Commentary Abortion

The People of Color Activists Whose Voices Are Too Often Missing From Stories About Texas’ ‘Orange Army’

Shailey Gupta-Brietzke

As we mark the anniversary of Texas' omnibus anti-abortion bill being signed into law, much of the focus has been on Austin-based reproductive rights organizing and the work of white women in largely white organizations. Here are some of the the stories of activists of color whose voices have been missing from many of these conversations.

July 18 marks the one-year anniversary of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion legislation, HB 2, being signed into law in Texas. After reading many articles, interviews, and histories about what happened last year, and how it is remembered, I realized that something was largely missing from these pieces: the voices and stories of activists of color.

Much of the attention has focused on Austin-based organizing and the work of white women in largely white organizations. In critiquing the political action and call to arms last summer regarding abortion access and clinic closures, several folks brought honest concerns about the lack of visibility of people of color and people from outside Austin as well as a lack of coordination with organizations and groups run by people of color. But these concerns were not new to statewide organizations, partisan politics, or reproductive health movements in or outside of Texas.

In seeing media focus again on the stories, work, and histories of Austin-based organizing to ensure abortion access for the entire hugely diverse state, I wanted to make sure that a few of the voices of activists outside of Austin were highlighted as well.

As Texas and Texans have been fighting back against these harmful abortion restrictions and the effects in their communities, I decided to reach out to a group of activists around the state, from El Paso to Denton to Houston to San Antonio to the Rio Grande Valley. I interviewed people who self-identified as activists in many senses of the word—they are speaking about abortion access to people they meet, registering people to vote, organizing political protests, funding abortions, and building coalitions and relationships across issues. These activists, who are mostly life-long Texans, also self-identify in a number of different ways: Black, African American, Latina, South Asian, queer, female, cisgender, or immigrant.

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Several activists pointed out that their calendars are filled from week to week with feminist gatherings and groups, which has increased substantially since last summer. With the use of social media specifically connected to this movement, many are finding new groups and like-minded individuals in their communities every day. It is clear that activism around reproductive health, sexuality, and access to abortion is alive around the state of Texas.

Just this past month, there have been protests of the Hobby Lobby ruling, feminist reading group meetings, and feminist tweetups in multiple cities. Houston-based Latina activist Amanda Williams, who sits on the board of the Lilith Fund, a local abortion fund, says, “we have to find each other outside of Austin,” and she is right. We do, we are, and we have.

I asked the activists whether they had concerns about the movement last summer, whether they voiced them, and whether or not they have seen change. Some were hesitant, but many voiced the importance of hearing from people of color, especially those outside of Austin. It was clear that many lived experiences and voices were missing from the testimony in legislative hearings, from the words spoken by Congress members, and even on social media. This was upsetting, because the conversations happening in the media and in politics weren’t reflective of the people who would be most affected by the abortion access crisis. One of the major themes throughout these interviews was the lack of recognition of privilege—last year and even today.

Nancy Cardenas, a 23-year-old Latina activist from the Rio Grande Valley (who now lives in Austin), testified eloquently and bravely at many of the committee hearings last year. At those hearings, she repeatedly heard, “Doesn’t the Valley care about the effects of anti-abortion restrictions?” Cardenas told me, “The simple act of being able to stand and protest on behalf of an issue that we care about so much is a privilege in itself. … [W]hile we’re all protesting at the capitol, there are certain issues that are exclusive to marginalized communities like the Rio Grande Valley.” There were significant barriers that people in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) faced to come and testify to have their voices heard, and there were not many who could overcome those barriers. Even politicians and advocacy groups did not do an adequate job of ensuring that the issues unique to the RGV were addressed—issues such as the effects of immigration checkpoints, difficulty with travel, lack of monetary and financial resources, and language barriers.

Annette Torres, a Latina who has lived in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso, felt like her “concerns were [her] own bias.” As a person of color, I know what she means. Often times, our lived experiences and identities are not included in the work of the movement, or they are included superficially. She said, “I never think that it’s enough. When you’ve lived so far [from Austin], for so long, any mention or thought is applauded. That is our downfall.” Clearly, the issues affecting these other regions of Texas were neglected, because activists from those areas were not able to provide information, gather stories, or share the additional difficulties these laws would impose in their own words.

The political conversation has rarely been inclusive and representative of women of color’s voices and perspectives. Although we have allies who understand the issues and try to make a stand, it’s often not the same as uplifting the people and the voices that abortion access directly effects.

