Anti-abortion demonstrators invaded three clinics around the country on September 15, physically forcing their way in and refusing to leave in a coordinated escalation of the right-wing attack on women's right to choose.
The national anti-choice group Created Equal called on members to participate in identical actions in Sterling Heights, Michigan; Alexandria, Virginia; and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Demonstrators entered clinics in order to perform a "Red Rose Rescue," imitating a harassment tool popularized by Canadian anti-choice activist Mary Wagner, in which the antis approach women in the waiting room of clinics, hand them red roses and attempt to talk them out of having abortions.
Created Equal's blog insists that by participating in these types of actions, they aren't "blockading abortion center entrances or procedure rooms." That phrase is a clear reference to the Freedom to Access Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which is supposed to prohibit anti-choicers from harassing patients.
Protesters remained in the waiting rooms until police were called, and a handful of demonstrators were arrested in each city. Created Equal is calling this demonstration an act of "peaceful civil disobedience for the unborn."
The reality is that this is an attempt to physically harass and terrorize abortion providers, clinic staff and the women who need care -- with the goal of shutting the clinics down.
And clearly this isn't the end of it. On September 20, a protester, obviously inspired by the events of last week, invaded the Planned Parenthood in Everett, Washington -- while an active clinic defense was going on, according to reports from Jane's Sidewalk Support.
It's unclear if the anti was also attempting to perform a "Red Rose Rescue" or simply disrupt clinic services. He was arrested -- and, according to Jane's members, back outside the clinic protesting within half an hour.
The fact that an anti-choice demonstrator felt so emboldened to invade a clinic with a strong, dedicated defense group outside of it further demonstrates how confident the right has become in the Trump era -- and underscores the need to reclaim the space outside of our clinics.
This shocking and invasive form of harassment comes just prior to the biannual "40 Days for Life" -- this year running from September 27 to November 5 -- in which hundreds of clinics around the country will be picketed for 40 days straight.
On its website, 40 Days for Life boasts actions in 715 cities worldwide with 4,876 local campaigns. It also claims responsibility for the closure of 86 abortion clinics.
Abortion clinics are, in fact, closing down, and the fanatics are getting help from anti-choice lawmakers in state after state. According to the Guttmacher Institute, anti-choice legislation like Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws -- which impose such strict requirements on providers that they are forced to shutter their clinics -- were responsible for closing more than 50 clinics in 2014 alone.
We are facing record shortages of abortion providers and a marked increase in clinic harassment. The National Abortion Federation (NAF), which tracks all forms of clinic pickets, reported 21,175 incidents in 2015. That's a shocking number in and of itself, but in 2016, NAF reported 61,562.
Anti-abortion demonstrators clearly feel emboldened to escalate their tactics, including open defiance of the FACE Act. The law prohibits anti-choicers from "the use of physical force, threat of physical force, or physical obstruction to intentionally injure, intimidate, interfere with or attempt to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person who is obtaining reproductive health services or providing reproductive health services."
In May, anti-choicers blockaded the last abortion clinic in the state of Kentucky -- with 100 of them blocking the clinic's entrances and 10 getting arrested. One of North Carolina's remaining clinics was highlighted in a short documentary this year detailing how clinic staff and patients have to deal with a barrage of hundreds of protesters every day.
These attacks are often only reported in local newspapers and rarely gain national attention. Rarer still are they viewed as part of a national trend. For those of us who want to defend a woman's right to decide what she does with her own body, it's important to look at what's behind the anti-choice onslaught.
The anti-women rhetoric coming from the White House has given new confidence to the anti-choice side. But supporters of women's rights also face the fact that there has been no broad, grassroots abortion rights movement, after decades of establishment women's organizations focusing not on protest to defend out clinics, but electing Democrats, some of whom aren't even fully committed to abortion rights.
Trump has made it no secret that he detests women's rights, and he has chosen staunch anti-choicers for the Supreme Court and Justice Department. Neil Gorsuch joining the Supreme Court threatens to make good on Vice President Mike Pence's promise that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion legal, will be "consigned to the ash heap of history."
If anti-choice demonstrators get charged with violating the FACE Act today, it would be by a Justice Department led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has an abysmal record on protecting abortion access, and even voted against family planning measures aimed at reducing teen pregnancy rates.
It is in this context that abortion rights activists must begin to chart a way forward. We also start at a point of incredible weakness, because those of us who see the importance of forming grassroots organizations to defend our abortion clinics also face opposition from establishment liberal women's organizations.
