Meet the Protesters: “The Leader”

 

There are two main protesters that have been a mainstay to this demonstration from the beginning. One of them was the first protester I interacted with. Initially, he was nicknamed “The Leader”.

You can normally see him outside the clinic on Wednesday in the afternoon about an hour or so before the clinic closes. He always wears a camouflage hat and holds a sign that reads “ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN”. Whereas other protesters are fairly stationary, he’ll pace up and down the street and hold out his sign to make sure his message is on full display. For the most part, he only stands still when locked in conversation with a member of his group or when confronted by someone who disagrees with what they are doing. His other demonstrating tactic has been to make sure there’s coverage on the three sides of the building accessible from the sidewalk when there’s been more than a couple of people. Besides increasing their visibility, I believe this is because they realized someone could cut through the alleyway on the sides of the block and get in the clinic through the back entrance without having to be confronted by protesters. Clinic staff told me that they had heard him shouting that they needed someone on the side of the block because “they’re letting people through the back.” His goal seems to be to catch/harass as many patients as possible coming in and out of the clinic. When he’s brought his kids with to hold signs, I’ve seen him instructing them on how to stand and hold their signs. During one of my more close-up encounters, he was scolding the boys because they were dropping cards on the ground.

dsc01582
A rare moment of him standing still as he chats it up the only other protester (not pictured) that was there that day. Even then he’s making sure he’s still holding up his sign for the people to see. 

With his preachy attitude and criticisms, you would think he was a pastor. Nope. Just a zealot who believes women have been brainwashed into thinking that abortion is an option because her parents and church didn’t properly teach her the way of the Lord. Therefore, he believes that he must stand outside a clinic that doesn’t offer abortion to try and turn women away from their wickedness.

He’s one of the most judgmental people I’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting. He’s certainly critical of anything that’s not Christian, but he’s particularly critical of other Christians. I’ve noticed between my own experiences and speaking with others who have encountered him that he asks “Are you Christian?” to just about anyone who confronts him. He preaches about the majority of Christians being watered down and cherry picking the teachings and most of the church leaders being lukewarm so they don’t offend anyone because they’re not taking a pro-active stand at abortion like he is. There was a conversation where he criticized the Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses for having “warped the teachings”. I also recall him being negative towards Muslims and criticizing their teachings in comparison to the almighty Christianity, which is apparently so superior with its 2000+ prophecies and promises of salvation. On Facebook, he’s even more of a hardcore Christian by only preaching about the faith on that medium (or at least that’s what he presents to non-Facebook friends) while continuing to criticize other Christians. For example, after the big Life Chain event in October where pro-lifers protested on the bridge, he wrote about there being about 50 people, including 4 church leaders, who came to “stand for life”….and then went off to call the turnout pathetic in an area with 20+ church leaders and about 1,500 people. With every post, he asks what people are doing about the “torture and murder of over 3,000 innocents a day” (abortion statistics) and says people who aren’t opposed to abortion or don’t protest against it beyond prayer had parents and church leaders who failed them. Politically speaking, he says true Christians cannot be Democrats because they support homosexuality, transgender, abortions, etc and has called Democrats “soul less”. He told a commentator that he shook hands with the devil when the person admitted he was a Christian and voted for a Democrat.

And yet, there’s no indication he’s doing other things that would actually be of help to people. No conversations or Facebook posts about charitable acts he’s done to help the needy or preaching to others they should do the same. He only asks people what they’re doing about abortion and informs people when he’s going to be strutting outside the women’s clinic with his sign. Maybe he does charitable things, but why wouldn’t he be as vocal about it as he is about abortion? Or maybe he really doesn’t considering he shared a post criticizing churches of being too busy with pot lucks and other organized events that seem to benefit the church or others instead of standing against abortion. It gives the impression that he only cares about the unborn and not human beings outside the womb.

If I am to be honest, he reminds me of Frollo from Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame”. Frollo is a character who is deeply devout and tries to convince people that his actions are justified because they are God’s will. He’s also very critical of religious leaders and because believes himself to be superior to them and the more religious than they are. But ultimately, he’s a dark, cruel, and hateful person with a lot of pride in himself and looks down on people he thinks of as lesser than himself. I see a lot of those qualities in this particular protester. As Esmeralda put it, “You speak of justice, yet you are cruel to those most in need of your help!”

