Rolande Baker, a 71-year-old great-grandmother from Arizona, was one of three women who were arrested for protesting for abortion rights inside the Supreme Court on Nov. 2 during a hearing for an unrelated case that was open to the public. Baker and the two other women, Nikki Enfield and Emily Paterson, are now speaking out about the inhumane treatment they say they faced during their 30-hour stay at a D.C. jail, where they claim their cells were littered with blood and feces, temperatures lingered around 90 degrees, and they were denied water and legal representation. Baker, who has a mobility disability, told Jezebel her cane was taken away and said she was shackled before her arraignment.
Baker, who has a history of practicing civil disobedience, said she was compelled to travel from Arizona to D.C. to protest at the court by her frustration with lacking media coverage of abortion rights ahead of the midterm elections. “It was all about ‘inflation,” which made me so angry, knowing it’s all just price-gouging, when people needed to realize how important this election was for abortion,” Baker said.
The issue was also personal to Baker. At 19, she had a pre-Roe v. Wade abortion that required her to travel from Indiana to New York, where abortion was legal, with the help of her boyfriend. “I was fortunate, I had three things going for me—I had a boyfriend, who had enough money, who supported and drove me, and I was a white woman,” she told me in a phone interview. “There were so many more barriers for women of color.” Baker says the doctor who provided the abortion told her they saw abortion patients from all over the country and needed help connecting out-of-state patients with transportation. In offering to help give them rides, she found her calling as an abortion rights organizer.
After Roe was decided in 1973, Baker says she regrets growing complicit: “I sat on my laurels somewhat, I got married, I had children.” The fall of Roe in June nearly 50 years later has thrust her back in the fray.
Before Nov. 2, Baker had never met Enfield or Paterson, but they’d connected through activist circles and waited hours in line to enter the Supreme Court that day. Baker had struggled to enter the building due to her disability. Once they were inside, she said, they were warned by Supreme Court police that if they protested, “You will be put in Cellblock C in Washington, D.C., and you don’t want to go there.” The magnitude of what they were doing only struck Baker when she watched the Justices enter and take their seats. Baker, a retired teacher, had formerly taken her students on field trips to D.C. to look at the court from the outside and said she’d “always revered the institution.” Undeterred, Baker spoke out anyway, disrupting a lawyer presenting arguments for a banking case. She said only 10 words: “Our rights will not be severed. Women vote pro-choice.”
Shortly after, Baker along with Enfield, and Paterson, who also spoke, were arrested and placed in dark, cramped vehicles where they were constrained by highly restrictive bars and “couldn’t move at all,” Baker said, adding that the jail itself was “the most inhumane place I’ve ever been, and I have done civil disobedience before, I’ve been in cells.” In addition to the blood and feces, extreme heat, lack of water, and confiscation of her cane, the four-by-six foot cells had only a metal bed frames without a mattress and a toilet. Baker said she spent most of their 30-hour stay sitting over the toilet, because there was nowhere else to comfortably sit. “We were calling for water, to contact lawyers, and just ignored like animals,” she said.
The three women all sustained heavy bruising between being arrested and transported and their time in jail, Baker said. After their arraignment, they were released with no bail and weren’t convicted of any crimes. A legal expert who spoke with the Guardian pointed out that the conditions the women allegedly faced violate their rights to humane treatment and consideration of conditions like Baker’s disability. Last year, a federal judge ruled that the same D.C. jail where the women were kept had violated the rights of a Jan. 6 protester who had been arrested and held there as well.
Baker said she hopes her experience is understood as part of a broader issue with how incarcerated people, and even people who haven’t yet been charged or convicted of any crimes, are treated. Further, she wants her experience to highlight how reproductive justice is “absolutely” a criminal justice issue. In the days following the fall of Roe, peaceful abortion rights protesters across the country faced violence, tear-gas (an abortifacient), and arrest from law enforcement—all as abortion clinic volunteers have often spoken out about police officers’ friendliness with often violent anti-abortion protesters. In a state like Texas, providing abortion care can result in being sentenced to life in prison; even in a state like California, just earlier this year, one woman was released after serving four years of an 11-year sentence for losing a pregnancy from alleged substance use.
“I have a shirt that says ‘I will aid and abet abortion,’ because I will. We’re not going to stop no matter what,” Baker said. “These crazies aren’t going to stop us from having or helping others have abortions.” Within days of her time being jailed in D.C., she was back in Arizona, driving people to their polling places on Election Day.
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