Thousands For Hate, A Handful For Peace
Saturday at the Texas Capitol, thousands (by mainstream media estimates) gathered to celebrate the war on women’s rights. Many had been bused in from around the state to reinforce the numbers in the notoriously liberal capitol city. Standing against them were a tiny group, Austin’s newly formed “Feminist Vigilante Gang.”
From the Houston Chronicle coverage of the rally:
Gov. Rick Perry, finding biblical significance in the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, assured thousands of activists at Saturday’s Rally for Life at the Texas Capitol that this legislative session will build on past efforts to restrict abortion.
‘The ideal world is one without abortion. Until then, we will continue to pass laws to ensure abortions are as rare as possible,’ Perry told a crowd.
What no mainstream media outlet mentions is the open hatred of the group. Led by the Attorney General, thousands cheered as Greg Abbott laid out their accomplishments: the crowd responded raucously over not just the defunding of Planned Parenthood and the growing restriction on women’s reproductive freedoms, but the state’s ban on gay marriage as well. All this was touted as making Texas the most “pro-family state in the Union.”
Make no mistake, this was a family affair — parents and children stood alongside entire Boy Scout troops, priests and nuns gathered in groups. This was a family affair like a Ku Klux Klan picnic at the beginning of the 20th century: huge, upbeat, and guaranteed to generate shame when the grandkids bring it up decades from now.
How do you protest a group of thousands when you only have a handful? One answer is to be as aggressively eye-catching as possible. Enter Austin’s new Feminist Vigilante Gang. The Feminist Vigilante Gangs are a decentralized movement which believes in responding aggressively to rape, violence, harassment and attacks on women’s rights. One female participant who asked to remain anonymous took to Facebook to explain:
There is also one major issue I notice people are vocalizing and that is the assertive nature of the counter-protest. This was more than anger-based. This tactic is particularly important in feminist actions, where in the past I, for example, have been called ‘rude’ for stating an opposing view, as if I need to have people over for tea, don my white gloves, and explain the day-to-day emotions that come with battling oppression.
I believe in nonviolent direct action, and I believe that people who are from traditionally oppressed groups are free as birds to express their righteous anger. Since we all know power is rarely given up by choice, it seems appropriate for marginalized groups to aggressively oppose their oppression.
Was it effective?
Taking On the Persecuted Majority
The religious right-wing of America, urged on by the likes of Fox News, is in love with feeling persecuted. Even at a rally of thousands, attended by the governor of one of the largest and most powerful states in the United States, there were speeches about the brave ongoing Christian struggle against oppression. Since they believe they are at war, the Feminist Vigilante Gang responded in kind with aggressive dress and banners. An Anonymous Medic was present in full riot armor, carrying all his gear. Of course, there was the patriarchy pig piñata too, hanging from a wire coat hanger. Though it was full of candy, activists chose not to smash it because of the extreme reaction its mere presence drew from pro-lifers and police.
The pro-choice counterprotest joined the march to the Capitol in progress. Every time the crowd chanted “Pro-Life” they’d respond with “means anti-war!”
From the moment the “Gang” appeared on the scene, the rally-goers reacted with shock and distress. They whispered and pointed. Someone loudly called them “devils.” They tried to shout over the Gang so no one could hear them or continuously tried to block anyone else from seeing them with their signs and bodies. One woman angrily yelled, “How can you scare my kids like that?” The sight of a group wearing masks and holding signs was apparently more distressing to her children than the giant photo banners of late term abortions being held by two men on 11th and Congress at the gates to the Capitol. Surrounded by thousands of supporters, the anti-abortion side reacted as if less than a dozen pro-choice feminists were a significant threat.
On the other hand, the costumes also seemed to shock some people out of their complacency, to the point that actual dialogue could occur. “Why would you wear a mask?” was the opener to many conversations. Pro-lifers seemed shocked that some in the pro-choice group identified as Christians, would hesitate before getting abortions themselves, or simply that they had well articulated points to discuss.
Yet two encounters stuck with me, and they don’t speak well for the character of the anti-abortion movement. A plainly dressed man with a short, cop-like haircut attached himself to our group from the moment we arrived and seemed intent on goading us into violent reaction. At one point he told a Gang Member, “You’re wearing a mask, that means you can do anything you want.” Later, he made a statement of shocking racism. Approaching the lone African-American member of the group (Harold Gray, who was filming as a neutral witness for the Peaceful Streets Project), the provocateur asked, “Are you going to go all Django on that piñata?”
The other outliers for aggressive rudeness were a team who claimed to represent Austin Catholic New Media. Armed with a professional camera rig and microphone (with an ACNM logo), they badgered each member of the Feminist Vigilante Gang for an interview. They simply would not take no for an answer. Getting into each activist’s personal space and pushing the microphone close to their face, they’d angrily insist on an interview and demand to know why the group was masked and why they wouldn’t speak with them. Even polite refusal seemed only to goad them on — it was clear to me that they were trying to orchestrate a confrontation.
I’m not a “neutral” journalist — I have my viewpoints and I proudly involve myself in some protests I cover. Yet I’d never behave as these two did — while it’s one thing to aggressively seek answers from a politician or person in power, badgering everyday citizens is unacceptable. Further, while it’s fine for a journalist — especially a gonzo journalist like myself — to become part of a story it’s another thing entirely to try to create that story. To my surprise, when I called out Austin Catholic New Media on Twitter, they seemed both apologetic and confused about the situation:
Later, I received the following email:
Jason Elizondo <REDACTED-BY-KIT@austincnm.com>
Thanks for bring the interview issues to our attention. We were able to determine that the cameraman was one of our volunteers who has done filming for us in the past. We are still trying to figure out who the “reporter” was because honestly we don’t have reporters. I’m not sure what footage they were trying to get or why they were using our art, but we are working to find out.
One additional question and you may not know the answer to this but was the cameraman aggressive too or just the reporter? All of our contributors are expected to maintain a certain level of appropriateness and being aggressive certainly does not fit into our mission.
If you happen to know the person who was being interviewed please extend our apologies and let them know that we are working to resolve the issue.
I responded that both the reporter and the camera person were aggressive. Unfortunately, they do not seem to have given their names to anyone (or no one in the Gang remembers if they did). I am awaiting further response as of this writing.
Despite my gonzo philosophy, I kept myself at a remove during this action. For once I was ‘just’ a journalist. It was the only way I could stay calm and collected in the face of the open celebration of bigotry and hatred that surrounded me. These were “pro-lifers” who could care less about the lives of the victims of war, or really even the kids they’d force women to carry to term if they could. It’s about control, and God forbid one of those fetuses turns out to be queer.
It wasn’t long after the provocateur got racist that we decided to call it a day. None of us could stomach any more and it seemed only a matter of time before someone who wants women to “choose life” became violent.
Hundreds watched the group as we proudly took our leave.
Screen capture of racist by Harold Gray, used with permission. All other photos by Kit O’Connell, all rights reserved.