More media focus has come to the Rio Grande Valley recently; however, it’s not RGV-based people doing the speaking. Melissa Arjona, a Latina activist from the RGV, says that “I’d also like to see Valley people doing some of the storytelling as well.” Arjona goes on to point out that even though the Rio Grande Valley faces significant barriers to abortion access, so does Laredo (a border town on the bank of the Rio Grande River in the southwest part of the state), but little attention is given to that community, even though many of the barriers are the same: distance, immigration checkpoints, lack of available transportation to make the 150-mile journey to San Antonio, and limited financial resources. Arjona notes that many people and politicians “intellectually know about the barriers that people in the RGV face, especially now that the media [has] been doing more features on the RGV, but it’s hard to get a grasp of the actual scope.”

“The checkpoints and the Border Patrol presence are hard things to wrap your head around unless you’ve actually seen them and seen how intimidating they can be,” she said. And she is right. The experience of living in the RGV has value to this conversation, and it shouldn’t continue to be left out of the conversations about abortion access in Texas.

Lindsey Rodriguez, a Latina activist who lives and works in San Antonio, where she serves aspresident of the Lilith Fund, pointed out, “If activism is a job that means you have to be able to show up in another city on a weekday on short notice, it’s never going to reach the people who need it most.”

For anyone outside of Austin, political activism at the Texas legislature is a privilege; the simple act of sharing your story or lived experiences to the Texas legislature is a privilege. Those who don’t have that privilege bring significant value to the work of the abortion access and reproductive justice movement in Texas. It’s not that important work isn’t being done in other communities, or that residents there don’t care about the impact of anti-choice restrictions—rather, they don’t have the privilege to drop everything, get in the car, drive for many hours, and wait at the capitol to have their voice heard. Even many of the activists I spoke to couldn’t drop everything and go to Austin. They had other commitments, like work, school, or child-care, or they just couldn’t commit to drive hundreds of miles to Austin.

Although there have been a lot of words written, speeches given, and panels organized about abortion access in Texas, it feels like we’ve been hearing all the same things from all the same voices for the past year. Amanda Williams told me, “We haven’t been creating a chance for other voices, we have been going to our go-tos.

“We are missing certain stories. When the same people write and tell the story about access for abortion in our state, we are missing out on really important stories,” she added.

Williams’ critique is not unique. Nancy Cardenas also told me that she’s asked far more often whether she knows someone who can speak about abortion access in the RGV or Texas, rather than if she is available to do it herself.

As with many activists, Cardenas believes it is important for the abortion access movement in Texas to be intentional about including “people of color and communities struggling with representation [because they] are often left out of the conversation.” And if we fail to be more inclusive, “we are not doing our movement justice.”

For systematic change, there has to be a substantial shift in the power dynamic.

Imagine if the abortion access movement is a small dining room table. Several people sit at the table pretty regularly; they are the easily recognizable faces of abortion access in Texas. This is the table where opportunities show up, decisions are made, and platforms are built—the history of the abortion access movement lives at this table, and the future of abortion access lives here too. The people at the table need to recognize and appreciate the value of diverse voices, and create welcoming space at the table for those other people and voices to be heard. The space has to be positive and welcoming, and it has to be created from the current people at the table. People have to pass on opportunities to have their voice and perspective heard to someone who has something important to say but hasn’t yet been heard—someone who is speaking about their work in Dallas or Houston or El Paso, and who is speaking from their lived experiences.

People have to recognize the value in many voices of this movement, and how that makes our movement grow stronger—not divides or weakens it. We have to recognize that to fight back against these truly harmful abortion restrictions, we have to have a movement bigger than Austin, bigger than the Texas Democratic Party, bigger than all the current people at the table, and bigger than the roar at the capitol on that hot Texas night that shut it all down. Then, we will truly have the power to fight back.

News Violence

Activists at Vigil Outside Waller County Jail: ‘Sandy Still Speaks’

Teddy Wilson

Mirissa Tucker, a senior at Prairie View A&M University, told Rewire that the vigil was to give voice to Sandra Bland and other victims of racism and police brutality. “Sandy still speaks,” Tucker said. “Sandy speaks through us at the Waller County jail.”

Black Lives Matter activists have held demonstrations this week in Waller County, Texas, to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland on Wednesday. Their message: “Sandy still speaks.”

Bland was arrested on July 10, 2015, by Texas trooper Brian Encinia outside Prairie View A&M University, and three days later she was found dead in a Waller County jail cell.