The thing about this protester is he’s initially approachable and polite enough, even if he is preachy, just as long as you listen to what he has to say and don’t outright disagree with him. Even then he can become a bit of an asshole: I remember during my first encounter with him he made the assumption that my friends were drug addicts despite not knowing anything about them on top of criticizing my lack of faith. Yet, being naturally shy, I didn’t fight back when he was a little bit a dick so he didn’t become aggressive.

Second encounter? Not so polite. A week after my letter had been published, I went to the clinic to donate a few dollars and ended up running into him on the way out as he paced up and down the side of the building. He recognized me from a month earlier and asked me in idle chit chat what I was doing that day. I explained I had donated money to the clinic so they can continue to provide services to women in the area. There was a slight pause where I could see the irritation boiling underneath the surface at the audacity that I donated funds to the women’s clinic he was protesting. The tone in his response to my contribution was peeved.

“So you took nothing from our conversation? You continue to live in ignorance!”

I was called ignorant by a man that doesn’t do research on anything outside a Bible, spreads false information about the clinic and abortion because he believes it to be true and won’t listen to the facts, and relies on blind faith to assure himself that he’s somehow helping women by doing God’s will when in reality his presence has been intimidating and not helpful at all. Who’s really continuing to live in ignorance?

I figured it was useless to point such things out so I decided to have fun instead, which only made him more ticked.

“Thanks, but I have embraced Satanism. Hail Satan!”

I must admit I couldn’t believe I had the balls to say that, but it was absolutely worth it. His face was priceless and he yelled that Satan wouldn’t save me as I headed up the street. I think I made him feel as uncomfortable as he and members of his group have made some of the patients feel.

I had nicknamed this protester “The Leader” because he seemed to be in charge of the demonstration. He eventually went by a new nickname after a few personal encounters, hearing what the clinic staff had to say about him, and watching him interact with people on the sidewalk: The Dicktator. The nickname seems appropriate for someone who acts like he’s so righteous and superior for being this hardcore, God serving Christian, but really is a pushy douche bag.

Story time: My first Letter to the Editor

This is a continuation of “Accidental Beginnings”, which described how I ended up becoming an activist in April 2016. 

The day after the inspirational Otep show, I began furiously typing out a Letter to the Editor. It was completed the next day after hours of careful thinking, typing, editing, and blasting the three Otep albums I owned at the time from my computer speakers.

I admit I was pretty scared about submitting it. A few years ago I had written a Letter to the Editor, but it was a fairly safe topic encouraging gardeners in our area to grow a little extra to feed those who were food insecure. Definitely a far cry from this letter explaining the truth about what the local women’s clinic really does and to clarify that it’s not an abortion provider or has any connection with an abortion provider while calling out the protesters on their bullshit. 

So when I submitted the letter I was nervous about some sort of retaliation, but felt like it was important to send it in. I wanted people to know the truth, something I would continue to seek out the further I dove into activism. 

The following week, it was published in the May 4th paper. It read as follows:

Years ago when something was medically wrong, I went to the women’s clinic across from the library. They were able to help me and I have been going to them ever since for my reproductive health.

But recently, Essential Clinic has come under attack for a service that’s not offered: abortion.

A man (sometimes with several others) has shown up every Wednesday with a large sign that reads “ABORTION KILLS”. I asked him about why he’s protesting a women’s clinic that doesn’t offer abortions and never has. He says they do “abortion referrals”. I think he’s confused on what a referral is. A referral means a doctor sending their patient to a recommended specialist. For example, a pap came back abnormal so the clinic set up an appointment for me to have biopsies done to check for cancer. Their involvement with abortion is purely educational, sharing information on abortion and discussing that information. However, the clinic has zero involvement in assisting a woman with getting an abortion.

The services Essential provides can be offered for a low cost or free, making these services available to women who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them.

I’m appalled that a few individuals have chosen to ignore the benefits in favor of demonizing it for supporting a woman’s right to choose and supplying information on an option they don’t agree with. They could be advocating for increased availability of contraceptives to lessen the need for abortions, actively supporting services that help mothers who are struggling or becoming foster parents for children who need parental figures. Instead, they stand outside the clinic with their signs and touting a God not everyone believes is their savior. They call it “pro-life”. I call it “pro-birth”, narrow-minded, and foolish.

Of course, they have the right to protest. But don’t people have the right to a safe and comfortable healthcare environment? Even if they remain peaceful, their presence is invasive and intimidating.

