I could tell we were getting closer because I could hear the helicopters, and because more and more people on the street were wearing green. I saw a famous TikToker in a trucker hat and a tiered green skort, and some finance guys with slicked-back hair and vests. In other circumstances, I would not immediately identify these people as my comrades, but the Supreme Court’s leaked overturning of Roe v. Wade is so massively unpopular that it’s hard to make any kind of statement about shared beliefs or values among its opponents. We squished together in Foley Square in any case.
I didn’t know what to expect from the rally itself. I remembered going to pro-choice demonstrations in high school and watching women arrive with scrubs over their pants, crotches painted red to represent the violence of DIY abortions. I also knew that Hillary Clinton had promoted Tuesday’s gathering on Twitter. The slate of speakers included both a democratic socialist leader of the New York State Nurses Association and the cast of the musical SUFFS. After some generic warmups and polite declarations that this is what democracy looks like, one speaker took the stage and spoke candidly about her own abortion. With the first abortion story of the night came the closest thing to a collective feeling—the acute awareness that, yes, people need access to safe abortions on principle, but they also desperately need them in practice. This was, I think, the evening’s general arc: people made speeches that felt dutiful and vague, like they were checking off talking points, and then someone would say something that clarified how acutely, materially necessary reproductive care actually is. It was weirdly boring until it was devastating, over and over.
A bunch of politicians stressed New York’s exceptional dedication to reproductive rights. Everyone cheered when Letitia James announced a fund for out-of-state patients to travel to New York for abortion care, but it was also depressing to think that this is how the near future will look: narrow pathways like sponsored bus tickets that can’t possibly meet the needs of the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who get abortions every year. After the third or fourth time Kathryn Garcia referred to the state as a “beacon,” it started to feel a little like gloating.
When I began talking to attendees, most of them told me that they were horrified about the news but felt that there was little to do but vote for Democrats. A white woman in her thirties with a Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote on her sign said that she’d chosen to honor the late justice because she was a “queen” of championing women’s rights. She’d never heard any criticisms of Ginsburg’s choice not to step down during Obama’s presidency, and mused that it was ultimately “her call” after some consideration. Another person told me the reversal of Roe had a “silver lining” in that states could now democratically legalize abortion themselves, as if states weren’t already doing the opposite.
I kept moving through the crowd, looking for something else. I didn’t like feeling so detached, in this hastily assembled space that might have held the promise of collective action but hadn’t quite figured out how to. Telling people to vote in response to attacks on reproductive healthcare isn’t insufficient because it’s boring or cheugy, it’s insufficient because it defers action, and people need to be able to terminate pregnancies right now. If or when or how one wants to have a child is among the most intimate and consequential questions a person will face in their entire life. But the tonal blandness and electoral focus of the Foley Square rally made the stakes of that choice feel strangely distant.
There was, eventually, some connection to be found. I watched people clap with vigor when speakers linked challenges to reproductive justice to the general failures of the American healthcare system, like we might hear more radical critique if we showed them we wanted it. I overheard a pair of friends talking about how good it felt for them to be there. They told me they’d wanted to be around women. They hadn’t loved the speakers or the claim that Mayor Adams was one of “the men who get it,” but the gathering was, at the very least, a space of shared outrage. Some 14-year-old boys told me the most memorable speeches were the ones that situated the court’s decision within broader struggles and insisted that this wasn’t a single-day or single-issue action.
As the rally died down, a small group of anarchists huddled around a banner that said SMASH THE STATE in big pink letters. I knelt down next to one of them in the middle of Lafayette Street. She told me a little about her background as an organizer and the fights she’d been involved in over the years. I spoke to her about my feelings of awkwardness at Foley Square, going on a little too long about my disappointment in myself for thinking less in recent years about this fight while I was absorbed in other ones. I told her I’d been hearing a lot of pessimism, having just run into a kid from my high school who told me that, despite having shown up, he didn’t really see the point of this sort of gathering. “I’m not pessimistic,” the anarchist said. She pointed to international feminist movements and recent wins in Latin America. The first protest she ever went to, she said, was a Women’s March in DC eighteen years ago, fighting for access to Plan B. She was 15 and a liberal, and it was the moment when she first saw clearly how politics affected her life. Maybe some of the people in the square, she said, were like her back then: people who were getting agitated for the first time, who could be organized if there were a robust and sustained movement to meet them. I left after she told me that, wanting to hang on to the idea that this moment could be a start—that the breadth of a coalition that included both this kind anarchist and people in repurposed Saint Patrick’s Day regalia could mean something massive. Twenty minutes after I left, I heard later, people started marching.
