Sidewalk Snippet, 8/19/2017

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On a typical Saturday the sidewalk coming from 1st Street to the clinic is lined on either side by Catholic antis. They mostly pray, standing and periodically kneeling, though the occasional “plea” will be shouted at clients. The gauntlet looks like this:

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As 8:30 approaches, they begin the process of dispersing. The gauntlet breaks up. Catholic antis mill about, say their hellos and catch up with one another, exchange various items. For about five minutes, the sidewalk looks like this:

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Clients are generally done arriving by this time, but it’s a bit of an inconvenience for anyone else walking by.

Sidewalk Snippet, 8/11/2017

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“Normal” can change on the sidewalk quickly. The “Center for Medical Progress” videos intended to incite wrath at Planned Parenthood; goings on in national electoral politics; extremist groups riling up regular antis and bringing new antis out – we know to expect shifts in the dynamic from all of these things.

Recently, we saw some cooling off in the arguments between the longtime, regular weekday Catholic protesters and the newer and more militant Evangelical extremists. It’s not unusual for members of the latter group to yell at Catholics about their “Mary worship” and “idolatry,” and I was worried what large numbers of out of town Evangelical extremists, unused to the dynamic here and with no vested interest in keeping the peace, could mean for escalation between the opposing groups. Fortunately, my concern was unwarranted. Yesterday morning, though, we seemed to be back to it, as a local OSA associate chided Ed Harpring, of the Louisville Archdiocese, on the sidewalk this morning.

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The presence of our local extremists is always an interesting thing. They themselves have always been pretty insistent that what they do is not intended to be “counseling,” but street preaching. Abortion is just one front in a vast culture war that also includes attacking trans folks and Muslims; the clinic provides a handy gathering of various heathens in need of saving. Which sometimes includes the Catholics.

We were also treated to a guy who first showed up during OSA week, screaming at escorts and others in the alley behind the clinic.

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Image courtesy McCausland with Hosterman Photography.

We’d not seen this guy before. And when he showed up during OSA week, he didn’t have any gear. Now? Well, it looks like this is what we can expect going forward.

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“God HATES you… he hates your guts… you wicked, worthless children of the devil…”

I’m not entirely sure what our “new normal” looks like quite yet. More of the loud and aggressive antis for sure; but then, that’s been the trend for a while now.

“Someone Grabbed My Arm”

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In January of 2016, escorts began working with the staff of the EMW Surgical Center and the National Clinic Access Project to collect surveys from patients accessing care at the only abortion provider in Kentucky. These efforts, the reasons for them, and initial results were first described here in the “Documenting Fear” article. Since then, thousands more responses have been logged. The numbers help to understand the generally chaotic nature of the public sidewalk and even parking lots near the clinic (Patient-Questionnaire-Annual-Report-July-2016-June-2017). But the comments from patients do more than that – they give one an idea of how an individual walking this gauntlet on the way to their doctor’s appointment is personally impacted.

Media often approach volunteers and other advocates involved in the fight to preserve abortion access in search of “personal stories.” They want to ride along with a volunteer transporting a client; they want to be put in touch with someone seeking an abortion with the assistance of a hotline volunteer; can the clinic get them a patient to talk to? And it is true that breaking the silence that surrounds abortion is a crucial part of combating the stigma that also surrounds it – but the two feed each other. Stigma is why many do not wish to tell their abortion story, especially to a stranger, especially publicly, especially without anonymity. When one woman live-tweeted her own medication abortion some years ago, she received a torrent of vitriol. Similarly, when the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign was launched, many participants again found themselves on the receiving end of abuse.

Abortion storytelling is not without real risk for the person sharing their story. Those who choose to tell their stories do so because they have determined that, for them, the risk they take on is worth the reward – a complicated and individual calculation that each person must consider for themselves. It will not look the same for an individual who is trans, or undocumented, or making plans to safely escape an abusive, dangerous relationship, etc., as it will for someone with more privileges and protections. Privilege impacts abortion storytelling as much as it does abortion access.

This does, of course, lead to a recurrent problem in reporting on abortion access in general, and on the scene in front of too many clinics in particular. Too many stories fall into a pattern of telling “both sides of the story,” wherein antis and abortion access advocates are painted as parties warring over a concept. Too often the patient accessing an abortion does not appear as an active character in what is in fact their own story; they become merely the “idea” that the “sides” in question are “fighting” over. Framed this way, what happens outside of clinics becomes a free speech issue – but when the framing centers patients accessing care, the issue becomes one of private citizens being harassed, intimidated, and all too often physically obstructed and assaulted.

