Confronting the Anti’s, Defending Women’s Rights in Louisville

By Lina Thorne 

A couple of us from World Can’t Wait hooked up with others we met in Omaha to help escort women into the abortion clinic in Louisville, KY this past Saturday. This is one of only two clinics in the state, and one of the only clinics for the entire region. Women seeking abortions at this clinic have often traveled for a hundred-plus miles.
 
We had met some of the regular volunteer escorts while defending Dr. Carhart’s clinic and learned from them that without national mobilizations or notoriously violent groups like Operation Rescue, Louisville is besieged on a weekly basis by pushing, shoving, yelling, screaming anti-abortion activists. The five days a week that the clinic is open, there is a presence of “sidewalk counselors,” who have unimpeded access to the clients. There is no real police presence; only an off-duty officer hired by the clinic, and the clinic’s clients (whether they are seeking abortions or just getting a pap smear) have to run a gauntlet from wherever they park their cars to the clinic entrance.
 
When we found out that the murder of Dr. Tiller this past spring has only resulted in more anti-abortion activists coming to the clinic and acting with greater boldness and violence, we knew we had to learn more. We followed the volunteer escorts’ blog and watched videos of the Christian fundamentalists and Catholics (mostly though not entirely men) yelling and pushing people outside the clinic. They call out people’s names (the community is small enough people are often recognized), take pictures of the women, yell through the clinic doors, and at the windows. One man even followed a woman’s companion down the street and inside a nearby White Castle to yell at her while getting coffee and then through the bathroom door! We decided to come see this in person, and learn to how to escort through this sort of chaos. 
 
We arrived Friday night to get our orientation and training from local leaders of the escorts. These women have been doing this for about 10 years. They showed us a map of the clinic’s street, described what to expect from the antis, and explained that our job would be to get there before the clinic opened and stake out space near the entrance, and prevent the antis from holding it.  They showed us where the antis generally line up, forcing women to run through what amounts to a spanking tunnel for half a block. They talked about the evolving tactics and plans they developed over the years to bring women to the clinic doors as quickly and painlessly as possible, and the evolution of the antis’ tactics in response (who says evolution isn’t a fact!?). We felt like both sides were being deployed for battle.
 
Even though we had come because we understood how dire the situation is, we still were shocked. Angry. Why are people who care about the humanity of women still forced to fight for women to simply go to the doctor? Why isn’t the FACE Act being enforced? Abortion is legal, and federal law protects clinics from this sort of harassment. How can we normalize this completely common experience? Kentucky laws are so restrictive it’s practically impossible to open a new clinic or even to physically move the existing clinic to a new location! How can it be that this sort of violence is escalating without a national condemnation from everyone who says they’re pro-choice? Many people don’t even know this is happening.
 
I was especially interested in how the escorts are able to continue doing this for so many years. What keeps them going? How do they sustain their spirits? The first answer was obvious enough: what happens to the women if they don’t wake up early several times a week to do this? Another escort tells us that he’s never found any other activism so immediate. He knows each and every person he escorts is really being helped and forms a connection these individuals that’s deeper and more tangible than anything else he’s ever done. They each focus their energy on assisting clients and get through the day through that focus (point of unity number one is “escorts are present to support and empower people accessing reproductive healthcare”). There is also a strong sense of community and bonds of friendship and respect among the escorts, who come from many perspectives and backgrounds. They hang out, discuss what they’re doing and are continuously learning from each other, and all this makes their crew stronger.
 
Saturday, we roll out of bed far too early. We have to get to the clinic by 6:30, before the antis do. It feels like the middle of the night: the streets are deserted and it’s pitch black. When we get there, we don orange vests and get into position. There are about 50 of us, mainly locals who have done this before. One of the antis is there already. He has a yellow vest on, and for a moment I mistake him for one of us. Then we realize that he’s impeding our ability to hold our positions in front of the entrance. He’s over six feet tall, with a cameo hat and a hostile, testy attitude. The escort veterans are used to this and we move around him to create our anti-free zone. We link arms and introduce ourselves to the people around us.
 
