The Potential of Discontent

Thoughts on the March for Women's Lives

by Osage Bell

Revolutionary Worker #1240, May 16, 2004, posted at

April 25, 2004. Going to D.C. for the March for Women's Lives--from the moment we gathered at the metro train stop in Baltimore, Maryland, to the moment we exited near the Washington Monument, we were carried along in a sea of people. It felt like standing-room only at a concert where you are held up by the moving bodies around you. The train ride took an extra 20 minutes than normal because of "crowd control" issues. Even though it was Sunday, it felt like Monday morning rush hour--there were so many people! The train platforms were filled with men and women from young girls to high school and college students to retirement age. Many were carrying signs with clever quips like, "Hey W, Outta My Bush!" Many already had the neon orange Refuse & Resist! sticker on them, which read, "Abortion On Demand & Without Apology!" Pro-choice chants echoed throughout the metro station as we waded our way to the exit.

Out on the street, we found ourselves catching up to what was already the back of the march. Aside from its immensity, one of the first things that struck me was how energetic the march was. There was laughter and singing and a sense of "Finally!" For a lot of these women, this was the first demonstration they've been to--either in decades, or ever--and they were clearly very excited to be in the streets. Many others had been to anti-war demonstrations, or were active in the 1960s. I also saw countless multi-generational groups--women who had come with aunts, mothers, sisters, grandmothers, etc. Many people's eyes lit up when they saw the sticker the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade was getting out that advertised the website and read, "Break the Chains! Unleash the Fury of Women As a Mighty Force for Revolution!" There was a surprising amount of openness to that slogan and curiosity toward our red flags--one had Marx, Lenin and Mao's faces on it that was a gift from revolutionary communist youth in Canada.

For many in D.C. that day, it seemed to be a moment of awakening. One young woman, a Harvard Law student whose family had come all the way from Kansas to march together, told me she saw the march as an opportunity she'd been waiting for to actively speak out on an issue that is of serious concern to her. She told me, "Sitting idly by while the Bush administration decimates what I consider to be the most fundamental of civil liberties is just not acceptable.I haven't been much of an activist in the past, for whatever reason, but I'm really excited to have the chance to start now."

She also told me how she sees this onslaught on abortion in the context of what's overall going on. "I think it fits in with the war on `obscenity,' the war on homosexuality, you name it. Anything that doesn't comport with a Christian conservative worldview is being attacked from all sides. I'm going to this march because I honestly feel it might be something of a last stand. I think it's ignorant to persist in believing, as so many apathetic pro-choicers do, that it would be `impossible' for abortion to be made illegal in the United States. It already is functionally illegal in many places. I wouldn't want to live in a country that subjugated reproductive decision-making to any religion's approval, and yet I honestly believe the U.S. is heading down that road. We have to turn this runaway train around before it railroads all of our civil liberties."

What exactly that train is and who is running it is still far too unclear to many. I have to admit, it was a bit of a shock just how many people clapped excitedly for Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State. This is the woman who made the comment in an interview that all the Iraqi children who were dying every week because of U.S. sanctions were "worth it." Many people also gave a warm reception given to Hillary Clinton, who was there to tell people to rely on the system--saying people are wasting "our time and your time" if they're not going to vote. Much of this support from the crowd, unfortunately, comes from people thinking that just getting "women in places of power" is going to change things.

Voting was definitely a big focus for a lot of people, and not just from the stage. Many of the marchers had come with the message that they were going to vote Bush out. Yet, it was clear that many of the marchers, while proudly anti-Bush, were not overwhelmingly, enthusiastically pro-Kerry. Yes, some people were wearing the "Vote for Kerry" stickers that were being passed out, but these marchers weren't largely people who had come to "support their man for office." The sentiment of many of these marchers could be summed up in a homemade sign I saw a lot, and that was even taken up as a cheer--Kerry is Less Scary." Even though most were pro-voting, they definitely weren't "pro-Kerry" in the way that Bushites are pro-Bush. Many felt like they needed to vote for Kerry as their only means to oppose Bush and get him out of office. And speakers like Hillary Clinton tapped into this sentiment.

