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Some Democrats warn abortion rights demonstrators not to go overboard

Amid protests of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on abortion, Republicans say some activism is getting out of hand, while Democrats say the complaints are a fabricated distraction

Protesters on May 7 chanted “We will not go back” outside the house of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in Chevy Chase, Md. (Video: Newsflare)
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On Monday morning, White House press secretary Jen Psaki sent out a 42-word tweet.

“@POTUS strongly believes in the Constitutional right to protest. But that should never include violence, threats, or vandalism. Judges perform an incredibly important function in our society, and they must be able to do their jobs without concern for their personal safety,” she wrote.

The Twitter missive was unremarkable — President Biden and his team have long denounced violence at protests — but for the fact that it seemed penned in response to recent abortion rights demonstrations, an attempt to head off what Republicans are trying to weaponize as a political issue.

After a leaked draft opinion one week ago indicated that the Supreme Court is preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade, abortion rights supporters have organized protests at the homes of some of the conservative Supreme Court justices, and the headquarters of an antiabortion group in Madison, Wis., was vandalized.

Two molotov cocktails were found inside the headquarters of Wisconsin Family Action, which was set on fire Sunday, as well as defaced with graffiti reading, “If abortions aren’t safe then you aren’t either.” The same evening, two molotov cocktails were thrown at the Oregon Right to Life office in a suburb of Salem, and last week, two Catholic churches in Colorado, including one known for its antiabortion stance, were vandalized.

Republicans were quick to pounce, with GOP lawmakers sending more than a dozen tweets attacking Biden and Democrats and calling on them to condemn the abortion rights demonstrators.

“Joe Biden should call on his supporters to stand down,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wrote in a tweet. “Stop burning prolife offices, stop threatening violence against Supreme Court Justices. These are Biden’s people. Do something about it.”

Many Democrats and abortion rights activists say the complaints are a willful distraction from the real issue — that the high court seems poised to roll back rights that have been in place for a half-century. Disruptive abortion rights demonstrations have been minimal, they add, especially in comparison to the hostile demonstrations and sometimes violent that targeted abortion clinics for decades; in 2015, a shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs left three people dead, for example.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Tuesday he was comfortable with activists demonstrating outside the justices’ homes, as long as they are not violent. “If protests are peaceful, yes,” Schumer said. “There’s protests three or four times a week outside my house. That’s the American way.”

But Republicans have seized on the issue. Some are even implicitly comparing the demonstrations to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, which resulted in numerous injuries, several deaths and significant damage.

“Will the DOJ be issuing arrest warrants for abortion protesters trying to intimidate Justices to change their minds on overturning Roe?” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted, referring to the Department of Justice. “Do laws matter anymore or just politics?”

A White House official said that Psaki’s tweet was in line with Biden’s long-held position condemning violence of any sort, including after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man murdered by a White Minneapolis police officer.

In the days after Floyd’s death, as violent protests erupted across the nation, Biden repeatedly called for calm. “This is no time for incendiary tweets,” Biden said. “It’s no time to encourage violence.”

While Democrats dismissed the Republican complaints as disingenuous, a person familiar with the White House’s thinking said that there is potential risk if the abortion rights demonstrations do turn violent, or if there is a marked uptick in vandalism targeting antiabortion groups and organizations.

Democrats hope the draft opinion — and the expected final opinion in the coming weeks — will galvanize voters to turn out for the midterms and back their candidates. But if the passion turns violent, it could backfire, this person said.

Already, a fence surrounds the Supreme Court, in anticipation of protests of the court’s decisions before its work is completed sometime this summer, in late June or early July. There was also enhanced security last week at the 11th Circuit Judicial Conference, a gathering of judges and lawyers where Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas spoke.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the author of the draft opinion, canceled an appearance last week at a different conference, and his planned appearance at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University has been turned into a virtual event.

Sens. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) introduced legislation this week that would expand security protection to Supreme Court justices’ family members, and it quickly passed the Senate. In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced that he is ordering state law enforcement to help protect the homes of the justices who live in Maryland.

