Abortion Rights Activists Face Attack From DeSantis and Conspiracy Lawsuit — for Spray Painting

The absurd RICO allegations come after the Biden administration hit the activists with federal charges that carry a 12-year sentence.

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA - JULY 13: An abortion rights activist holds a sign at a protest in support of abortion access, March To Roe The Vote And Send A Message To Florida Politicians That Abortion Access Must Be Protected And Defended, on July 13, 2022 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by John Parra/Getty Images for MoveOn)

Abortion rights activists hold signs at a protest in support of abortion access on July 13, 2022 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Photo: John Parra/Getty Images
This Past winter, the Biden administration appeased the far right by leveling severe charges against abortion rights defenders. Now, the activists targeted in the federal crackdown are also facing legal attacks from an anti-abortion group and Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In addition to the federal criminal charges — which carry a sentence of 12 years in prison — Florida’s attorney general sued two of the activists for damages. Heartbeat of Miami, a “crisis pregnancy center,” is also absurdly alleging that all four activists were engaged in a conspiracy.

The purported crime, the conspiracy, the federal charges? Spray painting.

“The underpinning of these prosecutions is absolutely political, and Florida political specifically,” Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center and attorney for defendant Amber Smith-Stewart, told me. “It’s DeSantis political.” In her filing, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody cited the conspiracy case filed by Heartbeat of Miami and requested that a federal court “assess damages and fines against the defendants of $170,000 each.”

The Heartbeat of Miami suit, which names “Jane’s Revenge” as a defendant, includes civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations charges in a groundless attempt to frame autonomous protesters using a shared slogan as some sort of criminal organization. Moody also hit on this theme, reviving an old far-right canard by describing the four defendants as “members” of “antifa” as well as “Jane’s Revenge” — both of which she describes as “criminal organizations,” though neither is an organization with members at all.

“The underpinning of these prosecutions is absolutely political, and Florida political specifically.”
Legal experts say the RICO civil charges have a low chance of sticking. “We’re looking at four people acting over the course of a month,” said Regan of the alleged vandalism. “That does not a RICO make. There are no facts underlying this situation which would warrant that charge.”

Of the four defendants, three are women of color: members of the very same demographics most harmed by the decimation of reproductive rights.

The activists’ legal ordeal is the product of blatant and shameless acquiescence to Republican political pressure. GOP lawmakers have for months been calling on federal law enforcement to use the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, or FACE, Act against reproductive rights activists — and Democrats have followed suit accordingly.

In January, the Justice Department charged Caleb Freestone and Amber Smith-Stewart under the FACE Act for spray painting pro-abortion messages and the tag “Jane’s Revenge” on the outside walls of a fake abortion clinic in Florida, one of many so-called crisis pregnancy centers.

DeSantis praised the charges but said that the Justice Department “needs to do a lot more.” His wish was soon granted by Joe Biden. Two more women in Florida, Annarella Rivera and Gabriella Oropesa, now also face federal FACE charges related to the same alleged act of graffiti. The act should, at most, carry a state-level misdemeanor charge. Instead, the FBI raided Rivera’s home with a heavily armed SWAT team, causing the mother of two and ultrasound technician to lose both her home and her job in the fallout.

With these prosecutions, the Justice Department is complicit in further legitimizing and elevating these dangerous facilities.
Like Freestone and Smith-Stewart’s indictments, these FACE Act prosecutions are an affront to the law’s spirit but not its letter. The legislation was originally forged to protect abortion providers amid a deadly campaign of far-right extremism, but its wording does apply to all “reproductive health centers.” Operating behind a veneer of medical legitimacy, fake clinics duplicitously claim this label, offering pregnancy tests and sometimes ultrasounds alongside misinformation and anti-abortion dogma.

With these prosecutions, the Justice Department is complicit in further legitimizing and elevating these dangerous facilities and their deceptive practices as genuine reproductive health providers, at the very same time the Biden administration baselessly positions itself as a defender of reproductive justice.

It is no accident that both the criminal and civil cases will be heard in the very same federal court: the extremely conservative Middle District of Florida.

“Forum shopping appears to be very much afoot,” said Regan. “They found the most conservative venue most likely to be favorable to them in the country.”

The prosecutors and plaintiffs will indeed have to rely on right-wing, sympathetic judges to have any chances of success. The criminal and civil cases are all extraordinarily weak; no previous FACE Act charges have been successful based on a set of facts as light as they are in these “Jane’s Revenge” cases. The notion that spray painting slogans as vague as “we are everywhere” and “if abortions aren’t safe, neither are you” could rise to the level of credible threat is risible, especially given FACE law precedent that sets a much higher standard.

As with any capricious and overreaching prosecution, however, the effect is chilling even if the charges don’t hold up. For Rivera, the FBI raid alone was ruinous. And the broader stakes are high: If successful, anti-abortion zealots who have pushed these cases will further elevate fraudulent “crisis pregnancy centers” as worthy of robust legal protection, while genuine reproductive health clinics struggle to stay open and face an increase in far-right, anti-abortion attacks.

In pursuing these weak cases, the Justice Department has given a gift to the Republicans and their agenda of fascist forced births. In service of a spineless twosidesism, the government is persecuting those fighting for reproductive justice, while upholding well-funded fundamentalist institutions.

Federal law enforcement interest in pursuing such cases extends beyond Florida. The FBI has on a number of occasions in recent months posted calls for information on activities related to minor property damage against other fake clinics and anti-abortion institutions in states from Iowa to Oregon to New York, offering bounties of between $15,000 and $25,000 for information on those involved.

The Justice Department’s attempted appeasement of Republican wishes is a fool’s game.
Even as a political maneuver, the Justice Department’s attempted appeasement of Republican wishes is a fool’s game. Fascists won’t be sated. The Democrats’ refusal to learn this lesson can only be understood as willful at this point. On Tuesday, Republican lawmakers held a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing to specifically condemn the Biden administration’s use of the FACE Act against the religious extremists for whom it was intended, and who are responsible for all attacks on legitimate reproductive health clinics.

“We believe that the facts show the Biden administration has shown a clear double standard of enforcing the FACE Act in a way that protects pro-abortion activists and facilities while substantially ignoring attacks on pro-life advocates, facilities and churches,” said Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., during the hearing.

The Republicans, of course, did not mention the fact that four young reproductive justice activists in Florida are facing a potential 12 years in prison for graffiti. Their trials are expected to begin in August or September.
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