On Monday, I was released from jail in New York City. On Sunday, I was arrested and charged with “criminal trespass” and another lesser trespass charge as I was leaving St. Patrick’s Cathedral after a group of women and men shouted out the following statements during a break in the service:
“Abortion on Demand and Without Apology!”
“Forced Motherhood is Female Enslavement”
“Stop the War on Women!”
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St. Patrick’s is, of course, home of Cardinal Timothy Dolan–head of the Catholic Bishops, a lifelong staunch opponent of abortion rights, and the person who spearheaded the U.S. Catholic church’s recent political and legal revolt against birth control.
As I and one other woman, Alice Woodward, spent a long night each alone in a filthy cell, looking out between fourteen bars to cold fluorescent lights, a dingy wall, and a window that revealed only the dirty bricks and tarp of the next building (no green and no sky) I thought of the women in El Salvador staring out of similar cells after being arrested out of the emergency room and imprisoned if the doctors suspect they are bleeding due to botched abortions. I thought of the women who are imprisoned in Afghanistan if they fall in love with the wrong man or end up pregnant and while still unmarried. I thought of Dr. Pendergraft who had spent seven months in jail for illegitimate charges leveled against him by anti-abortion fanatics seeking to put him out of business.
There is a real war going on against women. Around the world, under the cover of religious authority, women’s dreams are extinguished, women’s bodies are treated like mere vessels for men’s sperm and the incubation of fetuses, women’s lives are foreclosed. Around the world, women and men faced not only the church, but also the state, if they dare to defy thousands of years of tradition’s chains.
With these people in mind, my sacrifice felt well worth it.
Still, time alone in a jail cell creeps by at a snail’s pace. So, my mind continued to wander. Soon, I found myself retracing the events of the last week–the first seven days of a ten day effort called Take Patriarchy By Storm–which led up to my landing in jail.
Despite my heavy heart over the tremendous and unnecessary brutality and shame that is inflicted on women on every corner of the globe, and despite the frequent interruptions inflicted on me by guards who spoke to me and Alice only with disdain, I couldn’t help busting out in a wide grin–and yes, I’ll admit it, a full out laugh with defiant and righteous joy at what we’ve begun.
I thought of Karlee, a 16-year-old year old from a rural area with more Chutzpah than most people twice her age, who ventured into a Pregnancy Crisis Center to get the real scoop on the lies and emotional pressure applied to women to prevent them from getting abortions. Despite knowing that she wasn’t pregnant and being well-versed in the truth about how fetuses are not babies and abortion is not murder, she still broke down crying under the intimidation and judgment inflicted on her from those who “counseled” her at this “clinic.” Still, she came through the experience stronger, writing about it here and then finding the courage to shout out for abortion rights at the top of her lungs on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral with others here.
I flashed back to the shocked and outraged expressions on the men who threw objects and misogynist insults at dozens of people who protested inside the “Original Hooters” restaurant–a restaurant whose entire theme is to revel in objectifying women’s breasts and women as a whole. The protesters draped “crime scene tape” that read “Danger! Crimes Against Women” around the restaurant and chanted, “Women aren’t objects, women aren’t toys. Women aren’t playthings for the boys!” Even better than the shocked expressions of the men were the faces of pure joy of the women and men who turned that restaurant, which every day serves as a site of women’s objectification and degradation, into a space of women’s liberation.
I thought of the audacity, the courage, the righteousness and the elation of the dozens of us who returned for the second time in one day to take the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral just the day before my arrest. How we joined together with our loud signs and stickers and “crime scene tape” to deliver a Call to Action against the whole war against women. I recalled how this infuriated many and brought the applause of others, but how this shocked all of the hundreds who stopped to witness this as it happened. We linked up, as our Call to Action does, the way that both pornography and the church reduce women to “things.” One reduces us to sex objects and the other reduces us to breeders and there is no fundamental difference between the two, neither treat women as full human beings.
I thought of the evening at Revolution Books when I gave a talk getting into the quote from Bob Avakian that begins, “You cannot break all the chains, except one. You cannot say you want to be free of exploitation and oppression, except you want to keep the oppression of women by men,” and ends by insisting that we must unleash the fury of women as a mighty force for revolution. I was heartened by all the men in that crowd who spoke deeply and from the heart about how they have come, through interaction with the movement for revolution, to see this fight for women’s liberation as central to any chance to win a better world.
I thought of the porn stores in Times Square that “virtual girlfriends” (rubber reconstructions of vaginas, breasts and anuses for men to penetrate without the “hassle” of a real woman), torture porn, and hundreds of gang bangs, teens being violated by multiple men, and the sexualized humiliation and violation of women based on race. And I smiled, again, as I recalled how these spaces were turned into sites of liberation through women and men going right inside to raise their voices and then holding their ground and speaking the truth that is all too often told only through whispers and tears in the face of harassment and a f**king water-hose (I kid you not!) directed at us by those working at the porn store.