The medical examiner ruled that Bland’s death was a suicide, but her family and supporters have questioned the state’s official findings.

Encinia has since been fired and indicted by a grand jury on perjury charges.

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Mirissa Tucker, a senior at Prairie View A&M University, told Rewire that the vigil was to give voice to Bland and other victims of racism and police brutality. “Sandy still speaks,” Tucker said. “Sandy speaks through us at the Waller County jail.”

Activists played a recording of Bland speaking through a loudspeaker during the vigil. Bland had been outspoken about issues of racism and police brutality prior to her death.

“White people, if all lives mattered, would there need to be a hashtag for Black lives mattering?” Bland asks in a video she posted on Facebook, which was played at the vigil. “We can’t help but get pissed when we see situations where it’s clear the Black life didn’t matter .… Show me in American history where all lives have mattered. Show me where there has been liberty and justice for all.”

Tucker said that she came to the vigil to “push through the fear” she has about racism and police brutality, because the issues are too important and require immediate action.

“Fear is not going to stop what is going on, fear is not going to overshadow the fact that people are dying, fear is not going to overshadow what we need to do in order to stop people from dying,” Tucker said to Rewire.

Bland supporters have spent three nights holding vigil outside the Waller County jail, until the exact time Bland’s body was reportedly discovered in a jail cell. Activists also gathered for a protest on the sidewalk along the street where Bland was arrested.

The street was renamed by the Prairie View City Council in April, and is now Sandra Bland Parkway.

Houston-based activist Cayenne Nebula spoke to those gathered on Sunday at 4:30 p.m., a year to the date that Bland was arrested. “She should still be here fighting with us. She should still be fighting this fight with us. She still has a voice in the community by us speaking for her,” said Nebula, reported KVUE.

The anniversary of Bland’s death comes in the wake of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Black men killed by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, respectively.

Days later five police officers were shot and killed and nine others were injured, when a sniper opened fire during a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

“We get past a week like we just had and not only do we have to grieve those losses, but we still have to pay homage to Sandra Bland,” Tucker told Rewire. “There’s a lot on our plate when it comes to grieving, there’s a lot on our plate when it comes to remembering the lives that were lost.”  

Tucker says that’s why it’s important to remember Bland and the other victims of police brutality and racism. “We still haven’t forgotten about Sandra Bland,” Tucker said. “We still remember the legacy that Sandra left.”

The vigil at the jail ended Wednesday morning at approximately 9 a.m., the time when Waller County jail officials are said to have discovered that Bland had died in her cell.

A wrongful death lawsuit was brought by the family of Bland, and it was announced at a hearing in December that the trial would start on January 23, 2017.

Commentary Abortion

Language Matters: Why I Don’t Fear Being Called ‘Pro-Abortion’

Maureen Shaw

Words can and do hurt, especially when they cast people who seek or provide abortion care as immoral or murderers. But pro-choice activists can embrace unapologetic language that represents hope, self-determination, and bodily autonomy.

Recently, an anti-choice website profiled me, repeatedly describing me as “pro-abortion.” I understood immediately that this was meant to be an insult and a negative character judgment. But instead of taking offense or feeling bullied, I smiled—even as the vitriol poured into my Twitter mentions.

I haven’t always been able to smile at anti-choice trolls. They attack your ideology, personality, and even your family. It’s threatening and can feel very unsafe, and with good reason; just ask any clinic escort, pro-choice journalist, or abortion provider who has been targeted by anti-choice zealots or organizations. Online harassment and bullying is deliberate and meant to incite fear; it’s also a stepping stone to physical violence and intimidation.

The first time I was on the receiving end of such hatred, it made me sick to my stomach and I was tempted to abandon social media altogether. But removing my pro-choice voice from the conversation felt like handing trolls a victory. So with a few tweaks to my public profiles (like erasing my location and no longer posting photos of my children), I’ve decidedly moved beyond that fear and refuse to shrink in the face of online harassment (Twitter’s mute function certainly helps too).

These experiences taught me two very important lessons: first, about cowardice (it’s so easy to spew hatred from the anonymity of the internet) and second, about the importance of language. Most of us here in the United States have heard the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” While this is certainly true in the most literal of interpretations, we know words can hurt when they come in the form of threats against abortion providers or calling women who have abortions “murderers.”