Then, he sees my “NO TORTURE” button (referring to the institutionalized use of torture by the US government under Bush and now Obama). He flips out, yelling and pacing frantically. “No torture!? No torture?!” He yells something about fetuses, and for the moment I restrain myself from debating with him. Some of the other escorts are progressive religious folks, and one starts up the song, “I ain’t gonna study war no more.” It’s useless to get the deranged anti to see the difference between treating women as incubators and the systematic torture and terrorizing of whole populations of people. Later, I teach the progressive singers the song I learned in front of Dr. Tiller’s clinic in 2001: “a woman has a right to live/a woman has a right to choose/a woman has a right to have a child/and she has the right to refuse!”
 
A bubble of escorts forms around clients who want them. Antis chase them and push escorts aside to get to their cars first, so the escorts who do this have to be fast and nimble. If the antis can’t penetrate the bubble, they will surround it, yelling and thrusting pamphlets or signs at the women. We see them coming down the block and ready ourselves to “open the gates” to the clinic. It all happens so quickly, but I smile at the first client I make eye contact with and say, “welcome!” Taking in the lines of orange vests standing between her and the ranting mob, she looks calm and happy. Did she expect this?
 
Once inside, the antis vent their frustration at the doors and windows of the clinic. It’s mainly men who yell and scream, while I observe women with bowed heads muttering the rosary. Later, many of them will kneel on the sidewalks. Even those who don’t attack the clients contribute to a creepy public shaming ceremony that heaps guilt and stigma on women as a whole, and these individuals in particular. A former Louisville sidewalk counselor writes about this.
 
A man in a cameo hat is pacing and yelling about the slave trade. One of the escorts tries to engage him in rational conversation. She can’t figure out what he means. He certainly seems unhinged, detached from reality. One of the people next to me says he’s new, and probably mentally disturbed. He says the fetus is a slave to the woman and the woman is a slave to the fetus. Aborting the fetus is destroying someone’s property. Therefore, the clinic is engaged in the slave trade. “How hard is it to let it live inside you for 9 months??” Over breakfast later, while processing the morning, we figure out the logic behind his analogy: the man is the owner of the woman and the fetus. Both are his property. For her to act to control her own body is to destroy this relationship. In fact, he is the slave owner, and, apparently, proud of it!
 
A five ft. tall woman holding a small sign (“respect people’s privacy”) for media and picture-taking antis has to explain herself to cops when several burly men complain about her. They’ve been bumping and pushing us all morning, but they’d love to get one of us arrested on a false assault charge. For the time being, the cops think it’s as ludicrous as we do and go back to sitting in their car. Some of the regular escorts tell me that there usually aren’t any police here, but today one and then two marked cars double park across the street and leave their lights flashing.
 
We’re about evenly matched. The Kentucky Right to Life annual convention is today, but it hasn’t produced many more than 50 regular protesters. A few weeks ago, the local Catholic archbishop led the protest himself, bringing many more with him. One of the escorts, a sweet, soft-spoken 60ish formerly Catholic man proudly tells me he personally told the archbishop to “go fuck himself.” It’s refreshing to see so many southern men, including older men, who are disgusted by this shaming of women.
 
After a couple hours, most clients are in for the day and people start dispersing. We see ugly scrawled graffiti on the window of the clinic itself… “we hill ure babies.” One of the regular escorts tells me about the man who rode up on a bicycle several weeks ago, blocked the sidewalk with his bike and went off on the escorts saying, the only way to deal with situations "like this" is with guns, which is why he has guns... then riding off. They got his picture, but he hasn't returned. Looking around at the men scowling at us I think about Scott Roeder and Paul Hill. Both were regular protesters, just like any other, before they assassinated Dr. George Tiller, and Dr. John Britton, respectively. Yes, you can call them insane, or fringe lunatics. But they are not being stopped by law enforcement or condemned by society. And the reactionary political movement they are a part of creates support and encouragement for their actions.
 