But most of all, and more than any single interaction or protest, I thought of the tremendous transformation that took place this week. I thought of the woman who had traveled up to New York City to join us for this project and marched with us and gone out every day to Union Square with us to collect the “Stories from the War Zone” of women and men who passed by to display in public what is often kept silent. After protesting the first porn store we went to on Saturday, as we walked down the block, I looked and saw her slumped on the ground wrapped in the arms of another volunteer. Her body was shaking and both the volunteers had tears streaming down their eyes.
When I approached, the woman who was shaking violently said to me, “Something just tore open in me when you were speaking in front of the porn store. You talked about everything that happens to women – and when you said that little girls are molested in their own homes… that was me. I was molested when I was five. In a place that is supposed to be safe.”
By now we were all crying, but I told her that these stories need to come out and she has the strength to turn that pain into fury that fuels this movement. She said she wasn’t sure she could do that, but even as she was saying that she was standing up and raising her head. Next thing we all knew, she was telling her story to the rapt attention of all who surrounded. She not only spoke of her abuse, but of how for her whole life she and millions of other women have choked on that abuse – carried the shame and the stigma, the trauma and the anguish of having been violated and having society just carry on. She spoke with pride of having disrupted people’s lunches at Hooters and their shopping at the porn store, “They should not have the right to eat their lunch based on women’s degradation while we are choking on our shame!”
Honestly, I am not doing justice to the power or the poetry of what she had to say. As one of our volunteers put it later, it was like a work of art, like a piece of master theater that she’d been working on and rehearsing for a lifetime – which, in a way, she had been.
By the time she had finished, she had drawn an even bigger crowd of passersby from Midtown New York. As you looked out on their faces, and knowing how common sexual assault and abuse are, it was clear that many who were riveted to her speech share the same experience and had never heard it spoken out loud before and with such defiance and righteous fury.
So I thought about this – and the others like her we met throughout the week. I thought of the deep feeling of upliftment, the righteousness of people’s suppressed fury coming out and the lightness and real feeling of liberation that comes from finally puking out all that anti-woman venom we’ve spent a lifetime choking on. But not only puking it up, turning this kind of furious truth-telling into a source of strength and a force that stirs and calls forward the suppressed outrage of others.
There is a war on women and we should all be impatient and uncompromising and completely unwilling to go along our dailies lives like this is normal and acceptable.
One of the things we all learned very deeply through this experience is that after having spent a life-time of trying to avoid situations in which women are degraded and demeaned, after seeking to avoid sexual assault and rape, street harassment or stigma cast at us for getting abortions or using birth control or daring to have sex and actually enjoy it, after doing all this and failing anyhow (as all women fail to do because these things cannot be avoided in a world based on male-domination), we discovered that the most liberated spaces are those that we create by going right in the face of the greatest concentrations of patriarchy and oppressive power. Standing up and fighting – right inside the Hooters, inside the porn stores, inside St. Patrick’s and many other places – was more liberating, and contributes more to the liberation of women, than trying to avoid these places and hope they will go away.
Through this kind of resistance, and through the tremendous and inspiring transformation of all the volunteers who took part in this project, we began to get a glimpse of the kind of massive political struggle that can really bring into being a different future for women and for humanity as a whole. And we got a glimpse of the kind of people that this political fight can create and that this future will be filled with. The irrepressible smiles and pride that rises out of the same women who were moments before shaking in fear, in trauma, in pain and in shame.
As we said many times throughout our time together, this is only the beginning. Our purpose was not simply to have the time of our lives – though we certainly have – but to set and example and to launch something new. Our belief starting out was that only if we act in a way that is commensurate with the real war against women that is claiming real lives every day, only if we dare to enter into this with the full outrage and impatience that that demands, will we be able to reach into and inspire others. But only if we succeed in bringing many, many thousands and tens of thousands into this movement together with us – and through connecting up with the important work that is going on in pockets here and there already – will we stand a chance at winning. So, I spent time overnight thinking about the plans we will be finalizing before everyone leaves town on Tuesday night for even more to come throughout the fall – for a high school sticker day and a day of action against the fake “clinics” that spew anti-abortion lies, for protests against pornography and more against the churches that have spearheaded the assault on women’s right to birth control and abortion, for more ways of speaking out and dragging women’s stories of abuse out of the silence and into the full view of the public, and of ways to celebrate and create a new culture through poetry and visual arts, through music and gatherings all along the way.
All this is just some of what I thought about while in jail. That, and the expressions on the people in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the lives of millions around the world who have been hurt by the bigotry and Dark Ages morality of the Catholic Church.
As I left the jail and given the date of October 15 to return to court, I was exhausted and physically grimy, but overflowing with the expectation of even more to come. Contact us and become part of this.
StopPatriarchy (at) gmail.com