Women shouldn’t have to call the clinic feeling uneasy about going to her appointment because of the protesters outside. Women shouldn’t have to feel that there are judgmental eyes on her when she walks in and out of the clinic. Women shouldn’t have to be anxious that she will be approached and be made to feel awful about themselves, guilty, or embarrassed. It may not be the intent, but that’s the effect they’re having.

Remember: This is a women’s health clinic we’re talking about; not an abortion clinic.

Unfortunately, the Editor had chosen to delete the part where I listed the specific services Essential Clinic  provides (exams, contraceptives, treatment, education, etc). Other than that I was happy seeing it in the paper. 

Instead of receiving the retaliation I feared, I got support. Many congratulated me on writing the piece and told me it was well written. Some became educated on what was happening. Most agreed that the protesters were being invasive.  

There was a part of me that hoped that the protesters would read my letter and leave these women alone. Being the religious zealots they are who feel they need to tell women about Christ and what women should do, they didn’t budge. It wasn’t like the protesters hadn’t read it. I would later learn one of the main protesters, the one who seems to be in charge of this demonstration, had indeed read my letter and even wrote a letter of his own in response, which was published the week after mine had been.

It seemed to prove that their agenda of harassing women with religion and anti-abortion signs was more important to them then women having access to safe and comfortable healthcare. That they would rather stand outside with a sign instead of proactively doing or supporting anything that would reduce abortion rates.   

Because of their refusal to leave women alone, I ended up diving deeper into the fight for women’s reproductive and health rights.  

Accidental Beginnings

When I look back on concerts I’ve attended, there’s usually one strong image that sticks out in my mind. Paul Stanley flying on a trapeze over the crowd to perform on a giant turntable on the other side of the arena, video footage of the horrible aftermath of the atom bombings projected at the Dir En Grey show, Ben Faust of Goatwhore flashing me an “okay?” sign during their last song when I was in obvious pain from my legs getting slammed into the edge of the stage….you get the idea.

This is a story of how a mental concert image turned me into an activist for reproductive rights.

I never imagined being an activist of anything let alone something that’s so shrouded in controversy. I’m shy and timid with a profound lack of confidence and dislike for confrontation to the point where I avoid it whenever I can. I’m also afflicted with social anxiety and certain situations cause an overwhelming sense of terror. When I reflect on it, I find it so strange that I’m doing this activism. Though I’m supportive of many causes, in most cases I’ve never done anything more than donate a few dollars to show that support. Probably the most activist thing I’ve ever done up until this year was wearing a handmade shirt that read “Homosexuals have rights, too!” after coming out quite publicly in high school and was getting made fun of for being bisexual, an act that earned me a trip to the principal’s office and a warning not to wear the shirt in the future.

So what happened? It started with my women’s health clinic and ended at a concert.

I started going to the local women’s health clinic about a decade ago when it was called Western Dairyland. The staff there was helpful and kind so I have trusted them with my vagina ever since. They’ve been there when I’ve had pregnancy scares, vaginal infections, and one cancer scare after a pap came back abnormal enough they referred me to a doctor that could do biopsies. They offer exams, birth control, testing, and treatment for little to no cost and don’t turn anyone away because of an inability to pay, which was certainly my situation when I began going there. The clinic became Essential Health Clinic (formally Options Clinic) shortly after our governor made budget cuts to family planning, but thankfully nothing changed in terms of receiving care and contraceptives.

However, one thing did change in 2016: anti-abortion protesters.

In mid-March, I went in to schedule my annual exam. Not only did I find the clinic had changed its hours and were already closed for the day, but also found a middle aged man standing just a few feet from the entrance holding a sign that said “ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN”. I was greatly confused as the clinic is NOT an abortion provider. Not that I ever needed/wanted an abortion anyways thanks to them offering birth control pills along with a never ending supply of condoms after my first major pregnancy scare.

I passed him and his large, intimidating sign as I headed back home. After nervously passing him like a scared little rabbit, I stopped. To this day I still have no idea what compelled my brain to override my social anxiety protocol so I could turn around and timidly inform him, “They don’t do abortions here and they help a lot of people.” It led into a half hour conversation. “Conversation” being a figurative word as he did most of the talking— about God, Christianity, Hell, and apparently how the clinic does “abortion referrals” while questioning me on my beliefs—and I barely got a word in. During the conversation he gave me a card: one side with six “facts” on about abortion and the other side begging me not to kill my baby and surrender myself to Christ.  

Probably as this one-sided conversation occurred, a Los Angeles based metal/rap artist/activist by the name of Otep Shamaya was preparing to release her seventh album “Generation Doom” and planning out a tour to support its release.

