why I escort — by K one year in

About a year ago I picked up a WENCH flier at Highland Coffee Company. I was looking for some volunteer opportunities and clinic escorting immediately appealed to my sense of duty, responsibility and activism. I had no idea what I was getting into or the level of metamorphosis I would undergo.

Escorting clients into a gynecologist office should not be necessary. No one should have to endure the gauntlet of hatred, judgment, obstruction, harassment, and plain old-fashion stupidity lining the sidewalks here at Louisville’s only clinic that provides abortive care, one of only two in the state. Anti-choice activist have exhausted every legal, moral and ethical avenue to make abortion the most regulated procedure in the history of modern medicine. And yet, it remains legal and available and by some accounts the safest, most common surgical procedure in the country. And the anti-choice extremist are just not satisfied. They resort to bullying, intimidation, and physical obstruction to coerce people into acting in accordance with their personal, ideological beliefs. (I’m no lawyer but that sounds a whole lot like terrorism to me.) I ask you, would PETA be allowed to use the anti-choice tactics outside of Kentucky Fried Chicken? How would these “Christians” feel if 100 folks, mostly 6′ tall, 200 pound Muslims of Color lined both sides of the sidewalk leading up to their church and shouted condemnation as they went to Easter Services? It may be legal but that doesn’t mean we as a society have to stand by and tacitly condone these actions. I escort to empower clients and companions so they can make the choice that is best for themselves and their families. Bullies don’t get to make those choices, not in my backyard, not today.

The sidewalk outside the clinic taught me more about human behavior in the last year than I think I have learned in any decade of my life. A combat marine arrives home from Iraq on Thursday. His wife tells him she is pregnant with another man’s baby on Friday. The come to the clinic on Saturday.

“Don’t kill your baby because your wife’s a sinner.”

The marine would later tell us it took every ounce of Marine Corp resolve to repress the kill urge.

A couple learns they are pregnant with twins, a dream come true. But the dream turns to nightmare when one of the boys develops a fatal defect and is dragging his brother down with him. The heart broken couple has 24 hours to abort the diseased fetus so that the other might survive.

“Be a real man, stand up for your baby!” “Please don’t kill your little baby!” And holding up a fetus-snuff porn poster, “This is what they do to your child in there!” Compassion, you’re doing it wrong.

On a personal level, escorting is the most rewarding activism in which I have ever participated. Unlike signing a petition, letter writing or even marching in protests, escorting makes an immediate, concrete, positive impact for those at the epicenter of the pro-choice issue. I see the clients and companions relax and ease up when they realize the escorts are there to help them through the gauntlet.

But the true metamorphosis began when I widened my vision beyond the clinic and started embracing the spectrum of reproductive health issues. I joined NOW. I have attended workshops and film discussions on issues ranging from underground abortion services in the pre-RoeVsWade era to reproductive health justice. I learned things I never knew were an issue – activist having to teach educated, 20 somethings the biological name and function of their vaginas?!?!? Seriously, how did we get here? After clinic breakfast discussions opened my eyes to the horrors of pregnancy  in the medical arena and the beauty of home birthing. I learned about the gender binary and how vital it is that we break it down. I’ve embraced not trusting my perceptions of gender, sexuality, orientation, race, ideologies, or anything else that pops up “at face value”.

And through all of this, I have questioned why, as a middle-aged, middle-class white man, do I have any reason or right to embrace these issues? Reproductive health is a woman’s domain, right?

The single most important thing I have learned is that as a middle-class, middle-aged white man, I MUST embrace these issues. Just as the civil rights movement took hold when white people stopped accepting racism as normal in their white families and white work places, so will “woman’s” issues start to take hold when men start calling out other men on their sexist ways. It begins by shutting up and listening to women when they talk about these issues. Ask questions and then shut up and listen. Shut up and Listen. Then comes the changes. Rape jokes are not funny. Misogyny is not acceptable. It is not okay to withhold knowledge and skills from female co-workers so as to promote and advance your buddies. We must create uncomfortable silences at family gatherings when Uncle Idiot oppresses Aunt Submissive. We must no longer allow our fathers, nephews, sons and friends to think any of this is OK. We must pick up this fight and stand with our sisters, mothers, aunts and wives. Not as champions or knights, saviors or rescuers but rather as brothers-in-arms, side-by-side making the world a better, safer, more powerful place one living room, one office, one sidewalk outside a clinic at a time.

