The events discussed below took place at the University of California Santa Barbara, on 4th March 2014. I had planned to meet Mireille Miller-Young, a professor in Feminist Studies, who was chairing a talk I was giving. When I arrived, Mireille was in the seminar room looking upset and frightened, and visibly trembling. She’d just had an altercation with anti-abortion protesters she said; several weeks pregnant she was particularly upset by the images they were displaying, and now there was a police car outside the building. A colleague, entering the room, said there were ten cars outside.
On 4th March, Mireille Miller-Young, a Feminist Studies professor at UCSB, was walking back to her office with a group of students. As they passed through the campus ‘free speech zone’, they were engaged by a group of anti-abortionists giving out leaflets, and holding placards with very graphic images of what appeared to be mangled foetuses. Dismayed by the images, Mireille seized a sign and, with her students, took it back to her office, where it is claimed the sign was destroyed. The anti-abortion protesters, with the colourful (if factually improbable) name of Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust (SAH), followed asking for the poster back. One of them cell-phone filmed what followed, showing Mireille and students entering the elevator of a university building, and trying to prevent SAH members from getting in with them.
This series of events, innocuous as political protests go, caused a storm of controversy (for a good account see Chris Newfield) with coverage on Fox News, rants from right-wing public figures and media stories about crazy feminist professors, misogynistic racist abuse on websites, and liberal and feminist criticism at Mireille for rising to the provocation. It didn’t take long before criminal charges were laid. Initially, and very disquietingly, it looked like Mireille would be charged with robbery (a felony offence) for taking the poster. Eventually that charge was reduced to theft, alongside charges for battery and vandalism.
That these events were exploited by Conservative pundits, right-wing free speech academics and anti-abortion activists is unsurprising. A young feminist professor of color, whose area of research (as journalists and others quickly learned from her university website) included pornography and sex work, was condemning other images for being offensive and upsetting. And at one level, this incident seemed an absolute gift to the right. Rush Limbaugh, an early commentator into the fray, also criticised Mireille for having a “hyphenated name” along with teaching “multicultural nonsense”. Yet, as free speech advocates rushed to attack the attacking of the posters, liberals and progressives have, while sympathising with Mireille’s motives, acknowledged the wrong of stealing a poster belonging to another.
Whether Mireille legally stole the placard is currently unresolved, a question to be settled in court if it gets that far. But what is striking is the readiness of progressives to accept the law’s definition of theft. Despite critics and supporters diverging view-points on the rights and wrongs of Mireille’s actions, they seem to agree on something: that property is a possession or thing that rightfully belongs to its owner, which someone else shouldn’t seize. As Mary Williams‘s comments in Salon.com make clear, “Don’t take their stuff. It’s called stealing, and you’re going to have a hard time convincing anybody otherwise.”
Pragmatically, this is understandable. Politics is about the reframing of terrain, and in this case it may seem better to give way on the question of unlawful taking in order to attack the right on more secure ground. But is taking a provocative poster or placard theft? Is it the same as any other taking, no different to an angry or upset professor walking by and taking an anti-abortion protester’s purse, coat, or jewellery?
Whose property is it?
In asking this question, I don’t want to parse the finer details of theft law, but to consider from a different left perspective how we might view such takings. Hegemonic legal doctrine may define theft in particular ways, but politically we can refuse to take up these definitions, or at least propose others. Activists and academics have challenged concepts of property in other domains, including in relation to squatting, copyright, and the commons. How should we think about ownership when it comes to images and texts provocatively displayed in public debating fora?
If context is important to ownership, as the left might argue it should be, we could see the provoking posters exhibited on a university campus as belonging to those who oppose their message as well as to their creators. In other words, the posters may be both common and contested forms of property. They may also be (at least from some perspectives) un-propertied, that is they may have lost their propertied status thanks to where they are and what they say.
In her article on “subversive property”, Sarah Keenan argues that things can be property in some places but not in others. If property status is contingent, progressives in episodes such as this one might want to be cautious about authoritative declarations of who stuff belongs to. Aside from the fact determining legal ownership is often more ambiguous and contested than is sometimes recognised, imagining property in ways that extend beyond or diverge from law’s gaze are important too, for activism, policy and for changing law. Feminists and socialists recognise the importance of disavowing the law’s conception of gender, race, sexuality and labour; how might we rethink property ownership in relation to the campus displayed posters of Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust?
Belongings and belonging
In everyday terms (if not lawyers), property is defined as a thing or relationship of ownership — as something that belongs, a belonging. This may make sense (at least to some degree) for some objects, although we would likely argue over which, but when it comes to expressive texts intended to proselytise or start an argument, the division between subject and object that conventional property thinking relies upon appears less useful.
If subject and object are more co-implicated or entwined, we might draw upon a different notion of property — as those constitutive parts, qualities or characteristics of a thing that belong to it. For Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, their posters and literature were things belonging to their organisation, in the sense of forming constitutive parts. The meaning and purpose of the seized poster came from this relationship, and so the ‘attack’ was not just on a piece of card but on the political expression of the group.