For now, most Democratic strategists and operatives say they are not worried about political blowback from Republicans seizing on what are so far isolated incidents and peaceful, if sometimes raucous, demonstrations at justices’ homes.

“Let’s just be real about what’s important and what’s not,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone.

“If you are a pro-choice suburban woman, or you are a non-college-educated woman, White or Black, if you are distressed about what is about to happen, there is not going to be much of anything that’s going to get in the way of you being distressed,” added Anzalone, who worked on Biden’s 2020 campaign. “They’re taking away an incredibly important right that could criminalize your behavior and potentially lead to people’s deaths.”

Sonja Spoo, director of reproductive rights campaigns for UltraViolet, a gender justice advocacy group, argued that Democratic leaders should focus on the threat of abortion rights being taken away — and added that the antiabortion movement has regularly employed threatening and violent tactics.

“I would ask that Democratic leaders focus on the violence that’s already being inflicted on abortion providers and people seeking abortions in Republican-controlled states, and of course the people who ultimately can’t access care as their health and lives are being targeted right now,” Spoo said.

According to the Justice Department’s National Task Force on Violence Against Reproductive Health Care Providers, 10 people employed by abortion clinics as doctors, staffers or patient or doctor escorts have been killed in antiabortion incidents since 1993, and several others have suffered life-threatening injuries.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked on Biden’s 2020 campaign, said that Republicans are playing a “twofer” game. First, by trying to gin up outsize outrage over protests, she said, “they are trying to distract from their really, really out of the mainstream position.”

Second, Lake said, the GOP is bracing for the report of the House committee investigating the Capitol riot. Republicans “know they’re about to have a major accusation that Trump Republicans were supportive of violence” and are trying to “inoculate” themselves, she said.

Some Democrats said they welcome the demonstrations as a reflection of an impassioned base willing to fight for Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. The leaked draft opinion prompted American Bridge, a Democratic opposition research and rapid response group, to accelerate plans to focus on abortion.

The group rushed to finish a website that details positions taken on abortion by Republican candidates and officeholders in key states. The site, which went live Tuesday, includes detailed dossiers of public positions that candidates have taken over the years, including quotes from news interviews and social media. One aim is to highlight any suggestions by candidates that women might be arrested for getting abortions, or doctors imprisoned for performing them.

“For years, many Republican candidates and officeholders have thrown out these platitudes about their position on abortion, but they’ve really never been held to account for the impact on women and pregnant people,” said Cecile Richards, a co-chair at American Bridge and former president of Planned Parenthood.

Richard said she is not worried that the information will cause activists to improperly target antiabortion figures.

“The rhetoric and the incendiary activity has, to me, been part of the antiabortion movement,” she said. “We are simply trying to hold candidates and elected officials accountable for the positions they take.”

The group will put “six figures” toward promoting the site, according to Tiffany Vaughn, a spokeswoman for American Bridge. The money will be redirected from the $100 million the group unveiled in February to bolster Democrats in the midterm elections and defend Biden’s record more broadly.

Republicans continue to suggest that there is a rash of violent protest across the country.

“Attacking and threatening pro-life people because they value children — just think about that,” tweeted Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla). “The disruption at churches, pregnancy resource centers, and threats of violence against justices cannot continue.”

But Psaki on Tuesday reiterated the administration’s message that protests should remain peaceful, and suggested they generally are. “Just because people are passionate, that does not mean they are violent,” she said.

Over the weekend, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) called the police after an abortion rights message was written in sidewalk chalk in front of her house in Bangor, Maine.

Asked for a response to Collins’s decision to call the police, Psaki said, “Even as passions are high, even as people are fearful, even as people are scared and frustrated, which is understandable, we should not — no one should resort to violence, of course, nor threats nor intimidation nor vandalism.”

Pressed on whether she considers sidewalk chalk vandalism, Psaki declined to comment. “I’ll let others define that, but there are lots of ways to peacefully protest,” she said.

Robert Barnes and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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