Professor Arrested for Complaint Against Campus Display Comparing Abortion to Genocide

sunybuffLast Monday, State University of New York at Buffalo adjunct professor Laura Curry was arrested for what the Huffington Post has flippantly called a “profanity-laced tirade over a pro-life display on campus.” The display, installed by the so-called Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) in front of the highly trafficked Student Union, assaults unwitting students and faculty with huge billboards of Holocaust victims, lynched bodies, the Cambodian killing fields and aborted fetuses, with incendiary captions like “The Changing Face of Choice.”

The HuffPost coverage, much like the characteristically misogynist pieces that recently ran on a Fox news website, which appears equally uninterested in any of the details of Curry’s arrest, could just as soon be met with Curry’s original argument: that the outrageous hate speech, thinly veiled sexist propaganda and lack of critical discussion surrounding a display that equates abortion with genocide is the most warped and cruel profanity-laced tirade a woman could be met with.

The so-called Genocide Awareness Project—also known as the College Campus Outreach division of The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform—is an absurd misnomer. In 1997, this far-right group began touring a “photo-mural exhibit” that compares abortion to several genocides. Today, the “exhibit” continues to close down any chance of discourse on abortion on college campuses across the country. As six professors wrote in a letter to the UB Spectrum, “This kind of political action requires much deliberation, which unfortunately was missing from yesterday’s anti-abortion protest.” Instead, GAP attempts to traumatize and confuse students into submission. GAP should not be allowed on college campuses, where intellectual vigor, critical thinking and historical accuracy are supposed to be central tenets.

As Cayden Mak, a witness to Laura’s arrest and now the head of the defense committee for Laura’s arraignment, said:

The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform’s MO is to display triggering images and then engage passersby in conversation. This happened, and both [Laura and I] got in arguments with picketers. The police who were already on the scene did not like Laura’s tone and asked her to simmer down, at which point she asked why her tone and use of the f-bomb were offensive, while the display in question was not interfered with on the part of the police. That’s where you get to the point of the arrest video. […] It made the campus feel unsafe for a number of people in a variety of identity groups. This is non-trivial, and just because [GAP’s] disturbance was not sonically loud doesn’t mean its effects weren’t deep.”

In other words, campus police, well outside their rights, arrested a woman who might be an F-word (feminist) for saying the F-word (fuck!). An instructor in SUNY Buffalo’s media studies department, Curry is well-aware that images speak volumes, especially when accompanied by duplicitous and accusatory rhetoric. Rather than demonize Curry as a hysterical liberal woman who “can’t handle the truth about abortion,” recent coverage of the arrest might do better to consider the context of Curry’s arrest.

After all, the tagline for this project is “graphically exposing the injustice of abortion.” This “photo-mural” is a radical attempt to shame women with scare tactics, morph the reality of abortion and co-opt the horrific legacy of genocide for religious and political dogma. In addition, the group is self-admittedly fond of threatening feminist groups with litigious action if they speak out against their fear tactics.

GAP’s contradictory logic also frames this effort to legislate women’s bodies as an anti-government movement, but of course the real aim here is intense government intervention. Genocide is defined by the United Nations as a systematic effort to destroy a religious, ethnic or racial group. It is an attempt to conduct politics on the body. Anti-abortion activists attempt to move politics further onto the female body in an effort to advance their own political agenda. Of course this is in direct contradiction to conservative petitions for the privatization of health care and reduced governmental “bureaucracy.” And yet, when it comes to a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions, this logic is suddenly reversed. It seems that, for conservatives, women cannot be trusted with the same political rights as their male counterparts.

The group claims that abortion is akin to a “government massacre” and considers “the right to not be pregnant” to be “a far lesser right” than that of “unborn Americans.” GAP conveniently forgets the very gendered and racialized inflection of the atrocities they irresponsibly appropriate. The campaigns fails to acknowledge the rape camps of Bosnia, the ongoing use of women’s bodies as a weapon of war in the Congo (and elsewhere), and the continued disregard in the West for long-standing genocidal atrocities such what is happening in Sudan. Nor do the photos engage with the harmful rape culture of the U.S., which, as Steubenville showed us, continues to teach young boys that a woman’s body is not her own, is even a kind of plaything.

Anti-abortion propaganda like this also ignores the extensive gendered history of reproductive regulation in capitalism, which helps to maintain a division of labor that sees a woman’s place as the home, affirms rape culture, reinscribes the figure of the hysterical woman and perpetuates immobility for low-income citizens.