Amy Schumer, for some reason, introduced Attorney General Letitia James from a stage area at the base of Foley Square’s centermost statue, a gigantic iron structure that sort of resembles an outstretched middle finger. It was apt, having the statue emerge from the courthouse like that, and also a convenient way to find the stage—by this point, the crowd was so massive that it was nearly impossible to differentiate the speakers from everyone else. “I tell jokes,” said Amy Schumer, “but the Supreme Court is a joke.”
James’ speech was the high-water mark of the rally, in terms of energy. “We stand right now on one of the front lines of one of the greatest fights we will ever have,” she declared, “and my question to you is: are you with me?!” Everybody screamed YES. James proposed a state fund that would assist those who traveled from out of state for safe abortions. One man kept screaming, almost wailing LETITIAAAA after every few words she spoke. Toward the end of her remarks, James told us that she herself had an abortion shortly after being elected city councilwoman. My friend cried.
The rally had been circulated on Twitter by the likes of @socialistalternative and the Working Families Party’s official account, alongside tips for staying safe at a mass protest. In actuality, the event looked more like an outdoor city council meeting with suboptimal audio setup. As people continued to speak, it became evident the politician-heavy lineup came with hard boundaries for the crowd’s anger—a kind of Democratic Party–shaped container for everyone’s vitriol, dictating that all rage be directed toward an amorphous outside enemy like the conservative justices, the Republican party, or Evangelical Christians.
A moment of rupture occurred when someone from the mayor’s office introduced herself on behalf of the mayor. Generalized booing segued into a brief “Fuck Eric Adams” chant among a few dozen attendees. There was a moment of levity, a do we keep going titillation among the Fuck Eric Adams chanters, that lasted until the speaker’s injunction to “talk about abortion and leave Eric out of it.” From within the crowd, several people attempted to silence the chanters: a woman in a green drawstring hat yelled “hey guys, that’s not helping anyone.” The energy never quite recovered from this display of ideological fracture. I felt it was a good time to start talking to people, so I approached the LETITIAAAA shouter to ask him about the mystifying piece of arithmetic on his sign: FEMINISTS #1, GOP=0. When I asked him why he’d come to Foley, he said, “women saved my life.”
The emergency coalition seemed to fracture again when a young woman with a lanyard and a megaphone started chanting NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE during one of the speeches. It was unclear whether she was aware that she was interrupting, but the same white woman who had protested the FUCK ERIC ADAMS chant yelled hey white lady, shut the fuck up! before making a throat-slitting gesture at her. Two older women held up wire hangers with cutout drops of blood taped on them, so I asked them what they thought could be done to avoid that very scenario. They told me to vote. Another woman, eyes bright with anger, jumped in and told us that the yuppie-dense Southern cities many of her friends lived in were no longer hospitable for them, and that many were going to be forced to move. I asked her if she felt safe in New York, and she said yes, for now. The coat hanger ladies nodded solemnly alongside me.
I had to leave early, so I wove through the crowd and past the NYPD officers into the subway. Once underground, hurtling away from the courthouse, a fatigue coalesced where my anger had just been. Surely, I thought sheepishly, there was more to solidarity than this. Still, when I stepped off the train onto the platform, a group of young women wielding signs walked past me, clearly headed back toward Foley Square. Despite it all, I felt a flicker in the leaded pool of inertia that had collected in my stomach. I was glad to see them on their way to the rally, toward the big middle finger where words had failed.