What Sam James and I have in common

Emotions ran high in Toronto last night when news broke that police had charged popular coffee shop proprietor Sam James with mischief and assault following a confrontation with anti-choice protesters outside a high school near his shop. Sam, who has been a vocal supporter of women’s rights in the past, allegedly threw coffee on the group’s signs, spat at one protester, and assaulted another when he realized he was being videotaped.

The nature and severity of the assault has not yet been disclosed. The Canadian Criminal Code’s definition of assault is fairly broad, and while it covers the application of force, it also covers instances when a person “attempts or threatens, by an act or a gesture, to apply force to another person.” This type of assault could manifest in raising one’s fist or perhaps in what is commonly referred to as “getting in someone’s face.” One can’t really speculate on the nature of the alleged assault, but as there is video evidence of the confrontation, I expect the truth will come out eventually.

It’d be tough for me to abide Sam James punching someone (if that turns out to be what happened), as I’m not a fan of violence. But regardless of the nature of the alleged assault, I unapologetically appreciate the sentiment behind it: visceral anger about a social movement attempting to enact systemic violence upon women’s bodies. Last night I expressed this appreciation on Twitter, much to the chagrin of some of my (almost entirely male) friends. These friends suggested that appreciation of the sentiment was logically inseparable from support for the allegedly violent action. I vehemently disagree on this point. The feeling and the action are two different things, and I’m allowed to feel differently about each.

Here’s the thing: abortion is an issue about which many women feel strongly on not just a moral but a visceral level. The anti-choice movement is a literal attempt to violate and control women’s bodies. Look south of the border at mandatory trans-vaginal ultrasounds, at laws that limit a woman’s personhood in favour of that of a potential child who hasn’t even been conceived yet. Or just look to Prince Edward Island where the province’s practitioners are not permitted to perform surgical abortions, forcing women who seek them to travel out-of-province. Such policies disproportionately infringe on the bodily autonomy of certain groups of women, including undocumented women and low-income women.

And while many of my (again, almost entirely male) friends are fond of condescendingly proclaiming that women have no reason to worry about it, backbencher after backbencher in our majority Conservative federal government keeps raising the foetal personhood issue. No matter that a full third of the House of Commons voted in favour of M-312. No matter that a terrifying wave of anti-choice policies have been written into law in the United States, a nation our current government seems determined to emulate.

It is in this political climate that the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform has been mounting protests with gruesome imagery outside Canadian high schools and offering “pro-life” lesson plans to high school teachers. Talk about low-hanging fruit. Make no mistake: this is systemic violence, and it is to this systemic violence that Sam James may have responded with an individual act of violence, the severity of which we don’t yet know.

Few cis men seem to understand and feel the abortion issue in a visceral way, even if they are pro-choice. As a pro-choice woman, I feel a physical twinge that’s probably like a much morally weightier version of what a cis dude might feel when he hears about another dude getting kicked in the balls. What I appreciate about Sam’s sentiment is that it was visceral. It burst out of him. It’s an anger with which I’m familiar through my own encounters with anti-choice groups (and I’ve never encountered one outside a high school).

It’s an anger I must constantly regulate, not only for moral reasons, but because I am in very real physical danger. Those who identify as women, or have done so in the past, typically have to regulate the viscerality of their anger in ways most men don’t. We may have laws against physical violence, but our culture sure does have an intricately woven patchwork of cultural cues that encourage men (and not women) to express their anger through physical violence.

I may not support an act of violence itself, but I am deeply comforted by the fact that a cis guy whose own bodily autonomy is not directly impacted by the anti-choice movement feels the same instinctive anger that I feel when I see such a group preying on high school students. A lot of women tweeted or DM’d me last night to say that, at some point in their lives, they had fantasized about doing exactly what Sam did. That doesn’t mean these women or I condone the action (after all, we haven’t followed through on those fantasies), but it does suggest a parallel to our feelings about the issue. For me, that parallel is heartening.