The week I bought the “Generation Doom” album, which I admittedly became obsessed with, I had an appointment for an annual check-up at the Essential Health Clinic. The protesters hadn’t given up since my first encounter with one of them. There was still the one lone protester standing outside with his sign, though I had heard of more showing up at other times. After going through the usual routine of going through my medical history, determining that I didn’t need a pap smear that year according to the new guidelines, and renewing my birth control prescription, the RN informed me about my rights as a patient and the rights of the protesters. Basically, thanks to Free Speech, it’s well within their rights to harass patients outside the building as they please as long as they don’t physically block entrances or physically harm anyone. She told me its best to ignore them, a statement I’m sure her superiors told her to say, and that I shouldn’t let them bother me.

Ignore them? How do ignore someone that stands near the door of your healthcare provider so you’re forced to walk past them? How do you ignore someone that puts a large anti-abortion sign in your face while trying to get you to take literature and talk about Jesus while criticizing aspects of your faith and/or life? When I was a kid, I was told to ignore the bullies that tormented me based on the logic that they would eventually get bored with me and move on, but such advice never worked. Why would it be any different now that the bullies were now grown men on the sidewalk?

I found it upsetting that I had to be told my rights as a patient because of stupid, old zealots who think they can tell women of reproductive age what to do with their bodies and their faith. I figured there had to be a reason why the RN was telling women of their patient rights and to ignore the protesters.

I asked, “Are they…scaring women?”

She went onto explain that there had been patients who were intimidated by their presence, including a young woman whose relative had called to explain she was afraid to come into her appointment because the presence of protesters scared her. I never imagined women not coming to the clinic for help because of a group of men demonstrating outside the building intimidated them. I asked about the abortion referral claim and learned they have nothing to do with abortions other than providing information about it as part of their all-options pregnancy counseling (which also includes parenting and adoption). “Refer” can mean “to mention or allude to” so technically they do refer to abortion, but they don’t do “referrals”, meaning a medical facility transfers your care to a recommended provider. I’m not entirely sure which one the protester really meant.  

I quietly slipped out the back entrance after my appointment. It only occurred to me after I had gotten halfway home that the reason I sneaked out the back was also the reason why there were women who admitted they were scared about coming in: they didn’t want to be confronted or harassed by the protesters near the entrance.

Two days after my appointment, I saw Otep perform in Ringle, WI. It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen her perform yet something about that show lead me to the activism I do now. Without this catalyst, I’d probably still be sneaking through the back door of the clinic to avoid being harassed by protesters about abortion and religion.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s usually one strong image in my mind when I reflect on the shows I’ve been to. The mental image that sticks out in my mind when I think about this show is strangely not of Otep herself. Instead, it was something not as obvious and extremely peculiar: a microphone stand.

Yes. A microphone stand.

Otep had two of them (I’m guessing for aesthetic rather than necessity). They were positioned on the front corners of this box that she stands on. Both stands were wrapped with thick, orange rope light, but the one to my right had been decorated with a couple doll heads that were vandalized with black Sharpie marker. As the crew set up the band’s gear, I couldn’t stop staring at this stand. In the moment I was mesmerized by these decapitated doll heads, I recalled an article I read where anti-abortion protesters had pelted a woman going to get an abortion with torn apart and fake bloodied doll parts. The image of the microphone stand stuck with me even more than Otep raising her black gloved fist in-between songs and declaring “This…this is the universal sign of protest”. Not to say that the protesting imagery of her set had no effect on me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about those doll heads and the story they reminded me of. Combined with her songs with themes of rebelling against tyrants and meeting the woman in all her bad ass glory after the show, I left the venue fueled with the desire to confront the zealots that showed up every Wednesday to harass woman.

dsc00550
Otep with the microphone stand decorated with doll heads.

The next day, I furiously typed out a Letter to the Editor about the services the clinic provides and the actions of the protesters. To be honest, I was terrified about submitting it for fear of retaliation, but felt I needed to send it in. There was a part of me that hoped it would convince them to leave these women alone and let them go to their appointments in peace, but they are extremely stubborn so they continue to demonstrate, lie, mislead, and bully.

But I have been just as stubborn because I believe in women having the right to choose and, more importantly, I believe everyone should be to go to their health care provider without being bullied by anti-choice protesters near the door and that women don’t deserve to be lied to about their options. Thus, I have continued to fight despite being timid and shy.