These client surveys do not collect background information, though some patients do choose to share pieces of their story. The comments from patients that follow pertain to their experience of walking into the clinic. These are only a small sampling of the comments provided, and have been grouped to allow brief explanations where necessary – but the comments have not been edited. They are often unpleasant to read – but these are the clients describing, in their own words, what they experienced walking down the sidewalk minutes after having done so, and often with the antis still audible, due to their various amplification devices, as they sit in the waiting room. Please consider a trigger warning in effect for the entirety of this piece – but please consider as well that the patients describing these events had no way to avoid them.

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One of the questions on the survey asks clients if they were afraid that antis might do something to them. If the answer is yes, they are asked “What were clients afraid antis might do?” A selection of these responses:

 

“I was mostly afraid of shootings or bombings at the clinic. I found it disturbing that they were right outside the door, so close to the building. I felt comfortable with the staff, but not entirely safe with them so close and seemingly able to enter any time.”

“Blow up the building or physically grab me. They are way too close, invading our personal space. Nearly all targeted attacks (bombs) on clinics were done so by religious nuts.”

“I was afraid of being shot.”

“The protesters got right in between myself and person that brought me here, almost tripped him trying to get between us and verbally attacked him!!!”

“One of them blocked my path and stepped on my foot causing me to twist my ankle. They are very aggressive and upset me and my support.”

“They were all coming at me at once and so close that a man stepped on me. I did not feel safe.”

“I need space to walk in. I almost fell to the ground trying to get past.”

“Someone grabbed my arm.”

“I was afraid because they had backpacks. Not sure if they had guns or bombs.”

“When I told them to leave me alone and they said “No”, it made me feel as though they would physically try to make me turn around.”

“I was pushed up against and swarmed on a public sidewalk. If I wasn’t having a procedure done, I wouldn’t even want to walk down this street.”

“I told them I had anxiety and to please back up and they surrounded me closer.”

“They made me fear for my life and well being outside of the clinic.”

“I was afraid they would not let me cross the street. As I was trying to park, a woman blocked my way to my car and followed me aggressively until two vested workers helped me to cross the street. I was screamed at once I crossed the street and surrounded.”

“I thought someone crazy might pull a gun out.”

“I thought they might throw food at me.”

“Followed very closely. One followed my friend back to the car. My friend called 911. Protester then walked away after writing down license plate #.”

“I watched a man shove the woman walking with me. I was afraid for myself and other women making this choice physically because of these people.”

“I was afraid I was going to be taken away into another building. Some woman tried to stuff different things in my pockets.”

“The man with mic is very aggressive & I thought he might become angered more & do something”

“I felt like I was being harassed, they followed me and made me cry, I felt so uncomfortable, they came up to our car and were banging on the window and we had our baby in the car and she started to cry”

“Anything to stop me from coming inside, They made a comment about “Black lives matter, right.” I feel it was very racist.”

“Protester put arm up in front of my partner and I, blocked us from entering building. Stood in doorway. My partner wears glasses and did not see lady that stepped in front of me. He bumped into her. She fell. It was raining. Police were called. She was in the doorway. It was terrible.”

“Shoot and/or bomb the place.”

“Spit on me or physically cause harm.”

“Throw things or spit on me.”

“They followed my family to White Castle and told the people they dropped me off at EMW. Very rude. I was very angry.”

“I am afraid of them trying to find me in my workplace or elsewhere.”

“Have a bomb and blow us all up!”

“I asked the man who came to my car to leave. He did not and hovered until a lady escorted me out. He purposely intimidated me.”

“I thought they would grab me. It was very scary.”

“I thought one man was going to hurt me with his poster. I tripped and almost fell!”

“I didn’t feel safe; asked to be left alone. They kept insisting to tell me I’m wrong and a man got in my face.”

“I was afraid they would do something to our car. They could honestly push a woman to suicide.”

“Protesters were very aggressive and scary for me being a young girl already making a hard decision. Even after I said thank you and I was not interested they still wouldn’t leave me alone.”

“They did step on my shoe while following me, making me come out of my shoe. Also walked so closely to me and my mom, that it felt difficult to walk.”

