With the looming unholy alliance of May and the DUP, the issue of women’s reproductive rights is becoming ever more pressing. Here a member of Birmingham Plan C reports on a recent counter-demo to a ‘Pro-Life’ march in the city.
‘If you care for life, why don’t you care for ours?’
On May 20th, for the third year in a row, the so-called ‘pro-life’ rally, ‘March for Life‘, was held in Birmingham’s central Victoria Square. The organising group calls for abortion to be made illegal. Since this year marked 50 years of legalised abortion in the UK, the march featured the slogans ’50 years too long’, ‘8.1 million lives too many’ and ‘Life from conception, no exception’.
The suppression of women’s human and reproductive rights are just one of the many components in the resurgence of far-right ideology. Tellingly, the increase in this type of event in the UK has developed in line with similar right-wing, pro-life events in the US, which receive endorsement and financial support from a plethora of international Religious groups and pro-life institutions. It is thought that this ‘March for Life’ has strong links to far-right groups in the UK, such as the EDL and Britain First.
The most worrying thing about this event was how much cash had obviously been spent in order to run the thing to give it a ‘fun’ ‘festival’ type feel. The event website features a festival style graphics, and the day itself featured hipster style food vans, a 10m wide stage, speaker system, professionally printed placards and signs, and, most repulsively, a double decker ‘mercy bus’ for women who had previously had abortions to confess their ‘sins’.
It seems that Birmingham was the chosen location of the ‘March for Life’ because it was the location of the first abortion clinic in England. This year was their biggest ever rally, pulling around 1000 people. Brilliantly, though, our counter demonstration was also its best yet with around 500 participants, the success of which was building on a series of events surrounding International Women’s Day.
Members of Plan C Birmingham worked with other Birmingham feminists, Abortion Rights UK and London’s Feminist Fightback, which together made an impressive stand against the rally. About half the number of pro-lifers, we were nevertheless noisy, creative, determined and well-organised. We caused the greatest disruption when a group managed to break into the event arena, stormed on stage with a large banner and let off smoke flares. For the entire duration we completely disrupted their speeches with chants and shouting; The Catholic Herald reported that hardly anyone could hear what was being said. Balloons stencil sprayed with ‘My body, my choice’ and ‘Smash patriarchy’ were handed out to protesters and children.
At 2 pm we shifted our focus to blocking the planned route for the pro-life march. Whilst hundreds of us obstructed the main high street, Feminist Fightback staged a performance art piece. They lay across the street in a connected row, wearing red cloaks, holding coat hangers in the air, whilst smoke flares billowed and testimonies written by various women were read out, glad of the choice and access they had to an abortion.
We then heard that their march had been re-routed and that the ‘March for Life’ was heading down a different street. Police attempted to obstruct us by creating a police line, but protesters managed to run straight through them and around the block to meet and obstruct the pro-lifers for a second time. We stopped them dead in Birmingham’s cathedral park, where we stood in the pouring rain for the next few hours chanting and shouting. After a while riot vans of police arrived, and they attempted to kettle us in the church park, but again, we were able to break through their lines. The police then piled in on and arrested one man who attempted to leave through a gap in the fence. Eventually they forcibly dispersed everyone else because we were ‘breaching the peace’.
Leaflets created by Feminist Fightback were distributed amongst protesters, highlighting the wider context to of cuts to women’s services and increased dissent to women’s reproductive rights. Birmingham feminists and members of Plan C handed out leaflets detailing a post-demo film screening of ‘Vessel‘ and meeting to try and establish an inclusive, anti-capitalist feminist coalition in Birmingham in order to resist events like this in the future and establish a more organised network. Hopefully they won’t bother next year but we will be prepared, organised and waiting if they do.