Among the millions of people alarmed at the government's attempts to take away women's right to abortion there is a sense of just how huge the stakes are in this battle. The slogan "Abortion on Demand and Without Apology" points to a profound truth: That abortion is a necessary method of birth control which must be available to women, that without this means of controlling their reproduction and terminating unwanted pregnancies, women will be no more than slaves. And having the right to abortion is a question of whether or not women can play a full and equal role in society.

The issue of reproductive rights has been very sharp in society and the attempts to take away the right to abortion has put many, many people on the other side of the barricades from the government. There was a lot of defiance and anger in the crowd, and it came out when people had the chance to confront the anti-choice hecklers who speckled the sides of the march. The pro-choicers wanted to confront these protesters. I had been expecting the pro-choice forces to largely ignore the Antis, and with their chins in the air and a spirit of silent anger, walk past them. I was pleasantly surprised! The pro-choice marchers went into the faces of the Antis, jabbing fingers at them, telling them off, taking them on unapologetically! Even the anti-abortion protesters who were dressed in military uniforms couldn't intimidate these, mainly women, pro-choicers. It was exhilarating to watch and be a part of directly confronting these anti-women Christian fascists.

Seeing the fighting spirit in this march, I couldn't help daydreaming about what these men and women would be capable of once they knew the true source of these attacks and oppression--once they see that voting isn't the solution and that it's going to take real fundamental change for women to get real equality and liberation.

It's still undecided where the rebel spirit of all these people will lead. Will it be yanked back into the fold, where their desire to oppose Bush and what he stands for gets turned into support for the system that is ultimately responsible for all these horrors? Or will it be led to a place where it can explode with fury and determination to take down that very system and put something radically different in its place?

Bob Avakian points out, talking about the Democrats: "They represent the interests of the system and of its ruling class. But they have a certain role of always trying to get people who are oppressed, alienated and angry back into the elections. You know: `Come on in, come on in--it's not as bad as you think, you can vote, it's OK.' This is one of the main roles they play. But the thing about them is that they are very afraid of calling into the streets this base of people that they appeal to, to vote for them. The last thing in the world they want to do is to call these masses of people into the streets to protest or to battle against this right-wing force that's being built up."

Many of those who organized and spoke at this march are very much into electoral politics and in this case did call people "into the streets"--but with the idea of channeling all this energy and anger back into the electoral arena.

Much of the talk from the stage was geared toward people trying to change things by working through and in the system. There was a lot of talk against the global gag rule that Bush signed into law that limits funds to abortion and even access to information about abortion internationally. But there was little or no talk about a right-wing agenda or the growing Christian fascism. You didn't even necessarily get the sense that the problems facing women and humanity go beyond the problem of Bush as an individual. One speaker even alluded to the fact that organizers asked them to be "non-partisan" and not speak about "other issues"--such as the war.

Here you had all these hundreds of thousands of men and women, many of whom were for the first time being brought into the political arena--and perhaps wouldn't have gotten active around any other issue. This was a huge opportunity to have their eyes opened to so much more of the horrors this government has been doing, and be brought further into opposition against it all--and not just "women's issues." But the official politics of the march seemed intent on narrowing people's vision.

You got the sense from the stage, and from some of the marchers, that people felt we could hold back the tide that is attempting to drown society in conservative values with simply protesting and voting. After the march a writer in the The Nation , said, "But I can't help but think the March for Women's lives showed millions of people that the United States--or rather, the people who live in it--are in better shape than we thought. If the momentum generated in Washington carries through to November, perhaps we won't need to have another March for Women's Lives for quite a while--or better, ever again."

This reminds me of what Chairman Avakian spoke to in his piece, "A Pyramid of Power." In it, Chairman Avakian talks about how the Democrats, "the left" within the ruling class, are unable to fundamentally counter the infrastructure the people grouped around Bush are building that could move society in a fascistic direction. The Democrats--whose base are progressive-minded people oppressed by society--are unable to move that base and unleash it in a way that could really speak to their needs and desires for a different society. They're not just unable--they don't want to-- because that's not in their interest."

