The Right’s New Bogeyman

A mysterious pro-abortion-rights group is claiming credit for acts of vandalism around the country, and right-wing activists and politicians are eating it up.

A mouth made of arrow-cursor symbols, opening and closing (animated)
John J. Custer

​​A mysterious pro-choice group called Jane’s Revenge has drawn attention to itself in recent months with a short series of strongly worded “communiqués” promising violence. The first of these statements was posted to a radical-leftist blogging platform in early May, shortly after a draft of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked to the press. “We are in your city. We are in every city,” it said. “Medical imperialism will not face a passive enemy.”

Right-wing media outlets have provided ample coverage of this new threat, and anti-abortion politicians have demanded government action to address it. But the group’s practical significance remains in question. Just how meaningful is Jane’s Revenge? It has now taken credit for incidents of vandalism and property destruction in 16 cities throughout the U.S., among them the firebombings of a pro-life medical office in Buffalo, New York, and the offices of a Christian-fundamentalist lobbying group in Madison, Wisconsin. Two of its statements have emphasized: “We are not one group, but many.” But at this point nothing indicates that the authors of the anonymous blog posts have any real connection to the actions they cite. Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told me that, for what it’s worth, the group’s “high-handed and ambitious” language reminds him of the early declarations made by the diffuse hacker collective Anonymous.

Whoever is behind Jane’s Revenge, the group has become a prominent bogeyman on social media. (I reached out to the communiqués’ author or authors via email but did not receive a response.) Erin Gallagher, a research assistant at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, started following the online conversation in June, after the Jane’s Revenge blog promised to unleash a nationwide “Night of Rage” whenever the Dobbs decision was handed down. Gallagher found major nodes of activity at the Twitter accounts of Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri (who later proposed legislation to punish members of “militant leftist groups like Jane’s Revenge” for vandalizing pro-life centers) and the right-wing journalist Andy Ngo (who attributed incidents to Jane’s Revenge in a long Twitter thread). In other words, Hawley and Ngo are among the figures driving the most discussion of the group. “I think it’s helpful to see whose voices are dominating a particular conversation on Twitter, especially when elected officials are prominent in the discussion,” Gallagher told me recently. “Content about their ideological enemies doing evil things likely performs very well.”

News articles about the threat of Jane’s Revenge have also clustered at conservative sources. Gallagher noted that many of these cite a list of more than 100 “attacks on churches, pro-life organizations, property, and people since the Dobbs Leak” created by the Family Research Council, an evangelical think tank. That includes specific incidents of arson for which Jane’s Revenge has claimed credit in its blog posts, but also many other property crimes, such as smashed windows and pro-abortion-rights graffiti. One report on the list describes a fire at a Catholic bookstore that has not been ruled an arson, much less a politically charged attack. Eleven other instances of reported vandalism or suspected arson on the list have no obvious ties to Jane’s Revenge or the Dobbs decision. Three involve broken statues at Catholic churches, for example, and nothing more. A pastor in Arizona simply guessed that “pro-abortionists” and “the wrath of ‘Jane’s Revenge’-type vandalism” must have been responsible for another one—a rock thrown through his church’s front window.

Pro-abortion-rights activists have engaged in vandalism in recent weeks, and the blog posts associated with Jane’s Revenge are actively encouraging the behavior. But that does not imply the existence of a complex, coordinated campaign of violence. “Looking at the way in which the moral panic around antifa operated throughout the Trump years is a really good way of understanding what’s happening now with the Jane’s Revenge activity,” Stanislav Vysotsky, a sociologist and the author of the 2020 book American Antifa, told me. “Fox News is responding to something that is partially real and elevating the threat and elevating the perception of danger.” Antifa is not a group with an organizational structure or membership list, though there are some self-proclaimed chapters of antifa activists at the local level. Jane’s Revenge appears to be even less tangible, and Vysotsky said he wouldn’t even call it a “group.” Based on the scattering of random “Jane’s Revenge” graffiti that has been shared on Twitter in recent weeks, in bathrooms at fast-food restaurants and big-box stores, he said the name may be nothing more than a “tag” that can be affixed to any action with a certain style and intent. Other activists’ references to the “Animal Liberation Front” and the “Earth Liberation Front” serve the same function, he said.

Antifa and Jane’s Revenge are linked in news reports, Curd Knüpfer, an assistant professor at the Free University of Berlin’s John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, told me. He compiled data using the open-source media-monitoring platform Media Cloud and plotted them for May and June. His graph shows that, around the time of the Dobbs decision leak, antifa mentions spiked, paired with predictions of violence; after the decision came out, the phrases antifa and Jane’s Revenge, used together, spiked. Both are “shorthand for the threat of an armed insurrection,” he said, and invite consideration of surveillance and prosecution of activists, as well as a possible armed response.

When right-wing outlets began to talk at length about antifa five years ago, that group became “a foil for alt-right protestors and activists,” Patrick Love and Alisha Karabinus wrote in the 2020 book Platforms, Protests, and the Challenge of Networked Democracy. Jane’s Revenge would seem to have the same role. “Playing with perceptions and exaggerations of violence is often a way to delegitimize much larger political movements,” Brooking said. “I think what we saw was the deployment of a useful frame by anti-abortion activists.” (It’s also worth noting that, historically, anti-abortion extremists have carried out bombings, kidnappings, and murders in service of their cause.)

In June, House Republicans in Congress urged the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to declare Jane’s Revenge a terrorist organization. That request went nowhere, though White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre did say that President Joe Biden “denounces” Jane’s Revenge activity. In the meantime, Facebook has added the group to its list of “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations,” according to reporting by The Intercept, a designation that the platform uses to make decisions about content moderation of online accounts that may pose real-world harms.

A fixation on the threat of “Jane’s Revenge” may ultimately contribute to its spread, Vysotsky told me. Something similar happened with antifa: After the election of Donald Trump and the outbreak of violence at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, right-leaning media outlets kept talking about the group, and raised its profile among a certain segment of sympathetic listeners. All that publicity helped build support, Vysotsky said.

Certain catchphrases from the “Jane’s Revenge” communiqués have been circulating among mainstream pro-abortion-rights activists. For instance, the official Twitter account for the Women’s March—a well-known symbol of mainstream feminism—has in several recent posts evoked the “Summer of Rage,” which may be a reference to the “Night of Rage” that Jane’s Revenge had promised and that never came to pass. It’s an interesting choice of words, and one that shows how the mere idea of this group’s existence may shape abortion politics in the years ahead. “Real” or not, Jane’s Revenge has turned into a story, and both sides of the fight are paying attention.

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