The sudden prominence of Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights, a new protest group led by followers of fringe communist theorist Bob Avakian, has alarmed veteran activists.
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined protesters outside the Supreme Court the day that Roe v. Wade was overturned, the progressive representative from New York was quickly surrounded by members of a newly formed group, Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights, who wore green bandanas and waved signs with slogans and the group’s web address.
A founder of Rise Up, Sunsara Taylor, pushed past an Ocasio-Cortez aide and got the New York representative to join her in chanting through a megaphone that the decision was “illegitimate” and needed to be contested by going “into the streets!”
AOC joined us in the streets to call out this decision for what it is ILLEGITIMATE— Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights (@riseup4abortion) June 24, 2022
This court is Illegitimate and this decision must not stand. Legal, Nationwide abortion on demand!
Get in the streets NOW. AND TOMORROW and the next day! Post Roe? HELL NO! pic.twitter.com/w6qVAsRyoC
Taylor, a longtime leader of the tiny, Harlem-based Revolutionary Communist Party — a group better known as the Revcoms, which is dedicated to spreading the ideas of the former ’60s radical Bob Avakian — then offered Ocasio-Cortez the mic. As the Democratic congresswoman spoke, Taylor also handed her a green bandana, a symbol of abortion rights in Latin America available for purchase on the Rise Up website.
After Ocasio-Cortez told the protesters that the effort to restore the right to an abortion nationwide would be “a generational fight,” a reporter asked what Congress could do. As Ocasio-Cortez gathered her thoughts, Taylor interjected: “Fill the streets.” Ocasio-Cortez agreed. “We have to fill the streets,” she said. “Right now, elections are not enough.”
Before she left, Ocasio-Cortez took a moment to comfort one of the young Rise Up protesters, Julianne D’Eredita, a 21-year-old from Texas, who was in tears behind her. As Ocasio-Cortez hugged D’Eredita, Taylor started a chant of the slogan that is also the group’s name: “Rise up for abortion rights!”
Anyone watching news coverage of the protests at the court that day, and in the weeks since, would be forgiven for thinking that Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights must be one of the nation’s leading reproductive rights organizations, since its activists, chants, placards, and the green bandanas and stickers sold on its website have been prominently featured in report after report.
The day after Roe v. Wade was overturned, for instance, an MSNBC interview with D’Eredita and another young member of the group, Zoe Warren, 19, went viral, as their frustration at Democrats for failing to codify Roe and fundraising off the decision was seconded by progressives like Ocasio-Cortez and Nina Turner.
But the flurry of attention in recent weeks is misleading, since Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights has only existed since January, when Taylor and a handful of other Revcom activists launched it with a protest outside the Supreme Court on the 49th, and final, anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights has only existed since January.
The role played by Revcom members in the recent wave of abortion rights demonstrations has alarmed grassroots organizers for reproductive justice and experts on left-wing movements who liken the devotion of self-described “followers of Bob Avakian” to a cult.
“That viral clip of the woman in the green shirt (Zoe Warren)?” Imani Gandy, senior editor of law and policy for Rewire News Group, tweeted. “She is associated with RiseUp4Abortion rights which is yet another one of Bob Avakian’s many social justice fronts. He occupies space in order to get more people to join his weird cult.”
Talia Jane, an independent reporter who covers extremism and activism, has compared the Revcoms and their new offshoot to a multilevel marketing, or MLM, scam.
“RevCom showed up even though they’re not welcome, so I told people about how they’re a scam cult taking advantage of new people who want to get involved,” Jane reported on Twitter after a protest in New York in May. “If you took any pictures or flyers of RiseUp4AbortionRights (the girls with the white pants with blood in the crotch),” she added, “please know they are a scam front run by a MLM cult that thinks their dear leader will return to tell them how to revolution if everyone joins their cause.”
Sam Goldman, a Rise Up leader who has promoted Avakian’s teachings in the past, sent me an official statement from the group rejecting the criticism. Goldman, who also hosts a podcast for another offshoot of the Revcoms called Refuse Fascism, said that it was incorrect “to untruthfully conflate” Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights and the Revcoms. But recent Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights protests in New York and Los Angeles have been led by Revcom activists wearing Revcom T-shirts.
