Those of you who know me personally know that I’ve started volunteering with the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force. I’ve only been doing it two weeks, and it’s already been the most intense emotional experience I’ve ever had that didn’t involve the threat of injury/death or the end of a multi-year relationship. While I may at some point tell the (boring) story of why I started, let me first explain what a clinic escort is and does. Wait, first let me set the scene.
The Planned Parenthood clinic I volunteer at is located in the District of Columbia, which (because of DC’s odd property laws mostly stemming from the city being designed with the then-current tactics of revolution in mind) leads to what might charitably be called an inconvenient problem: everything from the street right up to the building is considered “private property set aside for public use” (this has had some interesting consequences). What this means is that people protesting *ahem* “sidewalk counseling” at the clinic can walk right up to the door. All they can’t do is touch you or block access to the facility. What they can do, however, is subject the patients walking in and out to a barrage of pamphlets, posters, pleading, and (occasionally) invective.
Fortunately, the protesters can’t just walk into the clinic, because the person who works the front desk has no tolerance for nonsense, and generally she won’t buzz the front door open unless you’re walking up with one of the escorts. Yes, the front door is a security door that must be unlatched from the inside. Yes, this is a medical facility. Get this, the door inside that goes to the waiting room (and the restrooms) also needs to be buzzed open by the person at the front desk. I wonder how many more patients could be treated each year if the clinics in the U.S. didn’t have to install and maintain such protective measures?
Anyhow. What a clinic escort does is (with the permission of the clinic) walk with the patients to and from the facility, interpose themselves between the patient and the more zealous of the protestors, talk with the patient to distract from the sounds of the praying/ranting/guilt-tripping going on all around them, and generally try and support access to the clinic. In short, this is the only activism I’ve ever done that has been in support of enforcing a federal law (specifically the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act), rather than an attempt to shake things up or change political dialogue. Both literally and figuratively, a clinic escort is an unpaid volunteer with no authority or powers whatsoever beyond the simple permission of the clinic to be there, who does nothing more than facilitate patients getting in and out with as little fuss as possible.
Now you can’t touch a protestor, but what you can do is slow down while they’re in front of you, or stand where they want to be standing (usually right next to where the patient will be). You can’t tell someone to shut up, but you can provide (with your voice) an alternate thing for the patient to focus on. You can’t touch the patients (as much as sometimes some of them look like they need a hug, reassurance, or even a handshake), but you can apologize for the craziness going on around them. You can’t prevent them from occupying the sidewalk, but you can call the police if they block the path. You can’t prevent the singing, praying, or wailing and gnashing of teeth going on to either side of the walk up to the front door, but you can pick your spot to stand so that the patient’s journey is marked by a friendly, or at least non-confrontational face along the way.
Now this is definitely no fun, but not because of the patients. At worst, the patients don’t acknowledge your existence, which is fine with me. It’s not because of little recognition and no reward, because if you are there for recognition, you’re in the wrong place. This isn’t about you; it’s about ensuring access to medical care. You don’t have enough information about what people going to the clinic are doing there (and living through) to make a sane and informed judgement about it. It’s not even the protesters specifically, because anyone who has spent significant time dealing with crazy people either IRL or on the Internet has tremendous experience with filtering out the crazy. It’s not the ugly orange thingie you wear to clearly identify yourself as a clinic escort (picture from la4choice.org); in fact, the environment was so tense that I forgot I was wearing it almost immediately (I also put it on backwards at first, before another escort pointed that out).
What infuriated me almost beyond reason was how the protesters seem to treat the patients. I can’t pretend to know what they were thinking, but their behavior speaks volumes. Decide for yourself.
I didn’t get affected by much my first day. Mostly, what I did was identify the choke points, ignore things said at (and about) me, and learn the patterns of movement. Not a big deal. Seriously, mad props to the Internet, the Tea Party, and lots of lefty-haters (as well as crazy stalkers) out there for toughening me up for this.
The lone African-American among the protesters, a young woman who appeared to be at least middle class, was there both of the times I have been there. Two weekends ago, she was there quietly praying when I arrived, and she occasionally handed out flyers and tried to intercept the patients as they went in (but was nowhere near as aggressive as Dick Retta, who is dogged about yelling at each and every person “don’t kill your baby,” regardless of gender, age, or why they’re there).
Last weekend, she brought a baby (I didn’t ask, but I’m assuming it was hers), and she and some of the other protesters took turns walking up and down the walk to the door and praying. Not classy and not kind, but still didn’t get me. Children are used for political purposes all the time. It’s disgusting, it’s pathetic, and it’s not surprising. It didn’t even surprise me to see the very white, very middle-to-upper class protesters all crowd around and share in carrying the baby around like some kind of holy symbol. Manipulation through emotional symbols is very characteristic of organized religion and politics, and the protesters were very steeped in both.
