The rise of harassment tactics by the religious right outside abortion clinics is an issue Feminist Fightback has been increasingly concerned with for the last half decade. We have attempted both to defend this space on the ground, and to situate the rise of these tactics in the context of an increasingly confident conservative hard right. We can see the rise of street based conservative religious groups in parallel with the rise of street based fascist movements and increased mobilisation of the hard right at every level in recent years. The anti choice groups themselves are funded and trained by larger anti choice groups in the US, in some cases backed by Republican politicians. This is why we have found it useful to think about our direct action tactics against the anti choice brigade as informed by anti fascist direct action tactics. This issue for us has never been just a ‘woman’s issue’.
Recently, it seems that local authorities have begun on some level to share our concerns regarding the harassment of abortion clinic users, and have responded by making use of draconian powers called ‘public spaces protection orders’ (PSPOs) – a power designed to exert control at a local level over what happens in public space.
We have celebrated our sisters’ efforts to defend clinics, and mourned the loss of energy and capacity involved. But this was not the outcome we hoped for, and we cannot support the use of this legislation, even against those who would harm us.
Ceding more control over public spaces to local authorities in order to try to protect people from harassment by zealots is a high price to pay, and is part of a wider narrative in which we are forced to give up our freedoms in exchange for the promise of protection from a neurotic and harmful state. Fighting the controlling tendencies of the hard right with the controlling tendencies of the state is fighting fire with fire, and represents a failure to deal with the root of the problem. And as radicals, we are interested in roots. The characterisation of anti choice groups as nuisance oddballs that can be disposed of through the legal system fails to get to grips with the alarming dominance and fearlessness of the culture that they represent.
PSPOs are part of a broader range of powers that can be utilised by the government to sanction the behaviour of individuals using public spaces, known as Anti Social Behaviour (ASB) powers. The way ASB powers have overwhelmingly been used up to now is against marginalised and oppressed groups: young people, homeless people, migrant workers, street users, and sex workers. Under New Labour, ASB powers – most notoriously the ASBO – were part of a raft of controlling and punitive measures introduced by Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to be used against marginalised communities, alongside an army of ‘community support officers’ and the benefits sanctions regime in its nascent form. The Tories consolidated some 19 different pre-existing tools and powers into 6 under the Anti Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, one of which is the PSPO. Like so many things, they represent a tool for the state to use to punish and control working class people, formulated by New Labour and perfected and enhanced by a grateful Tory party.
In a discussion of The Poverty of Privacy Rights, by law professor Khiara M. Bridges, and Not a Crime to Be Poor, by Georgetown public policy professor Peter Edelman, Kim Phillips Fine summarises:
“Poor people (and especially poor women)… are in fact seen too much—they are surveilled and imprisoned, monitored and fined. They are trapped within a social panopticon that permits and encourages their constant observation.”
It is this kind of culture that acceptance of powers like PSPOs helps to build. A culture that blames people for their social conditions, and attempts to punish them accordingly as individuals. A culture that gives more weight to dealing punitively with the consequences of social problems than engaging with their causes. In the words of political economist William Davies commenting on Cameron’s ASB initiatives, ‘a reduction of politics to pest control’. This is not the kind of world we want to live in.
We know that legislation sold to the populous as protecting them from bad people is dangerous when it is the state who decides, at any given moment, who is bad. This kind of legislation also comes in handy in controlling activist activities and suppressing dissent, by giving the state carte blanche to say when and how public space is able to be occupied, and by whom. We have already seen how anti-terror legislation is being used against activists, and it is naive to think that the government at any level will not use any tool available to it to suppress critical voices through a disproportionately heavy handed response to direct action.
We certainly don’t think that anti choice groups have a ‘right’ to express their opinions in the faces of people using abortion clinics, any more than we think they have a ‘right’ to the space. We would like to see a popular mobilisation that makes the presence of such groups, and the hard right in any area of public life, completely untenable. Such mobilisations have successfully disrupted the activities of anti choice protestors. In Stratford, East London, Feminist Fightback and other feminist groups, anti-fascists and residents have twice blocked the anti choice group Helpers of God’s Precious Infants from marching from a church to the local abortion clinic where they planned to harass people going in. In Birmingham, we were part of a coalition who stopped the March for Life proceeding on its planned route through the city centre. PSPOs will not rid us of this problem, nor will a nationally implemented system of ‘buffer zones’.
The principle of the state as a neutral arbiter of justice, the principle of government being able to say what people do or don’t do in public space is fundamentally wrong headed and not something to be pursued as a goal by a progressive campaign, no matter what the purpose.