Louisville Escort’s account of their morning in Nebraska…

Slideshow of sights from ACCON 8/29/09: http://www.flickr.com/photos/39024657@N07/sets/72157622188586772/show/

At a time of day when only the hardiest of joggers or late-night partiers are awake, a quiet side street in Bellevue, just south of Omaha, bustles with organizers and supporters unfurling banners, setting up chairs, downing coffee and greeting one another. Lawyers, teachers, students, housewives, factory workers, authors, activists, salesman and every other walk of life from as far as New York and Los Angeles join together today to stand up for Dr. LeRoy Carhart, his staff and the clients he serves at ACCON – The Abortion and Contraception Clinic of Nebraska. Operation Rescue has dubbed Dr. Carhart “Target #1” and put out a call to  besiege this clinic. We came to make sure that does not happen.

The Bellevue Police finagle back and forth brokering a deal on the division of clinic front property between OpRes and the local NOW leaders. As they work the compromise, we mingle about, setting up here and then moving there. A tall muscular man emerges from the predawn mist and tells everyone to clear the driveway, “All out from that corner of the building to the grass.” His voice commands compliance but I still want to know who he is. He pulls back his jacket to flash a US Marshal Badge and nickel plated hand cannon. Once the drive is sufficiently cleared he whispers into a  radio mic on his shoulder, the garage door opens,  a vehicle I will not describe pulls around the corner and into the building as the door closes behind. I turn to ask if that was the good doctor but the Marshal has rejoined the dew.

Shortly after sunrise, with negotiations complete, a beat cop sprays a line of orange traffic paint across the side street in about the middle of the clinic frontage and then another about ten feet down the block. Around the corner, another officer lays out roughly the same box. OpRes will be happy that they have a space on both sides of the clinic with access to the clients and their companions so as to offer “sidewalk counseling”. The clinic is happy because the driveway and majority of the clients’ path will be surrounded by supporters to drown out the “counseling”. One of the officers points to the space between the orange lines,  “That’s the DMZ. Everybody stay out of that space.” But she is only talking to supporters, none of the OpRes folks have shown up yet.

Those carrying the brightest banners – “Dr. Carhart is a Hero”, “Abortion on Demand & Without Apology” – and best signs – “Keep your Theology off my Biology” take up station at the most advantageous spots, some in sight of the clients to shower them with love and acceptance, others far from the clinic, lining the closest thoroughfare opened to traffic. As more supporters pour in from around the city and around the country, they read the guidelines, sign in, get stickered with a bright pink “Keep the Clinic OPEN  NOW 2009” badge and take up station where ever they feel they can most contribute. When some local protesters show up and line the fence closest to the clinic door, Erin Sullivan, President of Omaha & Nebraska NOW,  recruits twenty or so folks to don “Trust Women” shirts and stand with their backs to these locals. “Do NOT engage! Ever. Not for a minute. Not to make a point. Never. If you can’t handle that, leave.” I doubt anyone has ever had to wonder exactly where they stand with Erin.

As 8:00 approaches, the designated “Prayer Hour”, with still no sign of OpRes, talk amongst the supporters flitters around rumors of OpRes being kicked out of the host church due to subterfuge on the part of Rescue the Heartland and Nebraskans for Life – seems they failed to mention to the host church that Operation Rescue was part of the party. (Omaha’s World Herald carried this article regarding the church incident: http://omaha.com/article/20090828/NEWS01/708289928.)  Others mention battles that OpRes cowered away from when they realized they were grossly outnumbered. Had Friday’s massive showing – the supporters outnumbered the anti’s 10 to 1 – scared away any would be intimidaters and harassers? We can hope. How’d that 70’s slogan go – what if they threw a war and no one came? Looks like only the good guys were showing up for this one.