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Indeed, the way we talk about abortion is critical, from how we describe our adversaries to legislative bill titles and abortion procedures themselves. When anti-choice lawmakers and activists wield language that is inflammatory, misleading, or demonizing, the public’s perceptions of abortion are compromised. The ensuing negativity, in turn, helps transform commonplace medical procedures into “morally repugnant offenses”—to use the language of ethics, which the anti-choice movement so often co-opts—that abortion opponents want to heavily restrict (at best) or outlaw (at worst).

The so-called pro-life constituency understands this all too well and has done a brilliant job of manipulating language to guide the national discourse on abortion. Even the “pro-life” moniker is a calculated—not to mention hypocritical—move. After all, if a person is not “pro-life,” they’re implicitly anti-family and anti-child. This automatically puts pro-choice activists and allies in a needlessly defensive position and posits anti-choice ideology as favorable.

This perceived favorability runs deep and has very real implications for pregnant people. For example, politicians and activists alike jumped at the chance to essentially redefine dilation and extraction (a surgical procedure used in later abortions) as “partial birth abortion” (and sometimes, “dismemberment abortion”). It’s an obvious misnomer and a dangerous conflation, as one cannot be born and aborted; that would be murder, not abortion. As a result, the procedure was banned without a health exception, courtesy of the 2003 federal Partial Birth Abortion Act. And there’s no ignoring the current onslaught of anti-choice legislation with catchy names like the “Women’s Public Health and Safety Act,” the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” and the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”

Let’s be honest: These bills are not about protecting women’s health or safety. Their sole purpose is to demean women by prioritizing unviable fetuses over women’s very real health-care needs. And they’re successful in part due to their phrasing: The words “child,” “survivor,” and “protection” all evoke positive imagery, while simultaneously (and not so subtly) vilifying the person who no longer wishes to be pregnant.

To be fair, anti-choicers aren’t the only ones with a working knowledge of the power of language. The pro-choice community has made serious efforts in recent years to reclaim the word “abortion” and paint it as a positive (or at the very least, common) experience. Just look at 1 in 3 Campaign’s Abortion Speakout, the #ShoutYourAbortion social media campaign, and websites that curate positive abortion stories, and you’ll see a plethora of women embracing this shared reality. And it’s not just grassroots activists who have thrown down the proverbial gauntlet: Developers recently created a Google extension to change all “pro-life” mentions to “anti-choice.” Take that, anti-choice interwebs!

There have been efforts to move away from the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” altogether, because those simple labels don’t reflect a truly intersectional approach that goes beyond the traditional narrative around reproductive rights. I continue to identify as pro-choice because the term works for me. I believe it accurately expresses my support of the full spectrum of choice—parenting, pregnancy, adoption, and abortion—though I also understand and support activists’ rejection of the label.

As a pro-choice activist, I am heartened by these efforts and the ground gained. For so long, we’ve been on the defensive, from fighting stereotypes that pro-choicers can’t be parents to furiously trying to keep clinics open nationwide (and it doesn’t help that the mainstream media often fails to responsibly or fairly report on abortion). It’s been like trying to climb a steep hill covered in oil slicks.

But no longer. Thanks to the campaigns I’ve mentioned and others like them, pro-choicers everywhere—myself included—can more easily reclaim the power of language to shatter stigma surrounding abortion.

While I don’t pretend to have a new dictionary for those of us who work to support abortion rights, there are simple ways to leverage the words already in our lexicon to achieve success on this front. For starters, we can refuse to use the term “pro-life” in exchange for a more accurate description of the movement fighting to end access to a basic health service: “anti-choice.” We can also explicitly describe abortion as mainstream health care more consistently; doing so helps dispel the myth that abortion is rare, immoral, and a marginalized component of women’s health. And finally, we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace being called “pro-abortion.”

Why? Because “abortion” is by no means a dirty word—or thing, for that matter. I will happily embrace being called “pro-abortion.” Admittedly, the term is problematic when it’s used to suggest that all pregnancies should end in abortion or used to simplify reproductive justice and human rights issues. For me, pro-abortion means hope, self-determination, and bodily autonomy. And I’m most definitely in favor of all of those things.

I’d like to think the tables will turn in the very near future: that our courts nationwide will follow the Supreme Court’s lead and affirm the right to abortion without political interference, and that people will no longer be shamed for seeking abortion care. Until then, it’s paramount that each and every individual of the pro-choice community continues to demand progress. And what better way than with powerfully pro-choice and pro-abortion words? They’re the building blocks of our movement, after all.