Camille Rudney is an activist and a clinical social worker based in Richmond, Virginia. They became involved in abortion struggles after being arrested in 2012 for protesting Virginia’s restrictive abortion bill that required women seeking abortions to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound as well as other stringent regulations that would severely affect abortion providers. Camille’s arrest received a lot of media attention which they and others used to mobilize for abortion access for all. They founded the organization Cooch Watch which used popular media to draw in a new generation to organizing for reproductive access. In this interview, Camille reflects on the lessons that organizing in Virginia holds for contemporary and future struggles for reproductive freedom.
Hard Crackers: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in abortion activism?
Camille Rudney: I’ve lived in Richmond for about twelve years and before that I have lived in a bunch of different places, including Montreal. But I grew up in northern Virginia outside of DC. I have been involved in political organizing since I was about 17 or 18 years old. I was born in France and my mother is French. So, I think that experience gave me an understanding of different political systems and of difference and a double lens to understand life in America. Also, my dad has a disability, and he has been involved in disability organizing. Since I was a kid, I helped him do mailers, and their Christmas get-togethers were at my house. Political involvement was modeled to me by both my parents but my politics differed in other ways from them. As a freshman at McGill University in Montreal, I joined a political group which gave me an outlet to express the level of agitation and outrage I felt growing up.
I had recently moved to Richmond when I became involved in abortion activism. It was initiation into political action in the Richmond world and being back in the South, after a long period of time. When I was doing that work, I was not at least outwardly identifying as trans or non-binary. At that time, we didn’t really talk about trans issues as connected to reproductive rights.
But I didn’t get involved in abortion activism until I got arrested.
HC: Isn’t that how it all starts! Can you tell us about that arrest and how it fueled your activism?
CR: In 2011, the General Assembly in Virginia passed a Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers or TRAP law, which in this case required abortion clinics to be regulated as hospitals and subjected them to follow design and construction requirements like hallway size for instance. This bill passed without much resistance save for the little noise made by large nonprofit organizations. The law targeted abortion clinics especially smaller ones which do not have the funds to ensure that they can meet these new state regulations. Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, has the money to build larger clinics that could follow these new guidelines. Also, there was no grandfather clause that would have exempted already existing abortion clinics from these new regulations. So, the legislation would have effectively regulated most of the last remaining abortion clinics out of existence.
The legislation also had support of Republicans in the General Assembly who pushed to get it passed. In Virginia, we have an off year governor race. And that year, we had a governor, Bob McDonald, who represents the very conservative Catholic Virginia class of politicians. He pushed his luck a little too far, and he and his Republican cronies in the General Assembly got this bill passed. Besides the TRAP law, the bill also included a mandated waiting period for counseling and a mandatory vaginal ultrasound, which protestors referred to as a forced vaginal ultrasound. It was the forced ultrasound that became the major object of outrage, whereas the hospital regulations and the mandatory waiting period took a backseat. It’s hard for people to get excited about TRAP laws which is also unfortunately why they were passed.
Just prior to this bill, there had been the Richmond Occupy protests. I wasn’t involved in them because at that time I was relatively new to the city. But as Occupy petered out, abortion rights organizing was heating up. Many of those who had been involved in Occupy started to organize around abortion rights. Occupy activists brought a different style to organizing that sometimes put them in tension with coalitions like the ones headed by more established non-profits like NARAL, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who had overseen everything up to that point. And then there were these smaller abortion clinics that were going to be legislated out of existence who were outraged at what was happening and were more willing to go out on a limb than the more established nonprofits. So, an ad-hoc organization came together called Speak Loudly With Silence and the first thing they did was organize a big silent protest that lined the pathways up to the Capitol building. Anyone going to the General Assembly on their way to vote would have to pass this protest. But they still voted yes anyways. There was a follow up protest scheduled for the following couple of weeks. I heard about it from some of my social work school friends who were involved in organizing it. So, I went, and it was a very dramatic moment.
