One year ago this month, 12 dedicated members of the reproductive rights and justice communities in Louisville formed a Safety Zone Committee to urge our Metro Council to take steps to address safety on our sidewalks. We all know first hand how dangerous the powder keg constructed by aggressive antis is. Some of us remember when Dr David Gunn and two clinic escorts were shot in Pensacola Florida in 1993 (of the three, one escort survived). We all remember when Dr George Tiller was shot in the head in his Wichita Kansas church in 2009. One of us managed to catch it on camera when another of us was thrown to the ground by a protester in Louisville early this year. We are not interested in waiting for major injury or worse to occur on our sidewalk before something is done to prevent it.
In summer of 2016 the Safety Zone Committee put together a very thorough information packet and started scheduling meetings with Metro Council members. This packet included information about existing local laws and how they could be amended to create a safer sidewalk not just at EMW (KY’s lone abortion clinic) but also at any women’s heath centers and domestic violence shelters.
The packet also featured statistics showing clear escalation in threats and violence nationally, as well as information collected directly from patients shortly after entering EMW about what it was like for them to walk past the protesters. These numbers are rattling.
Included were pictures of the antis on the sidewalk, information about existing buffer laws in other cities, and diagrams of our public sidewalk where aggressive antis have complete access to physically confront, and sometimes touch and obstruct, people while they approach the clinic.
Over the course of several months Safety Zone Committee members met with over a dozen Metro Council Members and local law enforcement about the need for enforceable safety measures. All were invited to come down and see for themselves what happens on the sidewalk. Some declined the invitation saying they had been frequently harassed while patronizing restaurants on the block. Others didn’t feel a need to visit as they were so bothered by descriptions of the scene and the information presented that they quickly offered their support.
At a certain point efforts became more challenging when committee members started approaching less than likely allies, some of whom understood the need for safety measures but were concerned about their constituents rejecting them for “supporting abortion access.” The committee took a hiatus as the Fall/Winter Holidays approached, knowing that it was only a matter of time before the new legislative session, national extremists visiting, and large spring protest days highlighted a need for safer sidewalks.
Sure enough, between the presidential inauguration, the aggressive attacks on abortion in our Capitol, and national extremists “street preaching” not just at EMW, but also at a local hospital and a high school and middle school, a fire was sparked under supporters. Calls, emails, tweets, and comment threads went wild. Police and city officials could not ignore the problem. We readied ourselves for what was coming our way.
If you have been following this blog, or myriad news sources, you know that in addition to the list of events above, we were forced to react to our Governor attempting to shut down EMW with a permit dispute, quickly followed by national extremists attempting to shut down EMW with with physical blockades, which resulted in local and possibly federal charges. These things have kept escorts on our toes, and brought LOTS of media attention, which we have also had to put energy into.
A few weeks ago members of the Safety Zone Committee were contacted by the Metro Council Safety Committee. They are ready to discuss the matter. We have been ready for this for over a year. Our original impression was that the Committee meeting would be closed, so we would need to send our love and support from afar. Yesterday we learned that is not the case, and that the meeting would be open, which means we can go – and so could the media, and the antis.
We had almost exactly 24 hours to mobilize our supporters, and you know what? They came out in force. There are about 150 seats in the Metro Council meeting chambers. All of those seats were full. We counted five protesters.
While local extremists displayed their gory signs and used audio projection equipment to voice their opinion in the street outside Metro Hall, supporter of access calmly filled the room and equipped themselves with a simple unified message:
There were a few proceedings before our agenda item. When the time came Metro Council members spoke among themselves at first, and called on staff from the Jefferson County Attorney’s office asking about the 35 foot law in Massachusetts that was found unconstitutional recently. There was conversation about how the ACLU of Kentucky has suggested that a rectangular egress spanning the distance from the clinic door to the curb with a width of 8 feet would preserve the rights of protesters to speak freely, and create a safer way for patients to access the clinic.
Major Eric Johnson was called to speak next, and answered what he could of an array of questions from Council Members. Bill Hollander mentioned having seen our pictures of protesters standing as close to the entrance as they legally can now and resting or pressing signs on the head and face of volunteer escorts. There was discussion of what constitutes a violation and what combination of things needs to happen to result in a charge. Barbara Sexton-Smith and Brent Ackerson talked about the very real safety risks that we know all too well.
At long last members of the Safety Zone Committee were called to speak. The first speaker read a powerful statement about the need for a 20 foot zone to allow people to walk to the doctor un-accosted. She also spoke of the initiative that brought us the drop off zone in front of the clinic, which allows one car to stop and let a passenger exit the vehicle close to the clinic, but how the swarming that takes place in the ten foot stretch between the car and the clinic property is still a huge safety risk.
Our next speaker talked about the level of harassment which has become the status quo on the sidewalk, and how that level of aggression can be dangerous. As a resident of the district in which the clinic is located, she found it appalling that every Kentuckian seeking abortion access has no choice but to be subjected to a gauntlet when accessing legal medical care. Perhaps most importantly, this speaker had an opportunity to share with Metro Council members data from the client surveys.
After the second of four scheduled speakers, Chair David James informed us all that the room was needed for the next committee meeting, and that this discussion would be open for comments again in July. We do not yet know what the date for this will be, but are preparing. Councilwoman Barbara Sexton-Smith asked to make a quick note for the sake of clarity that there is not currently a proposal for a Safety Zone at EMW, and Councilman James adjourned the meeting.
Queue the yelling antis. Yes, really. Two antis who had joined the crowd after their street preaching session stood in the aisle yelling loudly at the Metro Council members. It was similar to how they yell at patients outside the clinic. The main differences were that inside Metro Hall they were not amplifying their voices as high as 90 decibels, holding giant gory signs, or in the words our first speaker: “within knifing distance” of the council members, like they are to the patients companions, and escorts. Since this is the same group pledging to violate any law that may be enacted, we’re kind of glad Metro Council got a good look at their behavior.