thousands of people from across the country were already scrutinizing Means’ background. Soon, Dillard promised, they would know “your habits and routines. They know where you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live,” Dillard wrote. “You will be checking under your car every day—because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.”
Anyone familiar with GamerGate or the history of abortion provider targeting would see the threats to Wu and Means as credible and unprotected speech. Eight abortion providers have been murdered in recent decades and misogynistic shooting sprees carried out by men like Elliot Rodger have made enough headlines to cultivate a culture of fear that intensify every mailed “warning” letter and tweeted rape/death threat. It only takes a handful of these acts carried out IRL—in real life—to create a collective memory of the targeting and for targeted individuals of either group to feel unsafe. This amplification effect is easily exploited by anti-choice groups as well as GamerGaters.
As Mantilla writes in Gendertrolling:
Although such expressly declared misogynistic killing sprees [like Rodger’s] are relatively rare, the fear of many women who are targets of online harassment campaigns is that the mob mentality and the amped-up rhetoric might precipitate more offline real-life violence. Given these incidents, along with the rape and death threats, graphic sexual and violent messages, and instances of doxxing, it is entirely understandable that women who are being targeted would reasonably be fearful for their safety.
If the fear is so reasonable, why are there so few—if any—legal actions available to those who are targeted? Mantilla and the Crosshairs authors advocate for similar solutions: increase cultural awareness; enforce current laws; enact new laws; and educate law enforcement on the climate of targeting, training them to respond appropriately. All these recommendations are made with an awareness that culture change will be necessary for solutions to work long-term; changes in law and culture can work together to amplify each kind of change.
“Many commentators see changing norms [to be] at least as important as or perhaps more important than changing laws,” writes Mantilla. “They also see changing laws as one way to induce cultural change and to signal to people that changes in norms and standards are taking place.”
The Crosshairs authors see labeling anti-abortion threats and violence as “terrorism” to be part of that two-pronged strategy. “By shifting terminology to include targeted harassment within the concept of terrorism, society will further brand these actions as unacceptable, possibly reducing the amount providers face through a shift in societal norms,” they write.
They also see the “terrorism” label as more clearly defining whose jurisdiction threats would fall under—another issue that connects both types of targeting. Wu similarly advocates for getting law enforcement the necessary tools to respond appropriately: “This is going to require funding, it’s going to require laws be [passed] that clearly outline whose responsibility it is to respond to these threats.”
A British Member of Parliament named Stella Creasy—who has, herself, received graphic online rape and death threats—has advocated for legal changes in the UK and is quoted by Mantilla on the need for law enforcement to take online threats seriously:
I want the police and other services to be able to understand the impact of these messages. I don’t want them to tell me how to learn to cope — I want to hear they are doing something about it.
The “Recommendations for Change” chapter of Gendertrolling summation fits both targeting scenarios and addresses the need to bring about legal and cultural change. “As we have seen, those who are bent on harassing, abusing, and threatening women seem to have endless capacities for adapting their tactics to new mediums and new technologies,” she writes. “Strategies that advocate for cultural change have the best hope of being effective at eradicating the motivations of those who attack women by tackling the root of the problem: misogyny.”
The abortion storytelling movement and heightened visibility of clinic escorts who can recount the day-to-day bombardment that reproductive health-care facilities endure are tackling this aspect of provider targeting. As public opinion shifts on abortion care and the offensive tactics of picketers are made known, harassing providers will become increasingly unacceptable. Campaigns like #ShoutYourAbortion that highlight the crossover in motivation between the two types of targeting accelerate our shift toward widespread culture change.
Mantilla closes her book with the hope that those fighting back in multiple arenas can work together and be sure to tag in the next generation to amplify our efforts:
“Perhaps if women and feminist activists were more prepared to anticipate the seemingly inevitable new iterations of misogyny, it would expedite the process of coming to recognize the commonalities each new form has with other earlier forms, which might enable women to identify and to fight them sooner, with less effort, and with more purpose.”