A grassroots movement in Dane County WI, just won immediate protections for abortion rights – in direct defiance of Wisconsin’s 173 year-old abortion ban and the state’s GOP-dominated government. The abortion sanctuary legislation, which the Dane County Board passed 29-5-1 on September 22, came out of a campaign led by Socialist Alternative.
This victory came after months of organizing, alongside Dane County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner and inspired by Socialist Alternative’s similar victory in Seattle. The sanctuary legislation provides protections for people in Dane County seeking abortions, preventing County agencies from working with the state of Wisconsin to enforce the ban by threatening to take away funding from any city in Dane County that does.
How We Won – We Need More Than Protests!
After the Supreme Court’s threat to Roe leaked, Democrats and the liberal feminist organizations were telling us to stay home until November. But we weren’t satisfied with that. Socialist feminist activists in Madison took to organizing walk-outs, Senate office sit-ins, and protests of thousands, which eventually culminated in this victory. When the Dobbs draft leaked in May, Socialist Alternative’s Madison branch organized a protest of 3,000 at the State Capitol.
Building on this, we held several Action Assemblies, where workers and young people eager to fight back were able to discuss next steps to build a stronger movement. From these assemblies, we helped organize walkouts at five high schools, where students were already looking for ways to escalate the fight for abortion rights.
While we were organizing in Madison, Socialist Alternative in Seattle was waging a very similar fight for legislation that would protect people seeking an abortion, both those who live in the city and those coming from trigger ban states. The legislation was introduced to the Seattle City Council by Socialist Alternative member and Seattle councilmember Kshama Sawant. We mobilized people to rallies and council meetings to keep the pressure high, and using this strategy we won! This was a major inspiration to abortion activists in Madison and we knew we could do the same thing here, despite the statewide trigger ban, if we applied the same method.
To win in a trigger ban state, we knew we needed to constantly apply pressure. In June, we organized alongside several groups for another big protest, which drew in 3,500 people. We built on the momentum from this protest and subsequent Action Assemblies to organize a sit-in at Senator Ron Johnson’s office. We then used this to launch a signature gathering campaign where 2,000 people signed onto the sanctuary legislation at tables we set up all over town. The petition was also unanimously endorsed by the South Central Federation of Labor! We mobilized dozens of people to County Board meetings throughout August and September to give public testimony, keeping up pressure until it passed.
By thinking about our next actions strategically, and linking them to the goal of forcing the hand of the Democrats rather than waiting for them to take the lead, we avoided the problem of “protest fatigue.” Protests on their own are not enough, but they can help create momentum, which then must be organized behind a common program and a far-reaching strategy to win.
Wisconsin Dems Give Ground To Trump’s GOP
The approach taken by activists in Madison stands in stark contrast to the approach of Democrats, who will no doubt want to take credit for this victory despite their total passivity.
After the Supreme Court’s gutting of Roe v. Wade, local Democrats responded by passing the buck to the right-wing dominated state government. When Gov. Tony Evers called for a special legislative session to overturn the 1849 abortion ban, Republicans immediately closed the session. If the Democrats really wanted to win the right to abortion in Wisconsin, this should have been met with calls for mass protests until they reopened the session. Instead Evers went home and requested a legal brief to weigh his options, putting the decision back in the hands of right-wing courts.
While fighting for this legislation, the Democrats refused to do what would be necessary to strengthen the legislation. We need direct controls on the Sheriff’s and DA’s offices – prohibiting any avenues to enforce the abortion ban – but the Democrats balked this demand with superficial excuses about county jurisdiction.
Even without direct controls, Democrats on the Board fretted about the Sheriff and DA’s “right” to enforce the abortion ban, rather than focusing on defeating the draconian and life-threatening law. Several County Supervisors attempted to derail the legislation even while claiming to oppose the ban. This comes as no surprise, as they have consistently sided with the police against movements like ours – most notably in response to the George Floyd uprising, with Democrats like Ron Johnson’s Democratic opponent Mandela Barnes calling for increased funding to the police. We need a party that actually represents working people, and we need to build our movements independent of the Democrats.
We Can’t Stop Here, We Need A Socialist Feminist Strategy For The Movement
Even with sanctuary legislation, the right to abortion is under threat from an increasingly rabid GOP. In Wisconsin, far-right Gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels is trying to protect the abortion ban from scrutiny by promising paid parental leave – a demand that is massively popular, and which Democrats have refused to fight for. This leaves the door wide open for the right-wing to cynically pose as the party of working parents.
After the victory in Seattle, we knew we could win immediate protections in Dane County if we used a movement-based approach. This win in Wisconsin shows that working and young people can begin fighting for immediate protections in trigger ban states across the country.
If activists in trigger ban states across the country took a similarly militant approach, we could organize a much wider mass movement, independent of the Democrats, to win even wider protections. Socialist Alternative continues to organize for abortion rights and the rights of all working people across the country, join us in this fight!