April 12, 2022

John Thompson: Necessary Conversations

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As Oklahoma turns more and more red, John Thompson talks about some of the necessary conversations needed to preserve the state’s future. This post is exclusive to this blog.

In a 70 to 14 vote last week, the Republican-led Oklahoma House of Representatives criminalized abortions except in cases where the pregnant person’s life is endangered. The person who performs an abortion, even when the woman was raped, would face up to 10 years in prison and up to $100,000 in fines. The bill, first passed by the Oklahoma Senate last year, was suddenly revived Tuesday without warning.

All the bill needs to become law is the signature of Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, who claims to be America’s “most pro-life governor,” and who has promised to sign “every piece of pro-life legislation” that comes to his desk. Then, the legislature advanced the Oklahoma Heartbeat Act, “which is a copycat of a Texas ban allowing any private individual to sue doctors who perform abortions after fetal cardiac activity can be detected.” And also this week, the House “adopted a resolution to recognize lives lost due to abortion and urge citizens to fly flags at half-staff on Jan. 22, the day the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion.”

The next battles likely will be over Oklahoma’s response if Roe v Wade is overturned, such as whether “personhood” begins at conception, and whether the state will try to prosecute women who use “medical abortions” that don’t require a doctor located in Oklahoma. A number of “trigger laws” will further limit women’s bodily autonomy if Roe is overturned.

No debate and little discussion preceded this week’s bills. And, of course, the same agendas that have been repeatedly declared unconstitutional, have been advanced in many states, now causing thousands of women to cross state lines to receive abortions.

Anti-abortion campaigns have been around for nearly half of a century, but today’s assaults on women’s rights are a part of an especially cruel crusade where, I believe, revenge is being taken against persons who don’t want to turn back the clock to the times when powerful White men unabashedly ruled.  I will limit my comments on today’s assaults on privacy and the Constitution to the field I know best, and limit my recommendation to what I’ve seen fail and succeed – cross-generational and cross-cultural conversations.

In 2018, Oklahoma’s teachers union was supposed to be celebrating a compromise with the school board. But the union president asked me what was happening in the meeting where a grassroots campaign, led by young teachers, revealed their plans for the Teacher Walkout. The union quickly joined them, and both generations of educators made great contributions to the movement. Moreover, I was especially impressed with former colleagues who had remained apolitical when corporate school reform and extreme tax cuts started to undermine our schools. Now they were more militant than I had been.

We started the conversations that had long been necessary, but there wasn’t enough time to thoroughly talk through political tactics before the November elections. And the Republican majority was increased to an unchallengeable level. I’m not saying that educators who I’d just met or who were new to state politics were major contributors to the Republican landslide. Similarly, I’m not criticizing my union colleagues. But, I’m saying that that extensive conversations were essential for defeating assaults on schools, as well as abortion rights. The following is just one set of discussions that we didn’t have time to complete.

The young organizers and previously apolitical veteran teachers frequently told me that since the Republicans were in the majority, when both candidates were pro-education, they thought it was smart to support the majority party. What they did not understand, however, was that Republican pro-teacher legislators would likely become powerless when their leadership demanded compliance with their agenda. For example, these newcomers would have to go along when their leadership launched its subsequent school privatization campaign, and used “alt facts” to attack Critical Race Theory.  Then they remained powerless when privatization spread through the state government, and taxes for the rich were cut. (So far, the big exception was the defeat of vouchers.)

Now, Republican leaders (in Oklahoma and many other states) who long carried water for Right to Lifers, but who knew their legislation would be declared unconstitutional by their states’ Supreme Courts, expect different outcomes from the U.S. Supreme Court. Moreover, the anti-abortion fight is a perfect way to spread anger and divisiveness, and designed to defeat Democrats and weaken governmental institutions.

I’m afraid in Oklahoma, at least, that their political predictions will continue to be correct if “Never Trumpers” and Democrats don’t prioritize the conversations necessary to build a political team effort. (I’m increasingly dismayed, however, when Republicans, who used to be willing to compromise, defend their votes for extremist bills, saying privately that they are obviously unconstitutional and will be struck down by the Courts.)

But, at lunch last week, I was thrilled to hear the plans of a 70-something year-old labor organizer inviting the Young Democrats and other young people to our traditional Chile Cook Off, in order to bring networks of the new generations and Old School activists together. And a finance manager of a Democratic candidate, who remains committed to building bridges, explained their intensive efforts to use social media, texting, and other digital tools to increase participation in varied political groups and to bring them together in a Big Tent coalition. Their technologies were way over my head, but it was a thrilling introduction to their new systems.

And that brings me back to conversations about Choice and other issues that convince me that our democracy’s future depends on better, more personal, conversations, as well as digital sharing. Listening to a NPR discussion about whether Judicial Bypasses attached to Parental Consent laws will survive in states like Oklahoma, I was reminded of one of many moving experiences in my high school classes.

I would tell my students that I had been a Planned Parenthood lobbyist but all opinions were welcome in class discussions. Most of my students were pro-life, but when discussing the parental consent law they became pro-choice on that issue.

One day, I explained the Judicial Bypass part of the Parental Consent procedures. So, if a parent raped a child, for instance, she could ask a judge – not the rapist – to provide consent for an abortion. The class’ only White person, a conservative who was not shy about her opinions, exclaimed, “When my step-dad got me pregnant, why didn’t anyone tell me that?”

At first, no one made a sound. Then, Black girls created a circle around their classmate, and they shared a deep, emotional conversation. The guys gathered on the other side of the room and we had a lesson regarding abortion law and politics.

I hope the lesson is clear; our democracy needs us to reestablish community ties. The only way we can stop the Right Wing from using their anti-abortion campaigns, as well as their privatization and race-baiting ideologies to divide and conquer, is to cultivate cross-generational and cross-cultural communication.

As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” Similarly, we have a better alternative to their Rightwing play book – we can listen to our kids and incorporate their empathy and wisdom in a team effort to defend our constitutional democracy.

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