In February, anti-abortion forces organized a national day of action to defund Planned Parenthood and told anti-choicers to protest at its clinics. After the massive Women's Marches on Inauguration weekend, many people were excited to continue the momentum and started organizing counterprotests.
But instead of support and gratitude, the political arm of Planned Parenthood told supporters to stay home. In many cities, there were tense Facebook exchanges between Planned Parenthood staffers and organizers of clinic defenses.
The thrust of the message from the political leadership of Planned Parenthood was "You confuse patients. The pro-lifers want attention. By counter-picketing, you give them what they want. Donate money. Phone Bank. Vote for Democrats."
One such comment, published at Bustle.com, argued, "Anti-choice protesters are turning abortion clinics into political spaces, but they're fundamentally not political spaces. They're health care centers. So if you want to get political, take it to a political space instead of a health care space."
Those of us who advocate clinic defense agree that abortion clinics shouldn't be political spaces. But the anti-choicers have made clinics political spaces, and ignoring them doesn't change that fact. It merely allows these political spaces to be dominated by those who would harass and intimidate those inside.
Thousands of counterprotesters agreed with this assessment, recognizing that the most important thing to do was show the antis that they are not the majority and their voices will not go unchallenged. On February 11, pro-choice activists outnumbered right-wingers in 250 out of 300 cities, showing the potential for a grassroots movement to defend our clinics.
Since then, the political landscape has shifted. We have seen not only increased clinic harassment but also the rise of more public and bold white nationalist and neo-Nazi actions. The way in which we organize to protect our abortion clinics must echo the ways in which we have seen broad coalitions challenge the right-wing forces.
Many liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center also advocate that we not challenge the alt-right and rely on police protection, turning to laws prohibiting hate speech and calling on college campus administrators to cancel right-wing speakers.
These strategies are sure to fail because the law isn't impartial. The actions of police, buffer zones outside of clinics, and noise ordinance laws can and will be turned against those attempting to defend our clinics -- just as hate speech laws and university administrators are used to silence voices on the left.
There are few laws protecting patients from anti-choice harassment, and clinic escorts around the country have lamented that when they call the police, they are told either not to call or to "deal with it" themselves.
Laws and ordinances do little to stop antis from showing up and creating disruption and harassment in the first place -- just like laws against hate speech don't prevent the conditions that enable the growth of far-right groups.
They also aren't a replacement for a bold, uncompromising movement whose purpose is to reclaim abortion clinics for women and providers, by outnumbering and demoralizing the anti-choicers so that they don't come back again.
Seattle Clinic Defense, the group I work with, has been mobilizing community members to counter anti-choice harassment since 2011. There are now two other groups in the Puget Sound area that regularly and spiritedly defend abortion clinics: Tacoma Clinic Defense and Jane's Planned Parenthood Sidewalk Support in Everett, about 30 miles north of Seattle.
Clinic defense will look different in every city, but here are some lessons we've learned after close to seven years of organizing:
- We now hold short "orientation" meetings about 15 to 20 minutes prior to the start of the defense to get to know new defenders. We introduce them to our point people and review basic guidelines, like staying out of the clinic driveway.
- Go inside and introduce your group to the clinic staff. Tell them you are here for them, you support what they are doing, and you are standing up for abortion access.
- Have a few short chants that many defenders know and can use if the antis begin praying loudly or shouting at patients. Some clinic defense groups play music intermittently, but we prefer positive chanting.
- Keep signs clear and short. Encourage defenders to wear pink, which signals you are in support of Planned Parenthood. Patients, staff and community members are more used to antis being outside clinics, so short signs, large lettering and large banners will make it clear you are in support of the clinic. We have two large banners. One says "Seattle Clinic Defense," and the other "Trust Women."
Since our February 11 action, we have seen a surge of new clinic defenders and interest in organizing a response to anti-choice harassment.
There will be disagreements with the political arm of Planned Parenthood, but as more and more anti-fascist actions are successful and clinic defense grows across the country, the call to stay home will more and more fall on deaf ears.
These are important arguments to have out in our movement, and the more we organize and turn out in defense of our clinics, the more we see our ideas borne out in action.
We will see that clinic defense demoralizes the antis; that clinic staff and patient morale is heartened by our support; and that these seemingly small actions give many new organizers a taste of what it is like to stand up to the bigots and win.
September 27 is right around the corner. Our clinics are under attack. Gather up your banners and your "Honk for Choice" signs. I'll see you on the sidewalk.