The Capitol Building in Richmond, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson, has these large imposing white columns and big steps. There were about a thousand protesters which was a very big protest at that time. The protest was large but relatively tame. Yet there were helicopters hovering over us and state police in full military and riot gear, which was dramatic back then, but I guess today more normalized. The police were telling us to get off the steps. Ironically these are the same steps that the gun lobbyists are allowed on but we couldn’t be on them. The police told us to disperse but 32 people, including myself, decided not to move. That day I had not planned to get arrested. I had not eaten breakfast and I had never previously been involved in abortion organizing. I had never been arrested before, but I had been to lots of direct-action training and civil disobedience trainings. I felt strongly about opposing this law and it just seemed to me that getting arrested wasn’t going to cost me as much relative to the potential effect it would have. I was also angry. I had my little sister around and she was angry. This bill would affect a lot of people I cared about. So, that day I made a pragmatic decision to not move.
HC: What happened then?
CR: Well, the police dragged us off the steps of the Capitol. I was wearing these bright red pants that day and against the whiteness of the Capitol building they stood out. It was a very dramatic scene. The police were dragging me, and I was yelling to my sister and that was when the media started snapping pictures of me. And that image of my arrest made the frontpage of some newspapers and was on the Rachel Maddow show. It was this very big spectacle in a way we hadn’t had much in Richmond before. The cops have gotten more militarized and their level of organized violence against protesters during the Black Lives Matter protests here made what they did to us look tame.
Then they put us in these buses and held us for a very long time, but they eventually released us. We did the usual thing of going to court but at the end we got the equivalent of a slap on the wrist because we had a lot of support, and we were mostly white. It was a small risk with a big impact.
So, after that, me and some of the people who got arrested plus some others decided to try to build on the momentum from this protest to address the wonkier TRAP regulations. They ended up taking out the vaginal ultrasound part of the bill, but they kept the mandatory waiting period, which was the more repressive part of the bill, especially for lower income people. It has since been repealed. But we tried to use this moment to attack the TRAP regulations. We wanted to get a grandfather clause so that the existing clinics can be grandfathered in and not have to follow all the crazy regulations.
At that time Ken Cuccinelli was Attorney General. People may have heard of him because he was running the immigration department for Trump when all the scary things were happening. Both he and McDonald were easy villains to target, and they were both part of this Catholic establishment class. Cuccinelli was trying to pressure the Board of Health and sending them threatening memos because they were the ones who were going to be voting on whether there would be a grandfather clause or not. So, we organized a massive presence at all the Board of Health meetings and for people to come and speak at all t
he public comment periods. We would literally wake up at 4 in the morning to race the anti-choice people so we could be first in line. So, it felt very personal and very weird getting to know the anti-choicers. One of the most disturbing things to me as someone who is a child of a disability activist was how anti-choice people would bring their disabled kids along and yell, “ My kid would not even be alive if I aborted him.” There were so many things about that experience that were disturbing.
HC: Did the Board of Health end up passing the grandfather clause?
CR: They initially did pass it, which was great, but then Cuccinelli sent another one of his legal memos basically threatening them. So, they forced another vote and this time they ended up voting against the grandfather clause. This outraged a lot of people, and many were angry at Ken Cuccinelli, who was also running to be the next governor of Virginia.
Simultaneously and after these protests at the Board of Health, we started an organization Cooch Watch, which was a purposeful play on words. One of our main logos was an eye with eyelashes flipped horizontally. We harassed Cuccinelli constantly and a lot of it was satirical. We did fake news reports at all his fundraisers and campaign events. We also did satirical musical videos of popular songs that called attention to what was happening in Virginia at this time.
Honestly, initially none of this was my style at all. But it was responding to a moment, and it was something different from just going to the same protests over and over. The videos captured people’s attention and imagination and got people excited. One time we were protesting outside of a Cuccinelli event, and this Capitol police officer pulled up and rolled down his window. I thought he was going to yell at us for being there, but he said that his wife would not stop playing Cooch Watch videos and songs at home. This tells you a lot about how we were effective but it also made me think, whoexactly are we reaching?
