Tuesday afternoon, Democratic Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis’ Fort Worth office was firebombed with six Molotov cocktails. Sen. Davis is openly pro-choice and is a vocal supporter of Planned Parenthood. A homeless man, Cedric Steele, was arrested later last night in connection to the firebombing. Thankfully no one was killed or injured. Ryan Comier, who was working in the office at the time said that “It sounds to [him] like this individual [Steele] is probably battling some mental issues” due to Steele’s visits to Davis’ offices prior to the crime, in which he insisted that he needed to tell Sen. Davis about a new alien species of animal he discovered. Based on the rest of this news story, it does in fact sound like Steele may have mental health issues. However, I think it is problematic to attribute Steele’s behavior to his homelessness and possible neurodivergence.
Homeless people are “regular” people. Homelessness is something any one of us could experience, for any number of reasons both under and outside of our control. Overemphasizing this aspect of the story and Steele’s life implies that the homeless are more likely than “normal” people to commit arson, or that it is natural that Steele’s living arrangements and mental health should be necessarily tied together. Steele’s being homeless and the state of his mental health cannot fully explain his actions, and it is irresponsible for us to imply so in our public discourse.
Homeless and neurodivergent people do not exist in a vaccuum. By dismissing Steele’s behavior because he is homeless and likely “mentally ill,” we’re not holding anti-choice activist groups, religious institutions, news pundits, politicians, or ourselves accountable for creating, fostering, and enabling an environment in which anyone would think throwing Molotov cocktails at elected officials or physicians is an appropriate response to anything. Writing off abortion-related domestic terrorism because it is committed by “insane lone wolves” has been a tactic of anti-choice groups for a long time. An excellent example of this was the firebombing of a Pensacola, Florida clinic this last January.
After Bobby Joe Rogers was initially arrested for firebombing the American Family Planning Clinic (which has been attacked multiple times by anti-choice extremists), reporters stated that he “might not be an anti-abortion crusader, as many had originally thought.” As if it is impossible that someone who is dealing with schizophrenia and PTSD is capable of being influenced by the often violent anti-abortion rhetoric we are exposed to daily by sidewalk counselors, politicians, and certain religious leaders. It is no accident or coincidence that both Sen. Davis’ Fort Worth office and the American Family Planning clinic were firebombed. If this was a random act of violence from a crazy person, doesn’t it seem suspect that Steele chose to attack a pro-choice, Planned Parenthood supporting, Democratic woman? Did Rogers accidentally target an abortion clinic (NOPE)? The American Family Planning Clinic frequently was picketed by sidewalk counselors, and Rogers had been seen talking with them in the weeks prior to committing arson.
By refusing to acknowledge that these acts of violence are (directly or indirectly) the product of anti-choice rhetoric in which abortion is equated with murder and physicians are equated with Satan, racist eugenicists, and Nazis, anti-choice groups are able to distance themselves from perpetrators and avoid responsibility. No one is inherently immune from anti-choice messages solely because of their mental health or because they are homeless. The way in which we talk about violence, whether it is directed at politicians or at abortion clinics, matters. We have to hold those responsible for our political climate accountable, and we need to be wary of perpetuating the stigma surrounding homelessness and neurodivergence.
It’s getting harder and harder for Carly to read the news. She’s currently spending her spring break knitting feminist and queer symbols onto things, reading for the Community Accountability Project, and (finally) trying to finish The Hunger Games before the movie comes out.