There are progressive religious folks escorting, as well as plenty of atheists and a sprinkling of pagans. There is a local chapter of Atheists and Freethinkers - some of their members are escorts too. A few of the antis still mill about. Several of us atheists ask them why they wear poly/cotton blends; eat shrimp, or leavened bread. If everything they believe is based on the Bible, why not apply these archaic rules too? One of them tells me that he doesn’t believe that any of this is in there, or that there’s any contradictions at all… all he needs is “what’s in his heart” – proving, when it comes down to it, this is about very earthly, very patriarchal authorities. Another one, when I ask him to justify the mass rape and slaughter commanded over and over again in his Bible, says it's different in the New Testament. "Okay, why don't you just toss out the Old Testament then? We both know it's still part of your whole theology." He finally says, really, you have to look at "the context" in which God commands his chosen people to rape and slaughter their enemies... you see, they were mixing with different tribes; which was bad. Once again, atheists know the Bible better - and have a far better morality!
 
The final action of the day comes when a car pulls up. We’ve let down our guard for the moment and the antis fling themselves at it, ala Zombieland. They are yelling, banging on the car, and pushing us. They push pamphlets into the windows. What is this woman supposed to think? Would she be dragged from the car and beaten? How could she have expected this? Why should she have to deal with it? Apparently she was just stopping by to pick up some information but she can’t leave the vehicle with this mob outside. They drive off.
 
Over breakfast, we trade stories. There’s a fake clinic across the street - as in so many other cities. Some of the antis speak Spanish and target people they perceive to be Spanish speakers: “the doctor is in here!” One of the escorts talks about the Louisville culture… he was fired from Barnes and Noble “for inappropriate comments to a co-worker” after mentioning that he was an escort. Another woman, raised Southern Baptist, now an atheist, describes her trip to the most popular museum in Kentucky, the “Creation Museum” – an avowedly anti-science “museum” which claims to educate people about the way the world was created by the Christian god.
 
A few of us from out of town try out a more blatantly political approach that afternoon. Staking out a section of sidewalk at a busy intersection, we unfurl a banner: “Abortion Providers Are Heroes! worldcantwait.net” We don’t know what to expect, but we know this is not the normal thing to do around here.
 
We’re exhausted from lack of sleep so we stay out with the banner for less than an hour. But we get honks, thumbs up, and smiles from drivers. We also get some people flipping us off, or stopping to read our flier and then politely crumpling it up and tossing in it in the trash. One car stops, and the guy in the passenger seat waves me over. There are two young Black men looking at our banner with puzzled expressions. “Are you being facetious?” asks the driver. He’s never seen this sort of unrepentant message about abortion before. Probably the only time he hears the word is when it’s being denounced: at church, from family, on the billboards around town, and throughout the culture. I explain, no, we really mean it! They take our fliers. He says, “I agree with you!” Overall, the responses are similar to what we get in Chicago.
 
 
What makes this clinic’s situation different? Reports are coming in that violent threats and incidents are on the rise across the country. A clinic defender in Akron, OH was attacked and had his ribs broken this summer. One escort told me that in her opinion the antis from her hometown of Houston were even more violent than Louisville. A new poll reveals the “pro-life” side is greater than the “pro-choice” side for the first time since they started conducting it. Increased law enforcement is not the answer: even if we set aside the “other things” the government is doing (war, torture, repression of dissent, transferring unbelievable amounts of wealth from the bottom of society to the richest elites, etc. etc.), we can’t forget that Scott Roeder was caught and reported violating the FACE Act three times in the week before he shot Dr. Tiller: and never stopped by either local or federal law enforcement. As the recent debates over healthcare show, no national political figures will defend women’s right to abortion with any real force. In fact, even after Dr. Tiller was murdered, we’re still being told to seek common ground with anti-abortion forces!
 
The shaming and silencing of women, as well as the outright violent attacks on our doctors, have a chilling affect through all of society. We can’t let this continue. The escorts in Louisville need more recruits, and if you live close enough to help, contact them through their website.  But across the country we need a movement of resistance, independent of the politicians who wheel and deal with our lives in the balance, that makes clear the moral question of abortion: are women going to be able to decide when or if we to become mothers or are we going to be forced to bear children against our will?
 
Thank you to all the escorts who welcomed us into their community and hosted us. The video stills are provided courtesy of everysaturdaymorning.wordpress.com – check it out for much more.