Between May 24 and Aug. 22, 2020, the United States saw a wave of nearly 11,000 racial justice protests. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), an organization that collects data on political violence and demonstrations, classified 95% of these protests as peaceful, even under their broad definition of violence, which includes vandalism, road blocking, and looting.
Even with this low rate of violence, the ACLED reports that nearly 1 in 10 of these protests were met with police intervention and, more often than not, with force. Police fired ‘nonlethal’ rounds, sprayed tear gas, and beat protesters with batons. In addition to using violent methods on the streets, law enforcement also amped up their use of the judicial system as a means to bring protestors to heel. Charges have been filed across the country against even peaceful protesters for a multitude of crimes, including serious felonies.
However, not all protests in America are treated with such a heightened response from the police. In fact, the ACLED found that police used force at demonstrations against police violence at five times the rate of any other kind of protest. This includes the COVID-19 restriction, ‘anti-lockdown’ protests, like the ones at the Michigan capitol building in May, which drew heavily armed protesters and prompted some state legislators to wear bulletproof vests. Anti-abortion protesters also usually avoid police responses, even when their protests are in close proximity to demonstrations against police violence.
Anti-abortion protesters are a fixture outside abortion clinics throughout the United States, and the long history of violence associated with these protests is tracked by organizations like the National Abortion Federation (NAF). All told, since 1977, there have been at least 11 murders tied to anti-abortion activists, 26 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 189 arsons, and 11,905 incidents of clinic violence, according to NAF. This is in addition to 714,076 incidents of obstruction, harassment, threats, and picketing.
Many of these incidents had connections to the American terrorist organization the Army of God, including the 1982 kidnapping of a doctor and his wife, the 1993 attempted murder of George Tiller by Shelley Shannon outside a Kansas clinic, and the Atlanta Olympic Park bombings by Eric Rudolph, who also bombed two abortion clinics. In 2015, Robert Lewis Dear Jr., who had frequently participated in anti-abortion activism, murdered three people outside of a Planned Parenthood in Colorado. Dear Jr. also claimed ties to the Army of God and was said to idolize other people who had murdered abortion providers.
And yet, these protesters rarely attract police attention, much less intervention. According to a report by NAF, there was an increase in violence and picketing outside these clinics in 2019, with over 123,000 incidents reported nationwide. The more extreme incidents include 19 invasions of clinic property, 1507 incidents of trespassing, 24 assaults and batteries, 92 death threats, 8 bomb threats, and 3387 incidents where the entrance to an abortion clinic was obstructed. Even with the increased frequency of violence, anti-abortion protesters meet comparatively less force from police than protestors demonstrating for racial justice.
President and CEO of NAF, the Very Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, says that there could be many factors contributing to the rise of violence outside clinics. “We have seen anti-abortion individuals become emboldened since Trump was elected. When we see abortion covered in the news, there is often an increase in protests and anti-abortion activity,” she says.
The recent uptick in aggressive actions by anti-abortion protesters have particularly concerned Robin Marty, author of “Handbook for a Post-Roe America” and “The End of Roe v. Wade.” Many of these actions violate the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which sets civil and criminal penalties for individuals and groups that block patients from entering clinics. This includes acts like blockading clinic doors, the infiltration of clinics by organizations such as Red Rose Rescue, and the huge protests by thousands of people from groups such as Love Life Charlotte, which also constructed a perch in a tree next door to a clinic from which to intimidate and harass patients and staff.
“These are major escalations and all directly violate the FACE Act, yet there really have been no repercussions. If these happen more frequently in places where there is only one clinic, that could turn into abortion access disappearing completely in an entire state, all under the actions of one group of anti-choicers,” says Marty.
Marty thinks that the difference between police response to anti-abortion protests and those for racial justice is because of what the protests are addressing.
“One of the biggest differences is probably that police see civil rights protesters as breaking up a structure that puts white men at the top of the power chain (and many officers, especially on the ground, are white men) … equal rights protests are about ending that hierarchy, and so police see it as a direct threat to their own authority,” says Marty. “Whereas with anti-abortion protesters, they are also upholding that same structure of patriarchy. After all, there is nothing more patriarchal than denying a person the ability to end a pregnancy.”
Many of these anti-abortion protesters and groups have long-standing ties to white supremacist philosophies. In some cases they have direct ties to white nationalist and other hate groups. In 1994, Michael Griffin, the murderer of Dr. David Gunn, had connections to the Ku Klux Klan. Recently, Kristen Walker Hatten, at the time the vice president of New Wave Feminists, an anti-choice group hoping to appeal to younger women, openly identified as an ethonationalist.