Rise Up has also been criticized by veteran abortion rights activists for focusing, from January through June, on the quixotic strategy of trying to stop the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority from overturning Roe by calling on millions of Americans to take to the streets.
To that end, in June, Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights volunteers staged a series of small, theatrical protests which drew media attention but failed to either ignite a mass movement or keep five justices from signing Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which held that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start.”
Grassroots reproductive rights organizers also claim that Rise Up’s own fundraising, which is boosted by media coverage, has only served to divert much-needed resources and attention away from organizations that do important work, like defending abortion clinics and providing funds to people who need to travel to obtain abortions.
In early June, for example, the Texas-based writer and reproductive justice activist Andrea Grimes criticized a protest in Houston at the televangelist Joel Osteen’s megachurch, in which D’Eredita and two other women stripped down to their underwear during a service and shouted, “It’s my body, my fucking choice!”
“I haven’t seen this gaining traction anywhere meaningful, but for reporters covering whatever these dipshits do next: these folks are part of a widely despised cult of personality not tied to any serious repro health, rights, or justice organization,” Grimes commented on Twitter. “They are not supported by folks here doing the work on the ground. Nobody knows them. Nobody likes them. They’re not a thing. They show up when the cameras come on.”
Grimes added that she, and other members of a group called Texans for Reproductive Justice, had previously denounced a prior Revcom abortion rights group led by Taylor, called Stop Patriarchy, when it staged a series of unwelcome marches there in 2014 in which activists wore chains and chanted, “Forced motherhood is female enslavement!” By equating restrictions on abortion to slavery, Grimes wrote at the time, Taylor and other followers of Avakian disrespected the suffering experienced by the ancestors of people of color.
When she led the protest outside the Supreme Court that Ocasio-Cortez joined last month, Taylor was wearing a Revcom T-shirt that read: “Forced Motherhood Is Female Enslavement.”
In late June, Rise Up was similarly criticized for staging a protest outside Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s home, in which a 15-year-old girl and a half dozen others wore white pants with fake blood stains and carried dolls in their bound hands.
Watch: 15 yr old Ariana who organized a baby doll procession speaks powerfully in front Amy Coney Barrett’s house— Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights (@riseup4abortion) June 18, 2022
“Children forced to give birth to children! Women will be inferior! ALL OF U WHO ARE PRO CHOICE. Come to DC & stay!”#RiseUp4AbortionRights pic.twitter.com/ARhwVoSyWL
“Why do they have these kids out here doing this dumb shit?” Mary Drummer, an activist and digital strategist who has led advocacy campaigns for Planned Parenthood, Color of Change, and MoveOn, asked on Twitter. “What purpose does this serve? How is this strategic?”
Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights, Drummer argued, “is a front group of the Revolutionary Communist Party (also known as RCP or Revcom), which is basically a cult run by Bob Avakian and is known for co-opting social justice movements & protests.”
Drummer noted that Revcom activists had previously been accused of trying to amplify anger over racist policing to trigger the full-scale communist revolution mapped out in Avakian’s tracts. For instance, Revcom activists in T-shirts with Avakian quotes were greeted with suspicion when they appeared in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, when the police shooting of Michael Brown gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“RevComs is notorious for ‘swooping’ — descending on protests organized by other groups, positioning their banners and signs prominently where they’ll be photographed, but then leaving the event at the first sign of police or counter protesters,” one left-wing organizer, who asked to remain anonymous to comment on the group’s tactics, told me in an interview. “All they do is lead pointless marches designed for photo-ops.”
In the days after the viral video of Zoe Warren’s comments brought Rise Up national attention, a coalition of pro-abortion activists from nearly two dozen organizations, led by NYC for Abortion Rights, released a statement denouncing the group as “a cult and pyramid scheme.”
“Similar to its parent group RevCom, RiseUp’s only goal appears to be gaining more followers in order to raise more and more money,” the activists argued. “Both essentially function as pyramid schemes that prey on social movements.”
They “essentially function as pyramid schemes that prey on social movements.”
