On June 26th, two young activists went viral after appearing on a live interview at a pro-abortion protest outside of the Supreme Court building. Dressed in bright green, Zoe Warren and Julianne D’Eredita took to the mic to detail the failures of American democracy, the Democratic Party and the Supreme Court in protecting reproductive rights.
The duo were representing the advocacy group “Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights,” which has mobilized protests across the country in the wake of Roe v. Wade being dismantled last week. On its face, the movement seems legitimate and energized, with crowds of women showing up, donning the group’s signature green bandanas (taken from Argentina’s own pro-abortion uprising) and conducting disruptive protests, die-ins and civil disobedience. Even before the June 24th announcement of the new Roe decision, Rise Up was actively agitating on some of the nation’s biggest stages, including storming the court during an NBA playoff game earlier this month.
The group has been boosted by major press outlets, including co-founder Sunsara Taylor’s interview with Al Jazeera and her inclusion in a Cosmopolitan feature about influential activists, as well as prominent stories from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among others. Rise Up has also been seen collaborating at a protest with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, sought support from prominent Hollywood figures like Mark Ruffalo and Milla Jovovich and received co-signs from leftist scholars such as Cornel West.
But the founding of Rise Up in January, and its massive visibility after the Roe reversal, has also inspired questions and criticism from a wide swath of progressives and other activists who say that the group is just one more front for the Revolutionary Communist Party, which has a long history of courting controversy and strife.
The fight is indicative of how challenging it can be to unpack the long-term agendas of advocates, and why philosophical differences matter even when organizing around an issue as widely devastating as the fall of Roe. To many observers, Rise Up is just another effort to raise the “cult of personality” around Bob Avakian, the American communist who portrays himself as a brilliant thinker and an innovator of revolutionary politics.
As a teenager, Avakian became embedded in the radical left movements while growing up in California’s Bay Area, getting involved in groups like Students for a Democratic Society, which ultimately fractured into the Weather Underground and the lesser-known Revolutionary Youth Movement. Ultimately, he started the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1975, agitating around a Maoist agenda and writing a huge number of declarations, books and other propaganda designed to boost his legitimacy.
Avakian teaches his devotees using his own political system, dubbed the “new synthesis of communism,” which he claims is the only real “science-based” understanding of leftist revolutionary politics and history. But some scholars who study American leftism have criticized “RevCom,” as the group is known, for being a thinly veiled “cult of personality” that swoops into cities during times of unrest and co-opts local organizers, events and critical mass in order to fundraise for its own benefit, recruit new members and promote Avakian and RevCom.
These claims aren’t new: Eight years ago, during the protests over the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the disruptive presence of RevCom across the U.S. led to arguments and condemnations from local officials and activists who saw these engagements less as collaboration and more as a takeover. RevCom has also received criticism for its abortion advocacy in the past, including with the front group “Stop Patriarchy,” which campaigns to end pornography as well and has been rejected by a number of feminist advocacy groups.
And in 2022, those criticisms have only grown more pointed, with one grassroots coalition of pro-abortion organizers this week condemning collaboration with Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights, calling it a “cult and a pyramid scheme.” “RevCom and its fronts — RiseUp and Refuse Fascism — are notorious for raising tens of thousands of dollars and using those funds to pay RevCom leadership, and to purchase marketing materials,” NYC for Abortion Rights alleged in a statement. “RiseUp is now repeating the same scheme. The RiseUp website, for instance, features urgent prompts to donate with no information about where this money goes. What we do know is that this money never goes to abortion funds (which they argue aren’t a strategy to defend abortion access), providers, practical support groups or anyone actually working to increase abortion access.”
Journalists and researchers have also warned about Rise Up’s roots in RevCom and its lack of transparency, pointing to previous conflicts with local organizers and the obsession with Avakian as red flags for people to heed in 2022.
Meanwhile, some queer and trans advocacy groups have noted that Avakian and RevCom has an extensive history of disregarding LGBTQ movements, harboring trans-exclusionary sentiments and even spreading explicit anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, suggesting that male homosexuality is misogyny and even advocating for the “reform” of queer men.
Although Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights has skirted discussing these issues, its connection to RevCom and Avakian’s history has been a frustrating plot twist for those who have been seeing the group proliferate at pro-abortion events. (As a flabbergasted Hasan Piker put it: “How? How? How does Bob Avakian pull this shit off, dude? They are a cult!”)
Rise Up published a fiery response to the criticism this week, calling it “lies” and “slander”: “On the very day that women in multiple states will now be faced with the terrifying life-threatening consequences of abortion bans — these groups choose to attack the only group that has been calling for sustained nonviolent struggle and protest to stop this since January!”
A spokesperson didn’t answer my questions about how Rise Up will use its donations, nor how it responds to criticism of trans-exclusionary attitudes in its messaging and organizing. Instead, they sent the same statement published on its site.
The fight over Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights isn’t necessarily about the tactics that the group have chosen, although that certainly has courted controversy in the past. Rather, critical voices are challenging the framework, leadership and agenda that girds its recent actions.
Much has been written about the multifaceted landscape of far-right grifters who use self-righteous rhetoric and misinformation to agitate for donation dollars and personal fame. But similar problems plague progressive circles, especially as more new people enter the fold amid a social crisis. A cult of personality is anathema to many community organizers and dedicated leftist activists, who explicitly call for solidarity and collaboration, not hierarchical control, as key to progressive organizing.
But that seems to be of no concern to RevCom and Rise Up. As Annie Day, a RevCom commentator and podcaster, claimed in a YouTube video on June 27th, the organization is “the only broad-based group that is waging this struggle,” and “the only one with the strategic orientation of defeating this attack.” “Don’t you owe it to yourself and to people all over the world … to look into the work of the person on this planet who’s gone the deepest into understanding this?” Day continued, referring to Avakian.
Many people say no. Nonetheless, Rise Up has mobilized efficiently and effectively in the aftermath of Roe’s dismantling — and criticism or not, it seems the green bandanas will keep showing up.