Four cities that have drawn the most attention for their protests against police brutality are Minneapolis, Louisville, Kenosha, and Portland. All of these cities also have consistent protest movements in front of their abortion clinics which receive very little attention from the media or law enforcement.
“The reaction is quite different when you compare these to the BLM protests, where police are more than eager to disperse a crowd—either physically or with weapons. Obviously police violence is never the answer to anything, but imagine if law enforcement treated a chained anti-abortion protester with the same physical force as in Minneapolis or Portland,” says Marty.
The current wave of uprisings against police violence started on May 25, after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The protests in the immediate aftermath produced property damage, including, famously, the burning of MPD’s 3rd Precinct (an act which at least one right wing “Boogaloo Boy” has been charged with assisting). However, even during these initial days there were many other protests that involved no violence, and also many community actions to clean up the area and provide services to residents.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz activated the National Guard for the largest deployment of troops since World War II. These troops and the Minneapolis police used rubber bullets and tear gas on protesters and on numerous journalists covering the event, blinding a photojournalist in one eye and arresting a CNN correspondent live on air. They arrested over 600 others.
According to the ACLED report, there were 36 racial justice demonstrations in Minneapolis between May 24 and Oct. 30, 10 of which involved government intervention; 60% of those involved use of force by the state.
Minneapolis is also the site of long-standing anti-abortion protests that rarely draw any police response. Angelika Lang, the clinic manager at Whole Woman’s Health of the Twin Cities, says that protesters are a daily presence at the clinic in nearby Bloomington, Minnesota. Protesters follow patients and get within a few feet of them, use loudspeakers, and pace back and forth on the driveway in front of the clinic.
The police have, on occasion, arrived at these protests, but have not responded to them as aggressively as they have responded to many of the racial justice protests in the city. “Police have not made any arrests, but have issued a few citations. Protesters have not been ordered to disperse,” says Lang.
Louisville has seen daily protests since May 28 in response to the killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville Metro Police Department officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove in March. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear called in the National Guard early in the protests, a decision that resulted in the killing of local barbecue restaurateur David McAtee. Prior to the announcement of the grand jury decision in the Taylor case on Sept. 23, the city of Louisville barricaded many roads and plywood was used to shield all city property in downtown Louisville, as well as most of the businesses nearby.
Louisville police have, on numerous occasions, used tear gas against protesters (an action they are currently being sued for). They have also used rubber bullets and other nonlethal rounds. LMPD has arrested hundreds of protesters, including a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives. According to the ACLED report, there were 68 racial justice demonstrations in Louisville between May 24 and Oct. 30, 21 of which involved government intervention, with more than half of those involving the use of force by the state.
Just blocks away from where these protests took place stands EMW’s Women’s Surgical Center, which, until Planned Parenthood started providing abortions this year, was Kentucky’s only remaining clinic. EMW sits on a busy street, and the only entrance for patients is on a public sidewalk. Daily protests involve blocking the sidewalks, using loudspeakers, and aggressively following patients, sometimes all the way from their car to the clinic’s front door. In May of 2017, Operation Save America (OSA)—an offshoot of Operation Rescue, the notorious anti-choice group whose actions in the early 1990s helped lead to the passage of the FACE Act—blockaded the clinic doors.
On Aug. 19, the Metro Council rejected a proposed safety zone that would have created a 12-foot barrier around any health care clinic in order to protect patients. Savannah Trebuna, clinic escort and former Louisville Safety Zone organizer with Kentucky Health Justice Network, says that the city and police have taken a very hands-off approach with the protesters at EMW.
Trebuna, who has also participated in the marches for racial justice in Louisville, describes a stark contrast between the behavior of police towards the anti-abortion protesters and their behavior towards marchers against police violence. “As the world has seen, LMPD’s response to peaceful demonstrations addressing state-sanctioned violence on Black and Brown bodies was, and continues to be, violent and antagonistic,” she says, “[Whereas] the cops make it very clear at the clinic that they can’t affiliate on one side or the other, while simultaneously shaking hands with antis and being very cordial.”
On Aug. 23, Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha Police Department officer Rusten Sheskey. He survived this shooting, but was left paralyzed from the waist down. After the shooting, which was captured on video, Kenosha citizens took to the streets in protest. Police almost immediately responded by dispersing tear gas and nonlethal ammunition. As the protests continued, there were incidents of arson, including of a car dealership and a parole facility. According to the ACLED report, there were 24 racial justice demonstrations in Kenosha between May 24 and Oct. 30, 5 of which involved government intervention, with all but one of those involving the use of force by the state.
Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from Illinois, responded to a call for counterprotesters in a right-wing militia Facebook group and arrived in Kenosha on Aug. 25. Rittenhouse and other right wing counterprotesters are seen on video being given water by police. Later that evening, Rittenhouse shot three protesters, killing Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber. He was allowed by police officers to leave through a barricade despite numerous protesters identifying him as the shooter. This led many protesters to claim that the police had different rules for protesters depending on their own politics.
Kenosha also has a consistent presence of anti-abortion protesters outside their clinic. Lisa Boyce, interim VP of communications for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, says that while the protesters are usually peaceful, since the main entry door is on the sidewalk, patients do have to walk by them to enter the facility.
During President Trump’s Sept. 1 visit to Kenosha, Boyce says protesters had a more aggressive presence outside their clinic that required patients to enter through a rear door. However, law enforcement was not called and did not arrive to break up these protests. “These protesters were not from the Kenosha area but other areas of the state. They did use loudspeakers and, due to the number of them, blocked sidewalks,” says Boyce.
While Portland did not have a well-publicized inciting incident of racial violence this year like the other cities featured in this article (although the Portland police department does have a history of police killings), it has had ongoing protests since the start of the uprisings in May. It has also had some of the most violent police responses to protests. According to the ACLED report, there were 147 racial justice demonstrations in Portland between May 24 and Oct. 30, 85 of which involved government intervention, with 54% of those involving the use of force by the state.
Portland police, the National Guard, and agents from the Department of Homeland Security have pulled protesters off the street into unmarked vehicles, used tear gas to such an extent that a federal judge ordered them to stop, used pepper spray and rubber bullets against protesters, and shot a protester in the head with a nonlethal round, fracturing his skull while he was holding a boombox over his head.
Portland also has a long history with anti-abortion protesters, including those with ties to white supremacist groups, going back to the 1990s, when the skinhead group American Front joined Operation Rescue protests. Organizers with Cascade Abortion Support Collective (CASC) say that the kind of protests that occur outside Portland clinics can sometimes be blocks-long groups of people. There is also a group at one clinic that shows up every Saturday and uses loudspeakers, blocks sidewalks, films and verbally harasses patients and bystanders, and carries pamphlets and signs with graphic photos.
The city of Portland directs clinic staff to call its non-emergency line when protesters trespass or otherwise violate the law, but the police only sometimes respond in these situations. Organizers with CASC aren’t aware of any arrests or orders to disperse made by the Portland police to anti-abortion protesters. “While the anti-abortion protests are more frequent, and rhetorically more violent, the police take the position that these protesters have the right to free speech, and the freedom of religion, and they therefore won’t [or] cannot interfere unless there is direct threat,” say organizers.
In these four cities, as well as others across the country, anti-abortion protesters are a consistent and often dangerous presence outside of health care clinics. Research has found that these protests don’t change patients’ views of the necessity of their abortions, but can have a negative impact on patients by making the process of accessing the clinic more stressful, and on clinics by requiring them to provide more support and security measures to protect their staff and patients. In many locations escorts are present to help usher patients safely to clinic doors. This has been even a greater burden during the pandemic.
“For a movement that claims to care about ‘life,’ these individuals show no regard for the lives or health of patients seeking medical care, the health care professionals at those clinics, or even their own families and communities,” says Ragsdale.
Markus Dirk Dubber, in his book “The Police Power: Patriarchy and the Foundations of American Government,” explains that the power of the state and the police in American society is explicitly based on the concept of paterfamilias—the idea that the state governs its citizens in the same way that a father would control his family. This patriarchal structure, which is the foundation of American policing, can help explain why, even with the clear harm that anti-abortion protesters pose to patients, staff, and community, the police rarely respond to them: Because, ultimately, they are also invested in controlling pregnant people.
Meanwhile, protests for racial justice bring out a disproportionate response from law enforcement because they challenge the structure of society. Dubber writes that “constraints upon state power, including the power to police, ultimately derive from the rights of its objects as persons.” America, since its inception, has deprived Black people of full personhood, and therefore is less likely to operate with restraint when using police power against them. This, combined with the prevalence of hyper-masculinity among police officers, explains both the initial use of violence in interactions with Black people and the police’s response to protests against constraints on that violence.
The disparity of responses to protests in America can be explained by both white supremacy and patriarchal control. This is why the movement for reproductive justice recognizes that the issue of reproductive rights is intrinsically linked with the movement for Black lives. Without recognizing the structural racism and sexism (and its combination) that permeates American society, it is impossible to ensure either the right to a safe abortion or the right to be safe from police.
Correction 12/02/2020: A previous version of this article stated that George Tiller was murdered in 1993. Tiller survived the 1993 murder attempt by Shelley Shannon and was killed in 2009 by Scott Roeder.