I believe that Jessica Wakeman says it best: “I am only going to lament the mentally ill people out there who will watch ‘Gates Of Hell,’ pick up their gun, and murder an abortion provider like Dr. Tiller again.”
In 2009, Scott Roeder murdered Dr. George Tiller, leaving Wichita, Kansas, without an abortion provider. A full year would pass before local physician Dr. Mila Means considered stepping in to start offering abortions. She began training to offer the procedure as part of her Wichita practice—largely because nobody else was doing so.
“That was a big issue. Patients in need of services and not able to get them,” said Means in an interview with Rewire last week.
“I had someone who sought me out, who I only met once …. She had two children and was early on [in her pregnancy] and wanted a medical abortion,” said Means. “And I said ‘Well, I can’t do that here,’ and tried to refer her to Kansas City. But there was no way she could get away from her husband or anything to be able to get care,” Means continued.
“And that was really a big part of my thought: ‘Well, somebody’s got to do something in this city.'”
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Means has been tied up in litigation for the last five years because of a letter she received in January 2011 from a woman named Angel Dillard, who warned Means that should she go through with her plans, thousands of people across the country would be looking into her background to learn her habits and routines, and that Means would be checking under her car every day for explosives. That letter attracted the attention of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which sued Dillard under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. Last Friday, Wichita jurors sent a very dangerous message to the anti-choice movement where Dillard’s case was concerned: Present your threat to abortion providers as an attempt at spiritual salvation, and the law will look the other way.
The eight-person Sedgwick County jury concluded that Dillard’s January 15, 2011 letter, which also referenced Tiller speaking to Means from hell, constituted a “true threat.” In other words, that letter was a threat and not automatically protected free speech, as Dillard and her attorneys had argued.
But the jury also found that while it was reasonable for Means to feel threatened given the reference to Tiller’s murder, the car bomb mention, and so on, those threats were not enough to warrant any of the civil damages the DOJ had asked for on Means’ behalf, or the protective order the agency had asked for keeping Dillard away from Means.
See, Dillard’s evangelical Christianity included an angry God, a vengeful God, explained her attorney Craig Shultz to jurors in his closing argument. Dillard is a strong woman with strong beliefs who uses strong words to persuade others like Means, to change their ways, he said—in other words, her letter was just an example of those strong words.
“The letter was intimidating, but it was a more spiritual threat, a more emotional threat,” presiding juror and Wichita native Adam Cox, 37, told Rewire in an interview following the verdict. “It was not a threat of physical violence … and therefore it did not violate the law.”
This distinction—between spiritual violence and physical violence—is exactly the cover the radical anti-choice movement has sought from the law for decades. And that’s exactly what the Dillard jury gave them when they found Dillard not liable for threatening Means out of providing abortions in Wichita. Although the circumstances of the cases are obviously different, the idea that being spiritually compelled toward the threat of violence should be enough to excuse that threat in the court of law echoes the reasoning used by other anti-choice extremists.
It’s a mutation of the legal theory of justifiable homicide, the idea that an act like murder is legally excusable in some circumstances because it’s preventing a greater evil—in this case, legal abortion. That’s what Paul Hill used to try to justify his murder of abortion provider Dr. John Britton and Britton’s bodyguard in 1994.
Like Dillard, Paul Hill considered himself a minister.
It’s the same argument Roeder used during his trial for killing Dr. Tiller. It’s the same position advocated by Roeder associate and self-proclaimed minister Michael Bray, convicted in 1985 for possessing explosives and conspiring to blow up abortion clinics.
While Roeder, Hill, and Bray were convicted for their crimes, each, like Dillard, attempted to cloak their conduct in the guise of being called by God to act.
And this is the same line of thinking self-proclaimed Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Lewis Dear Jr. has said he will use to defend himself should he be determined competent to stand trial.
When Dear was initially detained by law enforcement following the shooting, and throughout his legal proceedings so far, he has consistently made anti-choice statements. He’s repeated the idea that Planned Parenthood is “selling baby parts,” the same argument made by the anti-choice Center for Medical Progress and its founders David Daleiden and Operation Rescue’s Troy Newman, spread by heavily edited videos, and repeated ad nauseam by conservative lawmakers looking to stir up their base in a particularly ugly election cycle.
Dear faces a total of 179 counts, including murder and attempted murder, from the five-hour standoff. The hearing to determine his competency to stand trial continues May 10. In the first phase of that hearing last month, prosecutors portrayed Dear as a man with deeply held religious and political convictions, which they said motivated Dear to hold siege at the reproductive health-care facility and eventually kill three. It is those very same sincerely held religious beliefs and a paranoia that the federal government is persecuting Christians that, Dear’s defense team argues, rise to the level of a diagnosable delusional disorder, rendering him incompetent to stand trial. According to the detective on Dear’s case, Dear wants to raise a “defense of others” argument—in other words, again, the legal argument that a crime is justified to prevent a greater evil.
Dillard’s attorneys argued she was simply preaching the path to redemption for Means, and not sending out a larger call to action against her.
But the truth of the matter is that Dillard’s statements were enough to give seasoned domestic terrorism law enforcement officers a reason to visit Dillard—twice, as one investigator testified at Dillard’s trial. They looked Dillard up in their internal network to find they already had a flag on her for links to abortion extremist Roeder.
