I'm writing this on election day, four hours before the polls close.
Whatever happens next for the abortion ban, the pro-choice movement needs to make some changes (especially in South Dakota).
The Campaign for Healthy Families has been fighting the good fight, mostly focusing on getting out the vote. They have been the ones pounding the pavement, knocking on doors, calling folks, and putting the truth about the abortion ban into the hands of the voters. And that's been important work, and I, for one, am grateful. And I want to make clear that the remarks that follow are not criticisms of Campaign workers and volunteers. They are criticisms of Campaign leaders, who didn't lead well and who, therefore, may have lost us this fight.
Campaign was run like - well, like an election campaign (hence the thoroughly imaginative name for last week's rally: "Election Campaign to Repeal the Abortion Ban." Makes you want to jump right up and get involved, doesn't it?).
Because of this, Campaign has had no room and no patience for pro-choice activism. (In fact, activists with "pro-choice" signs at a recent pro-choice protest were told by Campaign staff that no signs with the word "choice" on them would be allowed.)
To put it plainly, everyone involved, including several of the people working for the Campaign, think it was a "piss-poor organizing effort" (in the words of an activist colleague of mine working West River). I mean EVERYONE thinks the Campaign sucked. What they did was to completely squelch the growing pro-choice movement in South Dakota. They frequently did not allow pro-choice representatives to debate VoteYes representatives or even to appear on the same platform with them, so that what could have been public forums and opportunities to counter misinformation became one-sided presentations. The challenges to VoteYes' lies that did come were too little, too late.
Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the Feminist Majority let them do it. They agreed to work in partnership with Campaign, and they agreed to let Campaign hold the reins. And when local chapters protested, they were told by their National HQs to let Campaign make the decisions.
Further, it's important to note that, while the name of the Campaign has been on every pro-choice effort we've seen, it has been largely due to the struggles of Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and Feminist Majority leaders and volunteers (local and out-of-state) that anything other than GOTV calls and lit drops got done at all. Campaign quickly earned a reputation for organizing events at the last minute, which were then poorly attended and not well-covered in the media. (Last week's rally was an exception only because other activists convinced Campaign that announcing it with less than a week's notice and planning to hold it indoors would be a bad idea.)
Campaign was afraid antis would show up. They were terrified of antis.
Maybe this is a good place to say that, in my experience with the movement, there are ALWAYS antis, and they always come to pro-choice events, and they always make their presence felt. Outside of South Dakota, pro-choicers do the same thing to them: the point is to always make a presence of the opposition. But we don't do that here, and people are always surprised and dismayed that the antis have, yet again, figured out where and when to show up with their (mostly not graphic) signs. But despite Campaign's fear, the most confrontational experience I've had here has been having a passing driver yell "Babykiller!" at me. In other places, pro-choice protestors are physically assaulted, spat on, and continually verbally harassed by mobs. That has, for the most part, not happened here. What has happened at organized protests is that, sometimes, pro-choicers have been outnumbered by anti-choicers, who insist on standing next to us and who try to cover our signs with theirs.
What Campaign didn't understand is that pro-choice activism means getting out there with a sign DESPITE the fact that you are outnumbered. Being visible reminds folks that there are dissenting opinions. It gives the people who see you hope. It makes them maybe want to come out and join you. If all the pro-choice activists simply gave up whenever they were outnumbered, Roe would have been overturned long ago.
And last spring, pro-choice activists in South Dakota were visible. We had huge rallies (for SD, anyway), and people who had never before been involved in activism and politics were coming out and holding signs and wearing buttons and t-shirts and telling their grammas why they should oppose the ban. (And I met some grammas who were out there telling teenagers whey *they* should oppose the ban, too.)
And then Campaign took over. And all that visibility just evaporated. Suddenly, the local pro-choice network was no longer calling the shots, and everything was about voter registration and lit drops.
I won't take away from Campaign what they did well, which was exactly this GOTV effort. Clearly, that effort was crucial. But it should not have happened at the expense of continued activism, continued visibility, continued morale-boosting of the pro-choice community. We lost energy, and we lost volunteers, because of that total and complete shift in focus.
Whether we win or lose, the vote will be too close. The Nationals are still spouting the line that SD voters will overwhelmingly reject the ban. It won't be overwhelming. It will be a thin margin. And this isn't over. We either face a long and expensive court battle that could threaten Roe, or we face a new ban with exceptions for rape/incest survivors (but not women's health, I'm predicting). South Dakota clearly needs help from the outside if we are to maintain women's right to make decisions about whether or not to bear children - that much was clear last January. But let's not make the same mistake again. We have a pro-choice community in SD. We have activists that are ready to go. We need our leadership to come from within and for those leaders to be supported by the national organizations, not the other way around (which is what happened this fall).
We need to get ahead of this one. And the strategizing starts now.