We could be wrong, though. And the police are planning on the worst. A squad of fully armored riot police show up and take up station a block off the corner of the clinic. They are low key but everyone knows they are there. As if wonders will never cease, for the first time in my life, the sight of a full riot squad actually makes me feel safer. Debra Sweet, Director of The World Can’t Wait captured the why to that – we have the moral high ground. While maybe not on our side, the police in Bellevue seemed neutral. This police department should teach departments throughout the country how to handle protests. Their presence was calming, omnipresent and effective.

As the first client arrives, the few local anti’s begin to yell, “Keep your baby!”, “Let your baby LIVE!”,  and more, some of it vicious lies, more of it trite claptrap parroted outside every clinic in America. But on this day the supporters make sure the clients hear none of it. “WELCOME! WELCOME! THIS CLINIC STAYS OPEN!!!”. (As a volunteer clinic escort verbally battered three days a week with the lies, misinformation, harsh judgment, and presumptive evaluations of the anti-choice squawkers outside the clinic in Louisville, the sound of them being drowned out by positive affirmation rocks me harder than when The Rolling Stones played Churchill Downs.) Every time a client arrives, or the anti’s start to talk at the supporters, lather-rinse-repeat. All day long, sustained bursts, heard three blocks away, “WELCOME! WELCOME! THIS CLINIC STAYS OPEN!!!”

By mid-morning, shortly after Shawna, Dawn, Betty and Candy, local supporters and angels, brought us water and snacks, some folks had gathered to pray the rosary and occasionally try to bark a word at the clients “WELCOME! WELCOME! THIS CLINIC STAYS OPEN!!!” A twenty foot delivery truck with dead fetuses plastered on the sides, pulls down the street and parks behind the “prayers”. This is OpRes’ “Truth Truck” but the only thing accurate about that is the “truck” part. The pictures are doctored composite pictures of still-born fetuses at 12 weeks gestation. And “Abortion is an ObamaNation.” Really?  Abortion rates went down under pro-choice Clinton, skyrocketed  under Bush’s abstinence only sex-ed, and are now falling again under the pro-choice Obama administration. But facts are irrelevant. This is about God’s law. I suppose they never heard of the doctrine of free will?

None to happy that the police let that thing down the street, Erin musters up an SUV that some very creative and quick hands cover with pro-choice posters, signs and banners. I’m amazed, yet again! This time by the dynamic spontaneity. Way to think on your feet, ladies!

Troy Newman shows up with almost as many cameras as recruits. He struts and pomps, trying to engage the supporters lining the fence by the parking lot. Here is a great blog post from the perspective of those standing that line: http://www.visinvox.com/2009/08/mid-afternoon-saturday-august-29th-2009.html. He beamed with pride at having supposedly averted a client to the fake clinic and saved a 12 week old baby (funny that, since the client farthest along was at 9 weeks), and he just wanted to say he…

“WELCOME! WELCOME! THIS CLINIC STAYS OPEN!!!”.

The cameras turn off, he thinks no one is watching and he throws his hands up, slaps them down to his thighs and says “Well I don’t know what else we can do here.” The frustration was almost as poignant as the stench of self-righteous pompousness! I had to laugh, which startled him because he didn’t know I was watching. He walks up the street to the fake clinic and then disappears.

Shortly after that, the anti’s mostly left, save a few locals still harassing clients and companions coming in. “WELCOME! WELCOME! THIS CLINIC STAYS OPEN!!!”

The real action at this point is on the street far from the clinic with all the great signs and banners. The folks holding them wave at the drivers, eliciting honks, thumbs ups, hoots and the occasional GO HOME or single finger wave. This clinic defense is over. It’s become a pep rally. We won.    Victory Rally

After saying our goodbyes, we begin the eleven hour drive home. I call Dan, one of my fellow escorts in Louisville  to share the good news and spread the victory love. I tell of the outnumbering, the outvoicing, the overwhelming police support and media attention. I shower him with the frustration of Troy Newman, the triumph of Terry O’Neill, the safety of Dr. Carhart. He revels in it all but sounds a bit less than thrilled. Turns out our clinic in Louisville attracted 200 plus anti’s that morning – a march from a local Evangelical Church, a busload from a mountain bible college, a sprinkling of newer, crazier chasers and prayers. No media, no police, no inspiring speeches from gifted national leaders. Just eleven volunteer escorts dealing with it like they always do, one client at a time, one foot in front of the other, through the bottleneck gauntlet of prayers, damnations, intimidation, hatred and harassment. Just like it’s always been. Just like we do every Saturday morning.

