Last week, the world watched in horror as a pro-Trump mob, urged by the President himself, attacked the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Thousands of angry people, rushed the Capitol building, overwhelming the law enforcement officers who were staged outside. They smashed windows and broke down doors; thousands of them flooded into the Capitol building itself. For several hours, they occupied congressional offices and triumphantly paraded through the House and Senate floors, wreaking havoc and calling for violence against and death for politicians and police officers, alike. By the end of the seditious melee, five people were dead.
One of the people there was John Brockhoeft, who posted online about his presence at the Capitol. Brockhoeft isn’t just any Trump supporter. He’s also a convicted anti-abortion terrorist.
His presence wasn’t a coincidence, but an example of the long-standing crossover between anti-abortion and white supremacist terrorist movements, and how America’s complacency around both has helped pave the way for this moment of terrifying insurrection.
There were other anti-abortion activists who were involved in the attack, according to a NARAL report. One of them was Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director turned anti-choice extremist, who was present during Trump’s speech inciting the riot. Another was Taylor Hansen, an anti-choice activist connected to a group called Baby Lives Matter, who posted violent videos to Twitter during the riots.
As long as abortion has been legal in the US, it has been under siege. Since 1977, there have been 11,905 acts of violence against abortion providers, including 42 bombings, 189 arsons, and 11 assassinations. Clinics have experienced more than 700,000 incidents of disruption.
These acts of violence and harassment grew steadily over decades, as anti-abortion extremists saw how little retribution they faced for escalated their tactics. In 1982, Joseph Scheidler, an anti-abortion activist who literally wrote the book on how to harass abortion patients and staff, hired a private detective to find a teenager’s address and then harangued her mother from an adjacent balcony to talk her out of an abortion. Scheidler inspired Randall Terry, another anti-abortion extremist, to found Operation Rescue — a radical, direct-action anti abortion group — in 1987. Terry once proclaimed, “If you think abortion is murder, then act like it’s murder.” He also led thousands of people in massive blockades at abortion clinics, chaining themselves to doors, laying down in front of traffic, gluing locks — anything to prevent the clinic from operating. Law enforcement’s presence was often lax or non-existent; in San Francisco, it took the police two hours just to show up after the blockade began.
Operation Rescue was able to shut down clinics across the country and terrorise abortion patients, unchecked by the federal government, for nearly a decade. That sense of complacency among lawmakers and apathy on the part of some law enforcement officials helped fuel the dramatic rise and escalation in anti-abortion extremism. By 1993, just two decades after Roe v. Wade was decided, anti-abortion extremists had escalated from picketing to stalking to blockading to bombing to assassination.
Brockhoeft came of age as an extremist in that environment. He bombed two abortion clinics in Cincinnati in 1985, and was convicted three years later of attempting to bomb an abortion clinic in Florida. He was out of prison by 1995 and further embraced the far-right. In April 2020, he was spotted outside the Ohio Statehouse, surrounded by armed, right-wing extremists, aggressively protesting the COVID-19 shutdown order.
Much has been made of the racist double standard that law enforcement displayed in their response toward the Capitol rioters as compared to how they dealt with Black Lives Matter protesters. A video appeared to show Capitol police officers opening the protective gates around the building, allowing a swarm of pro-Trump rioters to march past. Once the mob had successfully broken in, a Capitol police officer, in full uniform and a neon vest, posed for a selfie with a rioter. The mob kept moving, marching toward their next site of desecration.
It was a harrowing moment of familiarity between law enforcement and law breaker, one that is well known in abortion rights circles. In August 1979, a Fort Wayne, Indiana abortion clinic received a bomb threat. The city refused to dispatch either police or fire officials, forcing clinic staff to search for the bomb themselves. Nearly 40 years later, Becca Ballenger, a clinic escort in New York City, called in a complaint about protesters violating the 15-foot buffer zone at the clinic. When he arrived, she told Refinery29, she watched the responding officer approach the violator, shake his hand, and give him a hug. He then turned to the group of clinic escorts and said, “What are you doing to restrict their First Amendment rights today?”
When law enforcement refuses to take anti-abortion harassment and violence seriously, even if it’s only in certain American cities, it signals their tolerance of that behaviour. But it’s not just law enforcement––our cultural complacency around anti-abortion terrorism has helped normalise what should be unthinkable. The image of sweet grandmothers quietly praying the rosary and polite teenagers, standing alone with a gentle sign (a la Juno) belie the very real aggression and violence that has always existed. Under the Trump administration, clinics have reported receiving an increasing number of harassment, threats, and violence. As a clinic escort myself, I’ve seen the rhetoric and behaviour outside the clinic shift, with harsher, more openly racist rhetoric from increasingly angry men wearing a mix of “Abortion is Murder” T-shirts and “Make America Great Again” red hats. It’s no coincidence that at the same time, white nationalist groups have risen by 55% over the last few years, emboldened by a President who called them “very fine people” after rioting in Charlottesville.
If you asked yourself, “How did this happen? Where did these people come from?” while watching the riot unfold, ask yourself another question: When was the last time you saw what was happening outside an abortion clinic? When was the last time you really paid attention? When was the last time you just ignored someone spouting well-known falsehoods about abortion, about Black Lives Matter, about the results of the 2020 election? We hear so much about “breaking out of our siloes,” but we don’t have to excuse right-wing extremism to see it happening. At the very least, we have to start acknowledging that it’s happening, that it’s been happening, and many of us just haven’t cared enough to speak up because it didn’t affect us. Until it did.
Conspiracy theories and outlandish rhetoric aren’t without consequences, particularly when encouraged by those in power. In 2015, anti-abortion extremists launched a highly visible smear campaign against Planned Parenthood, featuring doctored videos that accused the organisation of illegally selling foetal body parts. It was absurd and completely untrue, but that didn’t stop Congressional Republicans from embracing the conspiracy theory, decrying Planned Parenthood, and opening an investigation into the organisation. Just a few months later, Robert Dear opened fire on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, killing three people, including a security guard. Dear confessed that he was “upset with them performing abortions and the selling of baby parts,” a direct reference to the cooked-up, anti-abortion smear campaign — a conspiracy theory that certainly has echoes in other far-right conspiracies like QAnon.
President Trump has been booted off various social media platforms, but he doesn’t need a Twitter account to continue to fuel the the same kinds of wild conspiracy theories that led Robert Dear to murder three people. He doesn’t need a video on Facebook to incite his supporters to ever-more rabid and racist violence. The coup attempt at the Capitol wasn’t inevitable––it was entirely preventable. But not without a justice system that prioritizes the rights and lives of the marginalised. Not with police officers who pose for selfies and even join the insurrectionist riot. Not with city officials ignoring credible bomb threats. Not without each of us decrying right-wing fascism and violence, no matter who the target may be.