As the professors who spoke out against GAP’s visit to UB argue, the “inability to see women as capable of making decisions about their own sexuality” and the “pretense of protection” are all intimately linked to totalitarian forms of control. Moreover, the destruction of individuality at work here is also a primary mechanism of genocidal logic. The point is not to reverse GAP’s charges—as that would not advance the conversation either—but rather to show their twisted manipulation of history and their dictatorial philosophy.

GAP campaign materials argues that there “are many definitions of the word genocide.” Their website offers many downloadable documents that rely on erroneous statistics and extreme rants against anyone objecting to their methods, and confirms that the group does not support abortion under any circumstances, not even in the case of rape or threat to a woman’s body. Moreover, GAP’s installations attempt to convince students that abortion after rape is akin to “honor killings.” Such statements only sanction violence against women, as well as rape-culture paradigms that view women as “ruined” by sexual violence.

As an educator at SUNY Buffalo, it terrifies me to think that my students are being exposed, against their will, to such inflammatory and convoluted reasoning. The logic at work here is so faulty that one can hardly begin to engage with it. What is perhaps most poignant about Curry’s arrest is that it shows one woman trying to enter into a critical debate and not being heard. Many of us know this feeling of unendurable frustration and anger acutely, because many of us have for years felt that we are not being heard.

The argument for safe access to abortion is in no way operating under totalitarian logic. In fact, quite the opposite. Our only wish is that women are not unilaterally cut out of their own personal medical decisions. As a recent Planned Parenthood campaign argues, the abortion debate “is not a black and white issue.” Binary labels like “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are inadequate and misleading. They simply do not capture what is at stake here, which is a woman’s right to do what she wants with her own body. Both sides must find new language to approach our conversations about this issue, and sexist and racist propaganda like GAP’s completely foreclose critical discussion.

We are all Laura Curry! Please sign the petition against her unjust arrest:

Click here to sign now!

Photo courtesy of chaceliang via Creative Commons 2.0.

Comments

  1. Deborah Jae Alexander, PhD says:

    The arrest of Laura Curry is a direct violation of the First Amendment, the right to free speech.

  2. Laura Curry Defense Committee says:

    We reuploaded the arrest video here: http://youtu.be/ccUVsSdEMPE

  3. Elicka Peterson says:

    I completely understand why Laura Curry spoke up against this, and I applaud her. We get this unconscionably awful GAP display here at Appalachian State University, as well, and I have had students extremely disturbed and upset by it. Nobody seems to know how it is allowed to go up. Today, our students have a wonderful “Feminist Coming Out Day” celebration down in the quad, and the response seems to be terrific. I’m inspired by Dr. Curry–I’m going to do something about this at ASU.

  4. chris sorochin says:

    Irony alert: I hope nobody complaining about this particular suppression of free speech supports campus “speech codes” or has protested to suppress speakers or groups they don’t like.

    Personal experience: I taught English as an adjunct at SUNY College at Old Westbury for 15 years (1986-2001). After writing some articles in an outside publication critical of the polices of college president Calvin Butts, I was simply not sent a contract for the fall semester. There was no farewell or thank you for your years of service or anything, and absolutely no answer when I and others asked why. That’s “free speech” as understood by today’s bureaucratized higher education community.

    • Thinking Liberal says:

      “Irony alert: I hope nobody complaining about this particular suppression of free speech supports campus “speech codes” or has protested to suppress speakers or groups they don’t like.”

      What, you mean the U of T protests? Or is this related to something else?

      Sucks about your dismissal, but it just goes to show how easy it is for our free speech to be suppressed, and a reminder to all of us to take action whenever our free speech is under attack. Signed and supported.

      T.L.

  5. Jane Hopkins says:

    This article along with many others neglects to consider Professor Curry’s behavior as an employee of UB and as an educator. Obviously, the GAP protestors and Professor Curry have First Amendment rights to public assembly and free speech, and from the videos Professor Curry should not have been arrested. Also, the media used by the GAP protest was obviously insensitive. Those issues belong in discussions of their own, whether that will happen in court with Professor Curry or UB community and senate forums to discuss protest guidelines.

    That leaves Professor Curry’s unprofessional behavior. This article and others neglect to consider the fact that as a scholar and teacher, Professor Curry’s behavior standing on University property in front of an approved student-run demonstration, using profanity to berate aspects of the demonstration, raising her voice to and gesticulating around police officers who were not raising their voices to her, and making a public scene yelling profanity up until and after her arrest strikes me, as a former student and current professor, as alarming and being far from what we expect from a professional educator and employee of an institution of higher education; furthermore, her actions are not those promoted in acceptable public debates championed by colleges but instead are tactics usually produced in impassioned tirades.