There is a woman there who takes pictures of the escorts, and she tries to take pictures of the patients and the inside of the clinic (we do our best to block her from those last two targets). She says all sorts of foolish things about the escorts, such as that when we die, we’re going to see the faces of all those that have been aborted there that we made happen (somehow). She shows up with a large poster of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and tells me that it was proved by Scientists! who were Atheists! that the paint could not have been from this world! That it was supernatural! (not the copy she has, but the original). Last time I checked, crushed beetle shells were decidedly of this world, and she’s worth nothing more than amusement.
Most of the other “sidewalk counselors” rush to meet the patients in front of the clinic, follow them (with us blocking) as they move to the door, thrust literature at them, and then once the patient goes in, stand there and adopt what I think of as “the expression,” staring at the patient’s back until they’re buzzed into the waiting room. Each of the protesters (again, they call themselves “sidewalk counselors”) has their own expression; for one it’s a beatific, warm, and almost forgiving smile, for another it’s an infinitely sad and somber look, for others it’s almost an expression of mournful pleading, for still another it’s an expression of serene sadness, and the list goes on. I suspect they keep it on because the person might turn around, see them, and be moved by the depth of feeling in “the expression,” and come out of the clinic. Who knows. Maybe it’s genuine emotion, maybe it’s cynical manipulation. What I do know, is that the moment the person turns to the waiting room door, the protester(s) stop watching, drop “the expression” like a bad habit, and move to be ready to intercept the next patient.
Overall, the individual protesters gave me the impression that they cared much more about how they felt about what was going on (and about the people going in/out and around the clinic) than anything to do with the people themselves, or the circumstances they might be in (you can only hear “LET US SAVE YOUR BABY” being yelled at women who yell back “I’M NOT PREGNANT; I’M HERE FOR BIRTH CONTROL!”
so many times without smirking). It also surprised me that, having seen some of the protesters in a coffee shop (hey, I like mah mochas and my morale was low), they seemed positively enervated, when the escorts looked like they’d been through a grind. These people actually get a tremendous charge out of what they do, and I don’t think they realize that what they do is make it more difficult for everyone around them to live their lives as they need to. They would argue that they are saving lives, but in my opinion, if you’re going to say that meaningful humanity lies solely in replicating DNA, then you debase everything else that a human being is and can be (and especially debase the woman, whose mind and personality is suddenly subordinated to her uterus in your eyes).
No, the protesters individually are not a problem, and they didn’t get to me with any of their antics directly. What got to me was when a woman with running mascara and tears, followed by her boyfriend, strode toward the clinic with (I think) mixed anger and grief on her face. She was moving fast, and she didn’t say much of anything to anyone. I don’t know why she was there, not my business. She needed to get in, we got her in.
But in the very short time I’ve been doing this, I never saw the protesters so energized, so quick to move, so fervent in their appeals, so confrontational with the aforementioned protester’s baby, and so completely indifferent to the facts of another human being’s life. Did it make a difference that the woman was white, with long blond hair and a tall white man accompanying her? Maybe, but I sincerely doubt it. She was not the only one to show up. But she was the only one crying that day. She was the only one showing pain, and showing it deeply.
What got to me was how the protesters pounced on her like sharks on a bleeding seal. They didn’t know her, they didn’t know anything about her, they just knew she was in the grip of emotion, and lunged at it. Believe me, that’s my polite way of describing it.
I’m shaking a little with an emotion I can’t name as I type this, and it’s been three full days since it happened. The picture-taking lady, apparently thinking she sensed vulnerability* then showed me a poster covered in pictures of babies, and said something to the effect of “this is what you are killing. This is what is dying in there.” I don’t remember what I said back, or what she said to me in response, but I’m grateful to one of the other escorts for saying to me “it would be helpful to the patients if you went back to your spot,” in a relaxed, matter-of-fact voice.
So without even pausing for thought, I went back to my spot and got over myself, because I’m not there for me. I’m very glad that he trusted that enough to think that his simple statement would shake me out of my reaction, and I’m very glad I refocused. I’m still not quite over the experience, but now I know something on an intuitive level that I only intellectually understood before: that the real problem with the protesters is that they don’t care about the full, complex, joyous, horrible mess that is life; they live to serve their idealized fantasy world, and will subordinate that which is human, living, and real to the service of that cause.
I expect most of the escorts will be doing family stuff, so I’ll be going again this weekend. I’m going to be focusing on the patients, being civil to them, and emotionally processing what I saw (they’re always very friendly and polite to us, except for the picture-taking lady), because I don’t think we have the same understanding of what it means to be friendly, or even what it means to be alive.
* A misjudgement that was roughly on par with Dick Morris’ claim that it was going to be a Romney Landslide. Let’s just leave it at that.