The Genocide Awareness Project and counter-protests turned Red Square into a carnival freak-show last May.
Western for Life is bringing back the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, a California-based organization created by anti-abortion lawyers, to present the Genocide Awareness Project. The project will be in Red Square May 23 and 24. Corina Jones, President of Western for Life, confirmed that it will be the same presentation as last year. Jones said her reason for bringing it back to stimulate conversations and show what she said is the truth about abortion.
The project displays violent photographs of hate crimes beside pictures of aborted fetuses to present abortion as genocide. (Genocide is the systemic killing of a racial or cultural group. See the comparison of women to the Third Reich?).
Genocide Awareness Project was in Red Square for two days last year. The display included almost a dozen posters and adjacent video cameras. A metal barricade encased the posters, members of Western for Life, and representatives of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform. Some of the presenters brought their children, who looked caged as they played behind the barricade's bars and underneath pictures of bloody fetuses and dead adults.
The physical barriers anticipate the violent responses provoked by the project. Western student David Zhang jumped the fence and tore down the signs down last year. This response is by no means exclusive to our university. At Ohio State, 30 counter-protestors were arrested for rioting. At University of Kansas, a student drove his truck into the display, and another student assaulted one of the presenters. I see the barriers as a physical representation of the barriers preventing equal access to both a safe university education and healthy reproductive options.
Western students have had abortions. No matter what the reason, abortion is an expensive, painful, and invasive procedure. Women are already vilified for having sex, they don't need to be further punished by the Genocide Awareness Project bringing up whatever unpleasant circumstances caused a student to unwillingly become pregnant. As a woman, I'm already struggling for an equal education and the freedom from fear of gender-based violence that men benefit from. The Genocide Awareness Project fosters the underlying, deeply rooted sexism and misogyny in U.S. culture, and seeing that doesn't make me feel safe on campus. (And to their credit, I think most of the pro-life folks aren't consciously women haters but are just trying to protect what they believe is a human.)
The Genocide Awareness Project argues that fetuses are dehumanized to normalize abortion, but the project dehumanizes women, Jews, and people of color in the process. One poster includes a black man's corpse hanging from a tree, the emaciated and stacked husks of dead Holocaust victims, and a first trimester fetus splattered around a quarter. "The changing face of choice," the poster reads. "Religious Choice. Racial Choice. Reproductive Choice."
James Byrd, Jr., was murdered in Jasper, Texas, in 1998 when three white men drug him behind a car. Modern lynchings continue to terrorize black communities and punish folks whose behavior is unacceptable to dominant white culture.
The Holocaust ended in 1945. These aren't distant events of long ago. Students at Western are a part of black and Jewish communities. They shouldn't have to go out of their way to avoid seeing graphic images of the racist and anti-Semitic crimes committed against members of their communities.
But it's freedom of speech, right? Maybe the methods used by the Genocide Awareness Project to display their message are manipulative and bigoted, but don't we just have to cheerfully allow them to air their message, lest we restrict them and lose ours?
Not necessarily. There may be a right to free speech, but like abortion it is a right that only some people have access to. The Genocide Awareness Project gets more airtime, more resources than other activist groups, University Police protection, and a louder voice because they're exhibiting some of the underlying racist and misogynist sentiments in our culture instead of challenging them. Those who do challenge the system, like Lt. Ehren Watada (who is currently being court-marshaled for speaking out against the Iraq War) are punished, silenced, and imprisoned. At our own university, student Karim Ahmath was arrested for “disorderly conduct” on February 15 when distributing anti-military recruitment literature at a Western career fair. These individuals face prison for exercising their freedom of speech when it doesn't serve the interests of the government or the military.
Freedom of speech isn't equally extended to people who are neutral or pro-choice. The Global-Gag Rule reinstated by President Bush forbids federally funded non-government healthcare organizations from presenting any information about abortion when providing health care in the global south. In many states, before having an abortion a person must go through a mandatory counseling program that requires counselors to follow a script in favor of giving birth.
I'm down with free speech. I'm practicing it right now, even outside of the margins of Red Square's designated free speech zone. I'm confident that a critical thinker can successfully critique the Genocide Awareness Project's anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-woman method of presenting a pro-life argument. Yes, it's the method of presentation I have a problem with, and that the University is doing little to protect students from images displayed in one of the most public and highly trafficked parts of campus that potentially trigger violence that they or members of their family and community have experienced. If I don't like it, I'm supposed to go around or look away. This is a message so often told to "minorities" unhappy with mainstream values.
Policy for Red Square use states that, “Campus exterior, public spaces offer ongoing opportunities for the informal assembly and interaction of members of the campus community. So long as these activities do not adversely impact the normal operation of the University, or violate a specific law or regulation, they are not regulated by the University.” Jim Schuster, Director of Student Activities, said that the group promises to behave as they did last year, which apparently wasn't disruptive. The Dean of Students office will display warning signs outside the entrances to Red Square, and a student's options are to go around or avert her eyes. Schuster said students won't be excused from class.
Going around the project may be an extra challenge for students with disabilities and limited mobility. I have a class in a Humanities classroom facing Red Square on Wednesday, and won't attend class that day. I don't see my classroom being a place for fostering learning that day. My participation is not a vital function to the university.
Western students are standing up to the project. Many groups are organizing in anticipation for the project's arrival. Students Taking Action Now Darfur is hosting Camp Darfur on May 22 to educate students on real, contemporary genocide, and the ACLU is bringing a guest speaker and showing the film "The Last Abortion Clinic." Students for a Democratic Society is building a "free-speech" board and organizing a detour.
Still, I'm disappointed there hasn't been more of a resistance to the Genocide Awareness Project's actual presence in Red Square. Without being censors, students committed to social justice can make it hard for the project to have the loudest voice of all. Those of us with radical politics know what kind of barriers we face in airing our own dissenting opinions.
University of British Columbia in 1999 required that the Genocide Awareness Project pay a $5,000 damage deposit and $10,000 dollars per day for security, which is UBC's policy for non-student groups. (According to Students for Choice at UBC, the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform threatened to sue UBC for not providing security.) They also prevented the display from being in a highly trafficked part of the UBC campus. The Center for Bio-Ethical Reforms presence was initially blocked from UBC. Why don't we ask these stipulations?
The folks from the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform may be extremists, but they're blatantly displaying the underlying misogyny and racism in our culture and at Western. They may seem like outliers, the bad apples, but sexism and racism isn't just something practiced by the Genocide Awareness Project. Yes, abortion hurts women. So does making women and other so-called minority students feel unsafe at school.
I see two potentially positive impacts on the Western community. The anti-choice folks make all pro-life people look bad to anyone who questions a rhetoric that denies women another choice in a society that already gives us so few. The second is the mobilization around the Genocide Awareness Project. Students last year created a beautiful impromptu counter-protest. I hope that it will be beautiful again this year. I hope that the energy will keep going so that students make real, lasting changes in the institution to protect students from sexism and racism at school.