“RevCom and its fronts — RiseUp and Refuse Fascism — are notorious for raising tens of thousands of dollars and using those funds to pay RevCom leadership, and to purchase marketing materials (to raise even more money),” the statement continued. “The RiseUp website, for instance, features urgent prompts to donate with no information about where this money goes. What we do know is that this money never goes to abortion funds (which they argue are not a strategy to defend abortion access), providers, practical support groups, or anyone actually working to increase abortion access.”
The activists also criticized Rise Up for “theatrical tactics” like “the wearing of white pants painted with fake blood, die-ins, and coat-hanger imagery,” which “further the extremely harmful idea that abortion is a violent procedure and safe self-managed abortion is not possible.”
Rise Up and the Revcoms have heard and rejected the criticism, as evidenced by a Rise Up protest last week in Los Angeles — led by a Revcom activist in a “Forced Motherhood Is Female Enslavement” T-shirt — in which four women wearing white pants daubed with fake blood chained themselves to City Hall as the steps were drenched in red paint.
“Some so-called ‘leaders’ in the so-called ‘movement’ have decided that the fall of Roe — shutting down of abortion in 8 states immediately w more to follow quickly — is the time to attack the ONE org that consistently fought to mobilize people to prevent the fall of Roe,” Sunsara Taylor tweeted in response to Rise Up’s critics. “There is an unthinking fanatical pile-on to using the scary word ‘cult’ to try to tar and keep people away from uniting with followers of Bob Avakian or… heaven forbid… looking into what he is about for themselves,” she added.
The Rise Up statement sent to me by Sam Goldman also attacked the veteran organizers as people who “have done absolutely nothing to mobilize people to fight this decision when it was impending over the past 6 months.”
The statement, which was signed by Taylor and two other founders of the group who are not Revcoms, also said that “Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights has never used any funds it has raised for any purposes other than exactly what the funds were raised for.”
Last week, Rise Up added an update to the statement which said that the group’s lawyer had “sent a letter to those who have accused us of financial wrongdoing instructing them to cease and desist in spreading these blatantly untrue, baseless, extremely dangerous allegations.”
A separate statement on the Revcom website also rejected the criticism that the group is a cult, but does so in a curious way: by lavishing praise on Bob Avakian to such an extent that it seems to reinforce the charge.
“Bob Avakian’s leadership, and the new communism he has brought forward is absolutely essential for making revolution and emancipating humanity,” the Revcom statement reads. “Any chance at all for not just avoiding the nightmare we are heading toward but bringing forward instead an emancipating future requires all of you who read this to engage what Bob Avakian has written in a serious way.”
Despite the group’s best efforts to sell Avakian as a revolutionary leader, skepticism of the Revcoms is deeply rooted among left-wing activists and commentators. For instance, when Hasan Piker, a popular progressive Twitch streamer, discovered that the two young Rise Up activists who criticized Democrats in the viral MSNBC clip were linked to Revcoms, he collapsed in despair during a live broadcast.
In a phone interview, however, Warren told me that she had no idea that Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights was “associated with Revcoms” when she first volunteered for the group two months ago and does not share Sunsara Taylor’s belief in communism or devotion to Avakian’s leadership.
“I’m not a member of the Revcoms and I never have been and I don’t plan to be,” Warren said. “When I first got involved with Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights, I didn’t know that they were associated with Revcoms, and when I found that out, that was a little concerning for me,” she added.
Still, she said, the group’s efforts to pressure Democrats to pass a federal law legalizing abortion by protesting makes sense to her. “I believe that Rise Up is doing something that no other organization is really doing right now, and that is calling people into the streets to do something they might not have done before, which is demand more from their government than they are getting,” Warren said.
Because the excerpt from her MSNBC interview that was clipped and went viral online focused on her anger at Democrats, I asked her if she agreed with Taylor, who tweeted the day after Roe v. Wade was overturned that it was pointless to “Rely on voting and the fucking Democrats.” Warren told me that she did not think protesting instead of voting was a good idea.
“I believe that a combination of both is definitely necessary,” she said. “I think that to a certain point getting as many people in the streets as possible to demand that our current government make abortion legal nationwide now is an amazingly powerful thing to do. But, when November comes around, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote. We most definitely need to vote, and we most definitely need to vote for Democrats because we do live in a two-party system and they’re our only option.”