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New Yorkers Have a Message for Democrats on Abortion

"If our votes get us nothing, then what are we doing?"

11:12 AM EDT on May 4, 2022

A crowd of people holding signs in support of abortion rights.

Thousands of people gathered at Foley Square on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (Photos: Sydney Pereira/Hell Gate)

On Tuesday, Foley Square was filled with protesters rallying against the reported Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade. They packed the square itself, then lined up along police barricades at the border of the square, stretching into the street. Some clutched homemade signs demanding free, accessible, safe abortions on demand. The mood was cathartic. There to listen, chant, and just be with others as pissed off and exhausted as they were, as I was.

East Harlem resident Raven Ross told me she felt numb and shocked after getting a flurry of texts from her friends about the news. Ross, who is 27, is a Black woman from Texas, where 2021's SB8 already severely restricted abortion access, and one of the many states where abortion would be completely illegal if Roe were overturned.

"Dread, fear, all the things," Ross said. "It just felt so heavy."

Two women holding up signs reading "Abortion is Health Care" at Foley Square on May 3, 2022.
Raven Ross (left) and Nora Demick, both 27.

Elsewhere in the crowd was Alex LaMond, a 52-year-old social worker who had an abortion that changed the trajectory of her life when she was younger. She fears what the potential ruling means for the teenagers at the school where she works. "I'm terrified, I really am, about what this means," said LaMond. "They need access and choice as much as I did."

A sign that reads "You can't ban abortion—you can only ban safe abortions" at the Foley Square rally on May 3, 2022.
Alex LaMond fears what the potential ruling could mean for teenagers at the school she works at.

On Tuesday, the court confirmed the draft opinion was legit, though not final. Roe remains intact; the decision is expected to be finalized in late June or early July. New York codified abortion rights into the state’s health laws in 2019, but out-of-state abortions have been rising. We're not immune to rising anti-abortion sentiment: Even in our "liberal bubble" of New York City, as a recently minted and occasional volunteer clinic escort, I've seen how patients, sometimes with children in tow, are harassed and screamed at by anti-abortion activists at the doorstep of abortion clinics. These groups are increasingly emboldened by legislation elsewhere in the country that is legitimizing their efforts.

When Syd, a 20-something New Jersey public health student, found out about the draft opinion, it was surreal—the latest gut punch arrived as the wealthiest people on the planet donned their finest American "gilded" attire for the Met Gala the same night. (Don't get me wrong, I love watching Lizzo bring her flute onto the red carpet, these two guys unfurl Blake Lively's intricate dress, and Bad Bunny be Bad Bunny. But it's unsettling to see the wealth gap so wholeheartedly flaunted while knowing this will intensify existing disparities in abortion access.)

Two people holding a sign that says "We were not being fucking dramatic."
Syd and Andrew, both in their early 20s, traveled from New Jersey.

"I was just at my desk trying not to scream, basically," they said. "Just scrolling through [social media], and it'd be like: Met Gala, pretty dresses, the world is ending."

They skipped class that afternoon to join the rally with their friend, Andrew, a queer East Asian man. They both worry what the potential ruling will mean for LGBTQ rights, given that the draft opinion would overturn privacy protections that were the foundation of cases expanding the rights—at least on paper—of queer and trans Americans, including same-sex marriage.

At the rally, young New Yorkers were feeling disillusioned by the prospect that Democrats, elected on promises to protect abortion access, would change much.

"It was so bewildering thinking about how later millennials and Gen Z are told to 'vote, vote, vote, vote blue no matter who,' and yet I'm out here protesting," said Kelly Rosemarry, who is 26, and carried a sign that read, "Abortion on demand & without apology."

President Joe Biden said it would be up to Congress to pass a law protecting abortion rights, and passed the baton to voters to elect more Democrats come November. "They haven't done shit," Syd said. "A lot of people my age are feeling very disillusioned with electoral politics right now."

A succinct statement that neatly sums up the past two years. Fundamentally, nothing has changed. Nearly one million people have died from COVID-19, a reckoning with systemic racism in policing in 2020 seems all but forgotten among leaders calling for more police funding, workers have not seen the structural changes to up their minimum wages and extend paid family leave to everyone, and queer and trans rights are under attack in various states. No amount of platitudes from politicians can ease the unnerving sense that the vitriol toward people of color, women, and LGBTQ people has spread, and the people in power are doing little to stop it, merely asking for our votes year after year after year.

So we ended up back at Foley Square. A host of New York's elected officials rallied the crowd, mostly to energized cheers from the sections of the crowd close enough to hear the mic, apart from a round of boos (that quickly morphed into chants of "Fuck Eric Adams") for Mayor Eric Adams's representative.

Other groups simply congregated together, watching the rally from the distance with occasional chants while chatting amongst one another. At one point, New York Attorney General Letitia James revealed she had an abortion years ago, in what appeared to be the first public statement about her personal connection to abortion. "We will not go backwards. We will not go back into those days when we used wire hangers. Not now, not ever," James said. "If they go after this right, who's next?"

A crowd of people standing nearby a large sign that reads "SOLIDARITY."
A variety of groups gathered, filling up Foley Square and beyond.

But will Tuesday be a starting point for a reinvigorated abortion rights movement in the country? After all, some of our state's elected officials now—finally—seem to be taking cues from activists who for decades have worked to make abortions possible and ensuring New York can be a genuine safe haven state. The packed Foley Square rally was able to draw a few thousand people in less than a day.  

Many wore green, a nod to the abortion rights movement in Latin America, spurred by feminist activists in Argentina and anger after a young woman was jailed in that country following an unexpected miscarriage. Cheryl, a 31-year-old Fort Greene resident, hopes U.S. movements will draw from those Latin American activists.

"What's so pivotal is the potential for radicalization here, for people to understand that the Democrats are not about to protect you. They're not doing any of the things they said they were going to do," she said. "If our votes get us nothing, then what are we doing?"

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