“They told me I was killing my “colored” baby, racist, abusive language.”

“Violence. The protesters should not legally be allowed to come near or on EMW property. It is dangerous and the protesters are mentally unstable and could cause harm to patients.”

“An elderly lady grabbed my arm, got physical with me and told me I was going to hell, my husband doesn’t love me and he’s sending me to hell. My husband almost got into a physical fight/altercation.”

“Spit, shove, verbally abuse, obstruct, film/attempt to expose via social media platforms”

“I was afraid they’d hit me, shoot me or spit on me. They only yelled, so I’m okay. It wasn’t as bad as I expected. I really thought I’d be hurt and I’m glad I’m safe.”

“Attack. One person said I was a demon and yelled. I have PTSD and those actions make me upset.”

“One pretended like she worked here and almost made me walk into the wrong building.”

“One lady was very aggressive and pushed and touched me.”

“I was scared of them. I thought they would hurt me.”

“They wouldn’t stop following me.”

“Touch me. They tried coming to my vehicle and talk to my 18 month old daughter. They would not stop talking to her even when asked.”

“Wasn’t sure protester wasn’t going to physically grab me after he jumped in front of me to block my path I was walking. That was scary.”

“Damage our vehicle, attack the clinic, follow me home. Try to prevent me.”

“A woman was shouting about “if there is a fire you’re not getting out of there.” This is terroristic threatening. As is following me yelling at me after repeated requests to leave me alone.”

“I was scared they would try to photograph and expose me for something I’m not. As I walked, I could have blacked out from the pressure.”

“A man blocked my path and wouldn’t let me pass. I thought he was going to shove me away from the door. Thank goodness for the volunteers walking/escorting me.”

“A man got in my face. His breath moved my hair.”

Patients often add additional comments beside questions throughout the survey (in particular, where asked if they would feel safer with antis kept across the street, it is common to see “not even there!” and similar things written next to it.) Additionally, space is provided at the end of the survey for clients to write further comments if they wish.

Beside “I do not understand why the police allow this kind of harassment and rioting outside a health clinic.”

“I know we have free speech. However, they restrict my right and free choice by blocking the clinic.”

“One boy had a camera on his hat. They stuck their heads in our car window.”

“We live in a country where people have the right to Freedom of Speech and to protest. However, these people, the individuals that stand directly in front of the clinic, they are literally screaming, shouting, staring, glaring. The environment looks, feels and sounds violent, unsafe and screams terror. At the very least, police should be protecting the women entering the clinic.”

“I appreciate that the EMW staff warned me about the protestors beforehand so I could mentally prepare myself. The guides in orange vests were very comforting and supportive. The fact that the protesters try to trick you into going into the wrong building and shame you even though they know nothing about you tells me they are in the wrong. If people can be told not to smoke in front of a restaurant, the EMW clinic should be allowed to block protestors from standing in front of their entrance.”

“I really didn’t like grown man yelling in my face and bumping into me while trying to get in the door. I did not appreciate them standing waiting for me to get out of my car.”

“They got way too close. I can understand the protest part, but them being in my face/blocking me was uncalled for.”

“I feel as humans, they have the right to protest and I have the right to an abortion, however, they DO NOT have the right to touch or threaten me!!”


					

Metro Council, 7/19/2017

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The Safety Committee of the Louisville Metro Council met for the second time to hear the thoughts and concerns of constituents regarding a potential safety zone in front of EMW Surgical Center, Kentucky’s only abortion clinic. Louisville’s Clinic Escorts encouraged our supporters to make it early, knowing this meeting was likely to be more heavily attended than the first. Sure enough, the room was quickly packed both with supporters of a safety zone and those opposed – though we probably outnumbered them.

 

As was the case last time, speakers were scheduled in advance, but LMPD were first called by the council for a description of their plans regarding the impending siege by outside extremist group Operation Save America/Operation Rescue. Major Eric Johnson explained that they had “a good working relationship” with OSA, and that OSA had assured them of their good behavior during the week. That would certainly be an about-face given the group’s history and rhetoric; I don’t think any of us feel particularly reassured by this.