    As an employee of the University and mentor for students, Professor Curry has obligations to conduct herself in a respectful and respectable fashion on campus as an example for others. While I commend her dedication to her beliefs, I do not believe all of her behavior should be so easily condoned by these articles and readers’ comments. She could have sought out other ways to stop such offensive protests from occurring on campus in the future rather than reacting as she did. Supporting her behavior ultimately suggests that instead of professors and students discussing extremely sensitive subjects, such as abortion, the Holocaust, genocide, lynchings, and women’s rights, in factual, organized, safe, and educational environments like in university community forums regarding appropriate protest rules, in conferences, in classrooms, or in private gatherings, we should make a public spectacle using profanity to combat that with which we do not agree. Frankly, I believe that if a student behaved as Professor Curry did during a class session in response to tactless and insensitive material, the instructor would justifiably ask the student to leave and would call security for assistance if the student did not comply. Such conduct is not becoming of a student in an academic setting. Likewise, I do not think we should so easily condone all of Professor Curry’s actions for the sake of free speech in a knee-jerk response to the obvious violation of her First Amendment right and insensitive GAP protest materials. Freedom of speech and university protest guidelines belong in their own discussions while Professor Curry’s questionable behavior belongs in another.

    • Even if we concede your argument that a higher standard of conduct applies to her because she’s a Professor at the college, how does that make okay to arrest her? If what you say is valid then maybe it would impact on her job, but I don’t see how that makes a more viable candidate for arrest than a non-Professor. Either she broke the law or she didn’t.

      • Read her statement again:
        “Obviously, the GAP protestors and Professor Curry have First Amendment rights to public assembly and free speech, and from the videos Professor Curry should not have been arrested.”

        She clearly is saying that she shouldn’t have been arrested. But she also cautioning against celebrating her as a champion for free speech rights when her behavior can be viewed as violating principles that would have otherwise been upheld should this encounter have taken place in her classroom.

  6. Doug Ittner says:

    The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform is little more than a Holocaust denying hate group. Abortion is a medical procedure that women willingly participate in. I doubt the Jews willingly participated in genocide for medical reasons.

  7. Cindy Hanford says:

    While the arrest was outrageous and the GAP project insulting to all women, so is the use of the f* word. I find it disturbing when feminists do not recognize that the use of a word of sexual assault would be offensive to anyone who cares about the victims of sexual assault and wants to change our society so that rape is unacceptable. Currently, the f* word is used to say in a vulgar way, “I hope you are sexually assaulted” which no one should say to their worst enemy. Our society also uses it as a synonym for sex, which is particularly problematic in a society that has problems distinguishing between rape and consensual sex. In addition, most words of profanity are insults towards women’s sexuality, even when used to insult men, such as mother f*, and son of a b*. I hope that feminists challenge the use of these words, rather than use them. There are also more productive and effective means to protest, If only the campus police were as busy arresting men who assault women, much less arresting all the young men on campus who use the word.

    • There are *many*, many uses for the word, fuck, not all of which imply abuse. Even “fuck off” doesn’t mean “I hope you are assaulted”. “Shit” doesn’t imply a command. Scatological terms are scatological terms, and most of us use them for emphasis because they used to be shockingly inappropriate, precisely because of their scatological origins.I’m not sure when the last time you were on a campus was, but where I attend graduate school, we’re treated as adults, and part of that implies that we are capable of hearing adult language without dissolving into offended pools of mush.Not much is shockingly inappropriate. I don’t expect my professors to have a clean mouth anymore than I’m capable of not swearing when I slam my hand in the car door. I also hope that my professors are not burned out or cynical but still emotionally engaged with the students and the activity on campus. As I would tell my children, sometimes we have strong feelings and words that aren’t nice come out of our mouths. It’s not great to make a habit of it, but it’s an adult human’s prerogative to swear when upset. My gosh, as an undergrad I loved reading Chaucer, and I still giggle when I see very proper white-haired old ladies going into antique stores to look at “quaint” collectibles. Part of education is the de-stimatizing of strong, forbidden language, and learning to become bigger than the taboo.

  8. We need to push MAYORS, especially of college towns for massively increased contraception funding, at least 5% of municipal budgets, to save the environment and reduce school taxes. Because MAYORS do not answer to rural voters, unlike governors and presidents.

  9. The people with the display have a right to free speech as well. The professor has a right to put up a pro choice display. She doesn’t have the right to create a disturbance at a peaceful demonstration. The door swings both ways concerning this debate.

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