2012 Elections: Expanding the Conversation

the Fight for Reproductive Freedom

A roundtable interview with Deborah Peterson Small, Lucy Panza, and Jaymes Winell

In an election year, even as we plan to vote for the candidates that best represent our concerns, it is more important than ever that we do not allow mainstream politics and political agendas to eclipse our activism and our visions for social justice and true reproductive freedom.

For this election season newsletter, we interviewed three people who are doing the important grassroots work to move our communities, as well as our government, in a more positive, inclusive, and humane direction.

What do you think is of particular importance in the 2012 elections (locally or nationally)?

Deborah Peterson Small, Executive Director, Break the Chains: Increased focus on income inequality and the consequences this disparity is having on our nation and its institutions. Also, the real power struggle that is taking place between those who want to move the country forward into the 21st century and those who want to take us back to the 19th. It’s a real struggle for power and control in which women, minorities, immigrants, and other marginalized groups are pawns.

Lucy Panza, Policy Analyst, Center for American Progress: I hope youth activism, particularly around reproductive health care and consumer rights, will determine who wins the national election.  As for a political issue specifically, I think the health of our economy will have a big impact.

Jaymes Winell, Human Migration and Mobility Intern, American Friends Service Committee: In this economic moment when in the United States we have 25 million unemployed and severe economic exploitation internationally, the question of what kinds of jobs can be created and how is a crucial one.

With union-protected jobs and hopefully more action taken against banks that foreclose for profit, families and individuals will be more able to stay in their homes if they want to.

How candidates and community leaders approach the unemployment question is related to how they approach the homeless question, and it is high time that we and all politicians look closely and honestly at who is homeless: LGBTQIA folks, youth, veterans, differently abled people, the mentally unstable and, in all of these categories, [disproportionately] higher numbers of people of color.

Connected to these issues is the recent destabilization of constitutional rights such as the right to trial, the right to peaceably assemble and petition for a redress of grievances, the right to not be summarily executed—and the list goes on. Domestic surveillance that has heavy doses of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender profiling needs to be discussed without hysteria, fear mongering, or prejudice.

We are asked to accept the abuse of undocumented immigrants as part of restoring the rule of law, but as we cast votes, are these representatives going to uphold human rights? Or just the enforcement of broken laws?

What is not part of the national debate right now that you think should be?

JW: No candidates are currently talking about how to approach the Occupy/Decolonization movements and this question is of upmost importance. Outlawing protest where there is Secret Service protection is one of the first steps in creating a blueprint for fascism, and harkens to the Cold War when expression of certain ideas was a federal crime. Accepting, embracing, furthering, and deepening occupations of public and private space today is our method to reclaim and repurpose spaces and resources. How candidates discuss these occupations—which are more than protests because they are also constructing alternatives—will tell us much about them.

Locally, we need to be open about the fact that the Northampton, MA, police department, and many others, uses a dismally small number of racial categories in their incidence reports. This means that when they register an arrest they choose that person’s race or ethnicity from only three boxes: “Caucasian, black, and Asian.” I’m not kidding! The effect is that a huge number of people get registered as Caucasian, which skews the police department’s numbers in relation to racial profiling. [Other] police departments do not even release these numbers so the public has no chance to assess or address racial profiling.

DPS: The corruption of our system of justice that has become the repository for the various social problems we prefer not to deal with: poor schooling, unemployment, mental health and substance abuse issues, poverty, economic exploitation. Instead of dealing with these very real issues we criminalize the people affected by them, thereby limiting their human potential and our future societal prospects.

Specifically, the impact and consequences of our long running “war on drugs” is not part of the national debate, despite the fact that it has caused the U.S. to become the world’s #1 incarcerator of its own people and has lost significant public support. Few people believe we can ever win a “war on drugs” and instead support legalizing some drugs like marijuana and discussing alternatives to current punitive drug policies. Nonetheless, with the exception of Ron Paul, such conversations are considered verboten by most politicians.

Recently, many leaders of our neighbors in the southern part of this hemisphere, from Mexico to Chile, have begun to speak out about the futility of the drug war and to call for a real conversation about alternatives. The U.S. has so far turned blind eyes to the unprecedented violence that has cost the lives of more than 50,000 people in Mexico alone, and deaf ears to the cries of leaders like Guatemala’s President Perez for the U.S. to take accountability for its role in continuing what has become a regional disaster.

LP: In the ongoing contraception debate, very few people have stopped to ask why we are even having this debate in the first place.  One of the answers is because we lack a government-managed health care system for all, or what some call a “public option.”  Because we rely on employers and schools to provide insurance coverage for most people (as employees, students, or beneficiaries of such a plan), we have to talk about employers’ and schools’ right to refuse certain health insurance benefits like contraception.  If we effectively advocated for government-sponsored, universal health care coverage that included the full spectrum of health benefits, all the way from contraception to pre-natal care to abortion, this debate would be moot.

What in your ongoing work will continue despite the 2012 elections?

LP: Advocating for accessible reproductive health care that focuses on those most marginalized: women of color and youth.

JW: We will push on with the Preserving our Civil Rights campaign, which seeks to curb domestic surveillance, assess and address racial profiling, and prevent enforcement of immigration laws in our community.

The Springfield No One Leaves project will also continue. This is a grassroots coalition, of which we are just one part, that fights foreclosures in Springfield, MA, and beyond. The bank tenant association model being used here will hopefully be a useful model for other regions.

Our anti-military recruiting will also continue in local high schools, since the effects of war on everyone involved (except those specifically profiting from war) is horrific.

We need no poverty draft that leaves our young people traumatized, brainwashed, and suicidal. Those are the facts that we work to fight.

DPS: [Our work of] raising public awareness about the need to end drug prohibition as part of the path towards a healthy and just society will continue, as I have little doubt the 2012 elections will have a major impact [on this]. U.S. drug policy continues to be heavily oriented towards supply-side interdiction and punitive punishment for people unfortunate enough to be caught up in the criminal justice system.

[We need to discuss] the futility of punishment as an effective means of reforming behavior, particularly addictive behavior, and help people to understand that treatment does work—for the individual, their family, and society. Most importantly, we need to fully appreciate the costs of our present policy approach, which has caused irreparable harm to successive generations of people caught in the cycle of addiction, incarceration, and poverty. We have to break the chains of thinking and acting that have us hold on to policies and practices that do not and cannot work.


Deborah Peterson Small is the Executive Director of Break the Chains, an advocacy organization committed to addressing the disproportionate impact of punitive drug policies on poor communities of color. Break the Chains was founded in the belief that community activism and advocacy is an essential component of progressive policy reform. Break the Chains works to engage families and community leaders in promoting alternatives to the failed “war on drugs” by adopting public health approaches to substance abuse and drug-related crimes. Break the Chains is an advocate and voice for those affected most by drug policies but too often unheard in policy debates and decisions.

Lucy Panza is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress’ Women’s Health and Rights Program. She is a reproductive justice fellow through Law Students for Reproductive Justice. Lucy received her J.D. from Georgetown and her B.A. from New York University. Her areas of interest and expertise include federal legislation, especially in health policy, student insurance, contraceptive coverage, and Latina reproductive rights. Prior to attending law school, Lucy worked as a paralegal in the Equal Employment Opportunity Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, where she interviewed civil rights complainants and provided litigation support to plaintiff-side attorneys representing clients in employment discrimination cases.

Jaymes Winell, Human Migration and Mobility Intern with the American Friends Service Committee, is a Hampshire College student who has studied theatre and dance for community building purposes as well as United States history focusing on labor, racial justice, and feminist organizing in the 1920s and anti-Communism in later decades through the lens of family history.

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