In other words, in 2011 and at the moment the FBI was sent in to investigate, as best as the evidence showed, Means was to be the next big target of anti-choice violence. And the only reason she wasn’t was because the portion of FACE that is designed to prevent acts of violence from happening actually worked. The DOJ responded, potentially preventing an act of abortion terrorism that would have caused physical harm. It really doesn’t matter that they declined to pursue a criminal case against Dillard, a point her attorneys tried to emphasize during trial. The DOJ still brought a civil case. And civil cases are expensive to bring, which means lawyers must also consider how much money the case is worth. It sounds crass, but it’s true; it’s not profit, it’s penalties and damages. In Dr. Mila Means’ case, those were valued at approximately $20,000. For civil cases, that’s rarely, if ever, enough for an agency to justify spending five years of resources. And still, the DOJ went in hard. That alone suggests this case means more than any $20,000 verdict for Means. This case, in terms of anti-choice violence, was and remains significant.
Means never ended up developing an abortion practice, a fact she ascribes to the impossibly anti-choice political and cultural climate of Kansas. “What happened was two-pronged,” explained Means in an interview after the close of the trial but before the verdict. One issue, she said, stemmed from when the Kansas legislature “passed the TRAP laws.”
In 2011, Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed a series of anti-choice restrictions, including ones similar to those passed in Texas that are currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Those regulations, like hospital admitting privileges requirements and strict architectural requirements, have since been blocked by a federal court.
“I felt like, as an individual trying to fund getting started … there was no way I could have an ambulatory surgical center, and there’s still no guarantee that the doctors in this town will get [admitting] privileges,” Means said.
And then there was the other “prong”: Word had gotten out to the local anti-choice community that Means was training to expand her practice to provide abortions for patients who needed them. In addition to the added anticipated costs related to Kansas’ TRAP laws, Means had to consider security costs.
“As things progressed, I became much more aware of how expensive security was going to be,” said Means. For example, early in the process of attempting to expand her practice to include abortion services, Means attended a meeting with area providers. According to Means, security for that approximately two-hour meeting cost about $800.
Kansas needs abortion doctors. But Means is hesitant to recommend people come in and try and take up the work. “Only if they are prepared for it to be their whole life,” she said.
“The person that I trained with, he was in his 70s,” said Means. “I’m thinking that potentially our future providers are going to be physicians who have raised their kids, done their other kind of work, that still want to give, and are willing to crawl into a hole.”
That’s because, Means noted, violence against abortion providers is increasingly normalized. “The threats work,” said Means.
Means was pessimistic about the outcome of her case and concerned about the ripple effect such a decision could have for inspiring other threats of violence against abortion providers. “If we can’t even get people to look at [Dillard’s communication to Means] and say there’s something different here, how can we get proactive legislation [to protect providers]?” she wondered.
“Anything I can do to help protect people who are trying to provide services to women I was willing to do,” said Means. “And I just had no idea it would turn into this.”
The next day, the jury decision came down.
The jury found Dillard to be a threat. They just weren’t convinced she was enough of threat. That’s because the letter was sold as part of Dillard’s fire-and-brimstone spiritual redemption, the kind she could have been learning from Scott Roeder and Michael Bray.
Thankfully, Dillard’s case doesn’t hold much broad legal precedent, because it’s limited to the battle between Dillard, Means, and the DOJ. The DOJ could try and appeal the verdict, but it is a steep hill to climb. There are limited legal grounds to appeal in any case. Even with the problematic evidentiary rulings regarding Dillard’s purported prison ministry to Roeder and the inherent conflict between the jury finding Dillard’s letter to be a true threat but not enough of one, the DOJ has a lot of cases. The agency has to evaluate if, after five years of effort dedicated to pursing the case against Dillard, it is worth continuing. It’s a sobering reality for abortion rights advocates.
In the meantime, what that verdict shows is not just how ingrained radical Christian anti-choice sentiment is in places like Wichita, but how it is metastasizing into the law: Dillard wasn’t threatening Means’ physical well-being. She was just preaching. This was not about death to Means. It was about salvation.
The jury bought it.
The First Amendment protects the ugliest of speech. But it also demands accountability from speakers. That accountability is never about manners, or as Dillard’s attorneys claimed during her trial, shutting down abortion-related speech with which the government disagrees. It is always about whether that speech puts the safety of others in jeopardy.
Except when it’s not. When it’s speech outside abortion clinics directed at patients, abortion doctors, and clinic staff. Or when it’s women facing online death threats by former partners. Or when they are “spiritual threats” to car bomb abortion providers. Then that accountability and safety balance gets all out of whack. Inevitably, women’s lives are put in the cross-hairs.
“All of these people continue to embolden each other,” Means said.
She is exactly right. It is no coincidence that Dear shouted about “no more baby parts” at his arrest in Colorado, months after Daleiden and Newman began releasing videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue. Make no mistake about it: Abortion doctors are and will continue to be the main targets of the violent anti-choice right. But as the attack on Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood proved, if you go to a reproductive health-care facility, you are a potential target.
All of these people embolden each other. And a jury in Wichita just gave them another push.
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.”