Indeed, it was because the poster was a constitutive part of a larger anti-abortion politics that it was seized. Images of purported aborted foetuses are a routine and common characteristic of anti-abortion politics, and their display functions as a kind of prosthesis, to extend the political capacities of the movement. Signs, leaflets, and other hand-outs contribute to the movement’s work by forming part of its front line. As a result, like the humans who also form its front-line, they are vulnerable.
But the posters were not only vulnerable to being seized; the relations of belonging in which they were embedded, and through which they were constituted, were also vulnerable to the possibility of being changed. When posters and political literature enter the ‘free speech zone’ of a university campus, they arguably stop being only a part of the organisation that created them. Placards with seemingly mangled aborted foetuses also become a part of that campus’s ‘free speech’ zone, a way of expressing and extending what it stands for. We know this is a free speech space because speech we find distasteful, and — perhaps more saliently — speech the authorities claim to be distasteful, is allowed.
But what does it mean if political signs become a part of a university’s discursive terrain, extending its capabilities as well as those of anti-abortionists? Does it mean the placards belong to the university alongside those who made and display them? And do they come to belong also to the university’s members, the students and workers who form the university’s human parts? Indeed, might they come to not belong to anyone at all?
One way of addressing this question is through approaching propertied belonging as a form of ‘proper attachment’. Conventionally, ownership is seen as marking and reflecting a proper attachment — your things belong to you and so give rise to a proper attachment; because there is a proper attachment, they’re yours. But can things belong improperly? Do such attachments undo the normative claims of ownership?
Owning people constitutes perhaps the most profound example of a widely (although not universally) refused propertied attachment. But other kinds of attachments are also seen (again not universally) as improperly propertied — at least when it comes to the right to sell, from human body parts (organs, eggs, limbs) to things that certain groups cannot buy: cigarettes or alcohol in many places by children, for instance.
What does this mean for the placard waving activities of anti-abortionists on university campuses? Certainly, they feel that their attachment to their cause and to their protest materials is a rightful one. But, from a different perspective, provocative political materials brought onto campus lose their proper attachment to those who made them. It’s not necessarily that they become the proper attachment of anyone else. Rather, we might think of them as becoming not-property: things in the commons that are valued by some, despised by others, but yet cannot be subject to anyone’s property claim. Such things function as the inverse, one might say, of what Margaret Radin has called “property for personhood”. Radin’s focus is those things which express and constitute our sense of self, from sentimental attachments to jewellery, to the home we live in, other personal affects, and our bodies.
Non-property for personhood suggests the reverse idea, that some things damage one’s sense of self, and recognition of this damage should trump the property rights of other claims. To those for whom anti-abortionists’ attachment to graphic visual images of foetuses appears an improper or at least excessive one, the struggle may be to reclaim the ‘free speech zone’ as a space in which the proper attachments of students and workers to their campus and to the integrity of their own bodies can be expressed instead.
Mireille makes a very similar point in the released police report:
she wished the anti-abortion group had taken down the images when they demanded them to. Miller-Young also suggested that the group had violated her rights. I asked Miller-Young what right the group had violated. Miller-Young responded, “My personal right to go to work and not be in harm. Miller-Young elaborated that one of the reasons she had felt so alarmed by this imagery is because she is about to have the test for Down Syndrome. Miller-Young said, “I work here, why do they get to intervene in that?”
We are used to things losing their propertied status through abandonment or discharge: the arm-chair left outside for a passer-by to take, the urine, puke or faecal matter improperly left in public space. Bodily waste may remain the property of its creator (or in the case of a pet — its owner) as an ongoing duty to remove it, but the creator of the waste cannot really complain if someone else makes use of it.
Political literature or provocative display boards have not been abandoned; nor are they analogous to human waste. However, they raise questions about how and when such objects might lose their propertied status and so be unable to be stolen. Of course the claim of non-property for personhood is contested by the posters’ creators for whom the posters do express and help to constitute their identity. But this latter claim cannot automatically override all others. For, in a sense, the creators of the posters have given them away. No doubt they intended to only give away their speech; but for those who receive their opinions, the speech comes attached to objects, the linguistic and visual representations of what is said. In a sense, these have entered a gift economy, and while not exactly abandoned, their destruction (as in some other gift economies) can be seen as an expected act, which both refuses even as it may, paradoxically, augment their value.
Developing community norms
Discussing different kinds of propertied belonging highlights the entangled and contested character of ownership. It is not simply that things belong clearly. State law may affirm certain propertied relationships over others, but communities can create other legal norms. They can, in Sarah Keenan’s words, “hold them up”, so such norms have force and can generate effects. This is the insight of legal pluralism: that multiple legal orders (or systems) exist within any given jurisdiction; legal orders which overlap, struggle and variously ignore one another. If this is the case, property norms can be, and no doubt are being created on campuses which approach the status and ownership of political materials in other ways — recognising that such materials may be claimed by different parties, may become part of the commons, or may (at least for some) lose their propertied status altogether.
Davina Cooper is Professor of Law and Political Theory at Kent Law School, University of Kent.