When a procession of larger-than-life cutouts of six Supreme Court justices’ faces bobbed over a crowd of thousands in Foley Square on Tuesday, protesters swarmed. Then, they cursed the cardboard doppelgangers out.
“You don’t need to be eloquent at all, you can have just a guttural scream come out,” said Molly Gaebe. “If you don’t feel like talking, use your fingers.” Gaebe, a comedian and writer with Abortion Access Front, was inviting people to channel their rage toward the disembodied heads as catharsis. She’d shown up in a fuchsia-toned “glittery vulva” dress.
The day of protest downtown began less than 24 hours after a drafted Supreme Court majority opinion stating an intent to overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked, a rare breach that lit a fire under pro-choice activists in the city and nationwide. “This is a five-alarm fire, my friends,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James, addressing the crowd at Foley Square. “This is a time to act and this is not the time to be silent.”
“We will not go backwards; We will not go back into those days when we used wire hangers,” she added.
A Changing Landscape
Earlier that morning, members of New York’s historic majority-women council gathered at the steps of City Hall to address the news that broke only the night prior. They spoke with frustration and anger of the likelihood that Roe v. Wade would be overturned later this summer, when the Supreme Court issues its final verdict — leaving the legality of abortion care to individual states. In New York, the Reproductive Health Act, passed into law in 2019, protects the legal right to abortion as health care.
“Make no mistake about it and hear us clearly: New York will remain a destination state for any and all women seeking abortion care,” City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said. “And we will continue to provide access to safe reproductive health care for all.” An April Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 54 percent of Americans support upholding Roe v. Wade, compared to 28 percent who feel it should be overturned.
Those who will suffer most in a post-Roe era, City Council members said, are the already marginalized — people of color, people experiencing financial hardship and queer, transgender and nonbinary people. “There are going to be thousands and thousands of women across this country who are either raped or become pregnant and need to have an abortion and are not going to be able to do so, because of a lack of economic means and a lack of access in a red state,” Upper East Side Council Member Julie Menin told Our Town.
Council Member Tiffany Cabán, representing Astoria, said overturning Roe v. Wade could also become “the beginning of a broader assault on contraception, gender-affirming health care, marriage equality and other critical human rights.”
Fighting The “Time Warp”
The City Council won’t sit idly by, according to its members. “We must use this as fire to ignite us and fight like hell against it,” said Queens Council Member Nantasha Williams.
Later in the evening, that energy came to fruition. Speeches from comedian Amy Schumer, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and James, among others, roused the crowd of protesters, which yelled chants of “Not the church, not the state, people must decide their fate” and “My body, my choice.”
Politicians, activists and everyday New Yorkers felt as if they’d awoken on Tuesday in an unfamiliar world, transported back 50 years, before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision (which had also been leaked before being formally announced).
“I woke up in a time warp,” said Joy Calloway, interim CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, at the Tuesday morning City Council gathering. “Is this Margaret Atwood’s Gilead?”
“I’m actually shocked that I have to be here today,” said Sheila Montgomery, who attended the Foley Square demonstration. “I feel like I’m in an alternate universe.”
Bloody-looking coat hangers dangled from protest signs and “Handmaid’s Tale” images floated overhead. “The unfortunate reality of overturning Roe means only banning safe abortions,” said Council Member Amanda Farías, co-chair of the women’s caucus, earlier in the day.
“I am enraged at the prospect that millions of women will suffer,” Upper West Side Council Member Gale Brewer said, “and some will die.”
“We will not go backwards; We will not go back into those days when we used wire hangers.” New York Attorney General Letitia James