So, while on the one hand, you have this very dangerous, repressive move by Bush & Co., on the other hand, the Democrats-- who many people who oppose Bush are putting their hopes in -- are unwilling and unable to stop these repressive moves. All they do, as Chairman Avakian says, is raise a few whiny objections and then find their position at "the left wing" of the juggernaut that's moving farther and farther to the right. They're moving with it, not opposing it.

One has only to look at the effect of the Clinton years, with their mantra of `legal but rare,' where the whole struggle for abortion rights was put on the defensive, to know that relying on electing the Democrats has nothing to do with standing up to and defeating the deadly social program of enslaving traditional values that is being unleashed throughout society. And one could also ask a simple question such as why John Kerry was not even at the march on Washington to stand with the protesters?

But the options the people have aren't just choosing between relying on either the Republicans or the Democrats, hoping the Democrats can oppose the very class they're a part of. There is only one class that is fundamentally opposed to the bourgeoisie: the proletariat, the class that actually has an interest in not just liberating women, but unleashing the fury of women as a mighty force for revolution that can liberate all of humanity. These are two antagonistic classes--two diametrically opposed roads that the masses can take. There is the bourgeois road, down which they can find themselves demoralized and frustrated because they are relying on a class that is ultimately their oppressor. And there is the road of revolution led by the proletariat, the class that can truly liberate women because it has nothing to protect in the present order and no interest in preserving any of the oppressive relations that are bound up with the division of society into classes.

The March for Women's Lives was definitely amazing and truly tremendous, and spoke to the scores and scores of people in society who are frustrated and upset by the raging culture wars. It was not just amazing because of its size, but because this unsurpassed outpouring of people on these issues shows the discontent, shows the very broad numbers of people who could--if led to understand the true workings of society--be led in a very different direction, in the very opposite direction of being "yanked into the fold" of what's acceptable to the ruling class.

Millions are looking for change--looking for a chance to express their hatred for the ugly vision of society concentrated in the Bush agenda. And this shows the potential for truly massive resistance. At the same time, the level of political understanding at the demonstration brought home the need for really deepening the consciousness of the people about where these culture wars are coming from, what kind of resistance is required to oppose them, and why a whole revolutionary transformation of society is necessary and possible to move beyond the terms dictated by the imperialist system, if women are to be emancipated.

The roots of this war on women go much deeper, and its goals are far more sinister than just Bush. And the degree to which we understand this has a lot to do with how we fight back, what we fight for, and whether we have a chance of winning real reproductive freedom and much more.

The emphasis throughout the day on elections--and the hopes among the hundreds of thousands there that voting for Democrats would be a solution--shows that the people who came out to defend abortion rights in Washington need to connect up with the revolutionary movement, and that revolutionary-minded people and communists have a lot of work to do.

The young Harvard Law student told me she hoped this march would be "a wake-up call to at least a few thousand people who haven't been paying attention to how bad the situation has gotten."

This was a wake-up call for many, but still not enough people understand just how serious the situation is, and how terrible it can get. And to truly confront--and defeat--all that the reactionary wing of the ruling class is preparing for, we must understand what we're confronting.

As the RW said:

Everything Bush stands for must be called out, exposed, denounced and resisted, and this will not happen by focusing on the elections--where such challenges have already been ruled out of order. Something else, something independent, something determined needs to be forged. It must be manifested in ways that cannot be hidden, denied or misrepresented--in the streets, and in other ways throughout society. Millions of people who want to deny a mandate to the whole Bush agenda need to get a strategic picture of why this kind of resistance is necessary--and why the call for more than a million people in the streets of New York City during the Republican Convention to "deliver a NO to Bush and all that he stands for" needs to be made a reality.

Will there be a culture of resistance to really challenge and defeat the war on women? Or will the people who feel a deep gut hatred for what is going on in this society be brought back into the fold, relying on and being betrayed by ruling class politics and politicians.

Whether what happens in this election season will put the people in a position to be able to advance on the road to a different future, to be in a position to take the next step to liberate women and all of humanity--or whether people's hopes and dreams will be dashed and crushed--that is up to us.