Police Stifled Dissent During Near-Total Abortion Ban Debate in Georgia

Heavy police presence defined the legislative battle at the state capitol around Georgia’s near-total abortion ban, with pro-choice legislators calling the police presence and tactics “intimidating,” charging that Republican legislative leadership used law enforcement to squelch pushback against the extreme measure.

It was the word “shame,” rising above the usual din of the Georgia state capitol, that brought journalists, legal observers, state troopers, and curious onlookers to the third floor of the massive stone building, just outside the house chamber in late March. HB 481, the GOP’s near-total abortion ban recently signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and set to take effect in 2020, had just received final passage in the house during the last furious days of the 2019 legislative session. After limited debate time on the house floor, the measure squeaked through, passing by one more vote than is constitutionally required.

Speaking as much to journalists — pressing in with cameras, recorders, phones, and notepads — as to each other and advocates who had gathered to meet them, state representatives leading the fight against the near-total abortion ban burned with anger, disgust, betrayal, and sadness.

State Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta) could be heard saying, “Every single man who voted for this bill should be ashamed today.”

“You are in violation of 16-1-34.1, and you will be incarcerated if you do not disperse immediately,” a state trooper told the group of legislators through a megaphone, seemingly forgetting the mishaps of six months ago when capitol police illegally arrested state Sen. Nikema Williams (D-Atlanta) during a special session. Those charges had to be dropped because legislators are exempt from arrest while serving their constituents during the 40-day legislative session or any special session.

Police had been tense and gathered in loose clusters — ready to move — as soon as the vote to end most legal abortion in the state had ended.

Rep. Renitta Shannon (D-Decatur) said she witnessed an increase in police presence at the capitol over the past two legislative sessions. But the level of police activity surrounding any debates on HB 481 was strikingly different. She told Rewire.News that police were used to “stifle dissent,” and that this sent a clear message.

“Anytime the general public comes to the capitol to say how they feel about a bill, if it’s not something that Republicans agree with, they [Republican leadership] immediately sic the police on them,” she said.

Opponents and supporters of the near-total abortion ban had swirled around the Georgia state capitol for days in anticipation of this vote. There were handmaids dressed in red gowns and white caps, signs visible among clusters of people like “You voted against women, so women will vote you out! We are coming for your seat!” with names of legislators who supported the bill, contrasted with signs like “be happy you were not aborted.”

A state trooper, megaphone in hand, accustomed to using threats of arrest to disperse crowds, faced questions from legislators about his use of tactics instead of the normal kowtowing that happens when arrest threats loom.

“Why do they have to leave?” Rep. Erica Thomas (D-Austell) repeatedly asked, speaking of the pro-choice advocates and constituents gathered with the group of legislators.

“I am tired of this, it’s always like this. When somebody does something, when somebody stands up for something, then you want to say ‘leave.’ We are the ones yelling, so arrest us,” Thomas told the group of state troopers.

The threat that came through a state trooper’s megaphone, “You will be incarcerated,” was one reproductive health, rights, and freedom advocates had heard with increasing frequency when they gathered at the state capitol as the anti-choice legislation picked up steam. A rumor that anyone arrested during the third weekend in March would spend the entire weekend in Fulton County jail was enough to keep crowds quiet and subdued during previous votes on the bill.

But the gathered legislators — almost all women of color — stood their ground, continuing to ask what laws they were violating and why they were being asked to disperse with the threat of arrests looming as plastic zip ties were passed among the officers.

“We’re sitting here, we are talking to the press, and of course we are upset — this is a controversial bill,” Thomas said. “But I won’t be demeaned by this man right here, telling me he’s not going to argue with me.”

The group, joined by Shannon, Reps. Kim Schofield (D-Atlanta), Dar’shun Kendrick (D-Lithonia), Debra Bazemore (D-South Fulton), Sandra Scott (D-Rex), and Brenda Lopez (D-Norcross), continued to press the officers about the use of “intimidating” tactics, “whenever we talk about voting or women’s issues,” as Shannon put it.

Capt. Lewis Young, director of the Capitol Police Division, defended state troopers’ tactics in an email to Rewire.News, saying, “Flex cuffs and megaphones are tools of our trade just like a pen, paper, and a video camera are tools of journalists’ trade. This type of police equipment is used daily throughout the State of Georgia.”

“It appears to me that the troopers were the calm ones associated with this incident,” he added.

State Rep. Jasmine Clark (D-Tucker), in an interview with Rewire.News, described the increased police presence anytime the near-total abortion ban was up for debate as “unnecessary” and “uncalled” for.

“It was overall just ridiculous. And I don’t really even understand why,” Clark said. “The people who were there protesting were not violent, and it didn’t seem like there needed to be this robust, over-the-top police presence. It doesn’t make any sense to me. And it still doesn’t make any sense to me why they brought that many police out for that particular bill.”

Representatives noted the increased police presence was a decision that came from the state’s Republican leaders, to whom Georgia state troopers serve while working at the capitol.

Young said he is ultimately in charge of the capitol police force, but noted in his May 9 email that he would “confer with committee chairman about committee meetings and the need for officer presence.” He didn’t offer information about who he confers with nor what dictates when and how the police at the capitol respond beyond committee meetings.

Stephen Tippins Jr., chief of staff for President Pro Tempore Sen. Butch Miller (R-Gainesville), confirmed that his office and the lieutenant governor’s office worked with Young to “request for a higher presence of security.” In an April 16 email to Rewire.News, Tippins said the various offices “often try to work collaboratively to determine security needs of senate business.”

It wasn’t just the heavy police presence legislators highlighted in talking with Rewire.News about their experiences fighting the GOP’s near-total abortion ban. Other factors made having honest debates — and calling out falsehoods and misrepresentations of medical and scientific facts — a challenge given the limited time they had to work on this and other bills.

On the house side, debate was limited to one hour total — meaning 30 minutes per side — both times it came up for a vote. While the practice of limiting debate is common in the house, some legislators saw this as another strategy for this bill to get “rammed through at the last minute of the session,” as Clark put it.

Clark, a freshman legislator, said these debate limits allowed supporters of the bills to dispense blatant lies about abortion care, and there wasn’t enough time to challenge those statements.

It was Clark who questioned the sponsor of the near-total abortion ban, Rep. Ed Setzler (R), on the bill’s reference to the nonexistent American Academy of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. She later cited the guidelines and best practices that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) published in support of abortion care. That part was quietly removed in the state senate.

“It was perfectly fine for a complete lie to be in that bill,” Clark said, calling it “ridiculous” that such a statement could and did go unchecked in the Republicans’ near-total abortion ban, in addition to false claims Setzler made in committee hearings.

“A person standing in the well can tell a lie and then leave the well. Literally, they can stand there, tell a whole lie, and then say, ‘I yield the well,’ and walk away without being questioned about that lie,” Clark said. It’s a strategy not limited to HB 481, she said.

Other representatives don’t “really don’t have much recourse to say, to stand up and say, ‘Hey, that is not true,’” she added.

While legislators didn’t have a uniform view of which parts of the process created the most challenges for opposition while paving the way for a quick passage of the bill, they all said the state’s leadership needs to change if the rules that govern the legislative process are ever going to be reformed.

“They are a bunch of cowards,” Shannon said. “Because if you propose policy, you should be able to handle questions from the general public, and you shouldn’t be standing, hiding, behind police. Because you know where they [police] won’t be? At the ballot box, when voters come to vote you out.”