AND NOW…

what happened in Louisville?

It seems to happen more often than not: over 200 protesters due to a religious or political event, and we are not prepared.

I don’t know how many times they hit us hard on Mother’s Day’s before we really got organized.  It seems to happen regularly: Father’s Day; Inauguration; Catholic youth conference in town, and we show up sleepy eyed and short handed as usual.  But you know what? We make it through.  Surely some folks decide to keep on driving.  Occasionally a couple get swept into the decoy clinic down the block.  Some we catch up to, and help them to the EMW Surgical Center.  Some resurface an hour or more later, sometimes confused, or pissed.  Sometimes with diapers and baby clothes.

This past Father’s Day, The Sister’s For Life obtained a permit, and rallied around the clinic for over two hours.  They encircled the area around the clinic entrance, and chanted, sang and preached into a bullhorn.

Day before Father's Day '09

Day before Father's Day '09

This Saturday was very similar.

In addition to a permitted rally by the Sisters for life, we saw an extra presence from the Cards for Life (UofL’s pro-Life student group), the Ky Mountain Bible College, and the Catholic church, including a priest in a full length white robe (he brought the wrong hood ;).  As well, we saw some of our regular lone weirdo’s, like Ron, the semi-retired bully who used to occupy the door shouting position, telling clients that he had a bucket, and if they bring out their baby he’ll give it a proper christian burial.  He’s gotten a lot quieter in the years since Angela has been coming to preach the gospel and myths about abortion causing cervical cancer :/  Also featured this weekend was the artist we refer to as Stem-Cell Jesus (see “my favorite protestor” below).

Those of us who rolled out to escort this Saturday were shocked.  We never would have guessed that these zealots would turn out in solidarity with OpRes.  Should we have known better?  Maybe.  I think it’s easy during our day-to-day to forget that we do live in the bible belt.

There were 11 escorts that morning, two of which were first timers.  Another had been once before.  I myself have been escorting for ten years.  I remember times when five escorts on a Saturday was kind of a lot.  It’s mornings like this when you try not to watch the clock, you just hope the time’s passing quickly.  We were able to have one person in each spot where we consider it vital on the clinic side of the sidewalk.  There were three to four escorts in the parking lot, which was a zoo, with at least 50 protestors and chasers, plus props.

so...who brought the bbq?

so...who brought the bbq?

I encourage you to drop your friend off at the door.  The parking lot is a little...full :)

I encourage you to drop your friend off at the door. The parking lot is a little...full 🙂

It was actually our lucky day.  The clinic’s anesthesiologist was scheduled to be out, so the only clients coming in were having only local anesthesia, or were taking RU-486 (the abortion pill).  As a result we saw less than a dozen clients, compared to the regular 20-30.  We still haven’t heard back from Jesus, but we’re pretty sure this was due to mortal circumstances, and not the Holy Ghost obstacles we so often hear requested. I could be wrong, I guess.

Ky Mountain Bible College

Ky Mountain Bible College

Despite the low number of clients making it a fairly easy day for us escorts, it was not an easier day for those clients.  One client, driving themselves to the Dr, accidentally ran the red light at the corner (I think she may have been distracted.)  This caused an accident which sent the other driver away in an ambulance.  The client was triggered in to a panic attack, and called a family member for support, who arrived shortly.  It is unknown if that person made it to the Doc that day.  Is that the kind of obstacle they’re praying for?

are you threatening me?

are you threatening me?

i will leave you with a peek at the end of my morning…

after this we went for breakfast for the last time at Mr. Z’s Diner as it has closed it’s door.  Thank you friends for years of good cheap food and friends ❤