HC: Did you run up against any abortion nonprofits in your organizing? Were there any tensions between what your organization was doing and these more established nonprofits?
CR: Several of the people involved in our organizing, which also overlapped with some of the Occupy people, worked in smaller private abortion clinics that the TRAP laws affected. So, they were fighters and were not afraid to get into trouble. They were also impacted by the hand wringing and delaying of this coalition and there was a lot of frustration. So, we decided to not work with the coalition and to do our own thing, get in trouble and maybe this would push them a little bit. So, we never invited them to our meetings or tried to organize with them. But we still got a lot of pushback from them. One time we were planning a banner drop that displeased the coalition and we got an onslaught of phone calls to delay the action. There was a lot of trying to persuade us to be more rational, less crazy. This was the time when these groups like Planned Parenthood avoided saying the word abortion. Planned Parenthood was saying that most of the services they provided were not abortions and they did this by dividing up the entire procedure into smaller parts to account for this.
But by the time that Cooch Watch became popular, Planned Parenthood came out with a new website that was sassy and a clear imitation of what we were doing. They clearly came around to seeing that they needed to be more subversive because there was an appetite for a more fighting organization especially among younger people.
Cuccinelli did lose the governor’s race and I think our organizing had a part in it. The General Assembly passed the grandfather clause, but the small abortion clinics still had racked up a lot of bills. And, to this day there is only one abortion clinic in the more rural part of the state.
HC: Having organized locally against these restrictive abortion laws and now seeing the overturning of Roe v Wade, what has been your reaction?
CR: Honestly, I felt dead inside. Even though it was not a surprise and we knew it was coming, I feel that this is a different ball game now. Because Virginia borders West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee there are going to be even more people coming to access abortion. There is a lot more mutual aid that is called for and that is where we should put our energy and resources.
There were a few protests in Virginia, and it was nice because there were the usual suspects but also a lot of younger people were present. And they did not care about what the nonprofits were doing.
HC: What do you think should be done going forward?
CR: Something that I also took from my involvement in Cooch Watch is that we need more public art, things that are energetic and that match the current zeitgeist. These things help build momentum and we need this because we are all a little bit dead inside. I was glad that I wasn’t too snobby to do that work. Honestly, I think the most important thing to me is to not be a perfectionist about it and just go do something and learn from it. Don’t be too cool to do something—go out be weird because otherwise you will feel jaded or bored by it and you are not going to convince anyone to get involved.
Virginia is Thomas Jefferson’s state, and the ethos of civil liberties is very strong and we were able to push on that to stir more outrage. But I do think in many ways we are also past just making noise. It’s important because it helps you build energy, but you must harness that into building a movement with real, practical power to help people access abortions
The threat of the evangelical right is very real and the overturning of Roe v Wade and anti-trans legislation is a rude awakening. They are true believers and they have been doing the long term work to make it possible. When all the anti-trans legislation started building momentum, that was terrifying to me. This was synonymous with what was happening with abortion. In a way, the laws they are passing now to criminalize healthcare providers who work with trans kids represent a new kind of TRAP law, so it might be useful to reference that, as in “You saw what happened with abortion, so we already know what they say.” It’s all in the name of our health allegedly but what they want is to legislate and regulate you to death.” We need political language to draw these connections, which is what reproductive justice organizers have been doing for decades, but that’s not where the big donations are going. We have to persuade people not to put their hopes and their money into single-issue non-profits that have no real political analysis or accountability to those most impacted by these attacks.
There is a benefit into channeling people to get involved in mutual aid and to help people get abortions in states where it is illegal and to get ready to help trans kids get access to healthcare where it becomes illegal. I think it’s important to direct people into activities that are illegal and to help them understand that breaking the law does not always have to be scary. The more we get people used to breaking the law the better.