Council Members Brent Ackerson, Barbara Sexton-Smith, and Brandon Coan asked Johnson about the free speech zones employed by LMPD for other events where there was a concern in advance that protest or counter protest might turn dangerously chaotic. Johnson explained that they simply didn’t feel this was necessary – again, presumably, based on OSA’s assertions that they will be well behaved. I fail to see how this fits with their past pattern of behavior, their “Lesser Magistrate Doctrine,” or even the rhetoric on display in front of the courthouse today. It was nice, at any rate, to see some Council Members asking for a little bit more in the way of reassurance, even if it wasn’t forthcoming.

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After the Council was finished interviewing Johnson, they moved on to the scheduled speakers. Those opposed had been allotted four spots, and as there was a bit more time, a list was established for others to speak briefly if they wished. Speakers against included many faces that were familiar to us, and will likely be to you, too, if you’ve been following us for any length of time. Since the OSA group held a press conference outside immediately prior to the meeting, it appears most of them had to be content with the overflow room for the duration of the meeting, so the Louisville Metro Council was at least mostly hearing from Louisville folks.

Perhaps most exciting was that one of our folks who has been working on this project for more than a year now finally had the opportunity to speak and present today, after having been bumped from her scheduled spot at the previous meeting. Though the time was insufficient for her to get through the entirety of her presentation, copies were provided for each of the Council Members (and can be viewed by anyone here – Metro-Council-Safety-Committee-Meeting-July-19-2017-1 ). The materials help to give a very clear view of what the issue is: not speech, but behaviors and location.

The remarks of those opposed were unfortunately not particularly on topic. We knew that they wouldn’t be; listening felt rather like attending a Right to Life meeting as opposed to the meeting of a civil government body or, as one escort put it, “like being back in church again.” There was a good deal of rhetoric about “killing babies” and a good deal of religious commentary; one gentleman treated us to an explanation of how he’d put his flag away for years until Trump was elected. There was also some talk of immigrants, and the obligation of Western women to reproduce more – rhetoric that I always find deeply disturbing. Donna’s speech was the same one she delivers to the closed doors and windows of the clinic, Ed drew on the authority of the Church for his remarks but did not disclose that they pay him to be out there, and Vince Heuser criticized OSA’s antics without disclosing that he’s been representing them. Local news has covered the remarks of OSA and their supporters at their “press conference” outside quite thoroughly, so there’s no need to recap that for you.

It was all over the place, really. As of now, there is no actual proposal before the Metro Council to vote on; we continue to urge our supporters to contact their Council Person and ask for action (Glass Capitol). Meanwhile, we’ll continue doing what we do, in accordance with our long-established Points of Unity. We will continue to train for deescalation and nonengagement regardless of the provocation, and we will continue to remain client focused. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what the antis do or say – it only matters what clients accessing care decide that they want. Someone has  to respect that.

(If you were unable to attend the meeting, video can be viewed here.)

Sidewalk Snippet 061017

We had an unusually nice, low-key Saturday this week. With all the additional chaos on the sidewalk over the past month, it was a relief to have no media presence, our most extreme and vocal antis absent for the day, no out-of-town “professional, full-time” antis, and a grand total of only 26 antis on the clinic side of the street actively engaging people. Escorts actually matched antis’ numbers pretty evenly, which is a rare occurrence even on a weekday, and not something I think I’ve seen at all on a Saturday. As a rule, Saturdays are the “bad days.”

With the exception of the “yellow vesters,” this past Saturday could almost have been a weekday. Catholic regulars lined the sidewalk in front of the clinic flower bed and the street, creating a small gauntlet for clients walking from 1st street. It was actually even quiet enough to hear them praying. A handful of antis were mobile and confronting and following clients with literature about the CPC next door, but there weren’t numerous large signs blocking the sidewalk. Later in the morning, a small group of “Catholics on parade” showed up, but the group always stays across the street.

I’ve been doing this a little more than three years now, and I think I’ve seen one day where there were no antis present at the clinic. It was a weekday, during winter. The weather was brutal; well below freezing, and the roads were still a mess. Whether the antis just didn’t want to be out in that or thought the clinic was closed, I don’t know. But it was the one day I saw clients in Louisville get to access abortion care without interference.

Never happen on a Saturday, especially during warm weather. This past Saturday was about as good as it gets. And while for escorts it’s all relative and this week was “not bad,” we know that for clients that’s not the case. How do you really prepare yourself for being approached by a pack of pushy strangers as you’re going to a doctor’s appointment?

It’s still horrible out here, even on days when it’s less horrible.