As I ride my connecting bus to the clinic in St. Paul, I realize I’m a little nervous. I haven’t been at a clinic since my heyday as an activist at the Womyn’s Action Group in college in the late nineties, and I wonder how much the atmosphere has changed in the last decade. But after all, this is Minnesota. Not that Iowans are so “fire and brimstone,” but I have to assume that our anti-choice protesting will have a little more “Minnesota nice,’ right? I wasn’t there to protest, simply to observe, but I was already feeling tense.
The bus drops me off right by the clinic just before 9 a.m. It was easy to find with the protesters from both sides walking in their separate circles on each side of the entrance, with a space open in the center for patients to enter and exit. The pro-choice activists were closer to the intersection, dressed in bright colors, smiling and waving at the cars who honked back at them. The anti-choice protesters are more numerous, quiet and subdued. A group of monks are chanting together in front of the circle of silent, marching protesters. The crowd is made up of mostly older people, especially older women, with a handful of college age boys and young children. So far the signs are low key, non-graphic.
I’m told it’s still early.
The archbishop of St. Paul is expected to arrive soon, which may change the temper of the crowd on both sides. Escorts wait for patients to arrive. Police, looking somewhat bored, wait for possible trouble. One tells me to step down from the retaining wall where I am taking pictures. Then he smiles, as if that’s as much conflict as he expects today.
The archbishop arrives and holds a prayer service for the anti-choice attendees. He reminds the protesters that today is a day of peace and prayer. The liturgy is very calm and respectful, as is the call and response. I catch myself occasionally answering as well, thanks to Catholic inlaws who bring me to church on holidays. It’s amazing how much of a reflex that can be.
More and more families with children arrive, and the anti-choice crowd swells. Still, the cars driving by hold off on sounding their horns until they arrive in front of the pro-choice supporters, when they then begin to honk away. The supporters cheer back as if they are having their own version of call and response.
By noon, both sides have large crowds in attendance, and both sides have held religious services for their supporters. As the day progresses, the anti-choice protesters have their barrier moved back to allow them more room to spread out. The silent, prayerful walking continues, broken only once, earlier, by a fiery sermon comparing the clinic workers to Pilate. Little children follow their parents, some carrying homemade signs, others assembling their own crosses made out of the branches that they have broken from the trees lining the sidewalks.
A protester, identified to me as a regular at this clinic, talks to people approaching the doors. He speaks with two younger, African American men who are trying to get to the door, begging them not to throw in with the “evil” people inside. The men look frustrated and start to verbally engage, but then break off and go inside. Later they come back outside, and begin walking the solidarity circle with the prochoice supporters.
The anti-choice protesters are mostly quiet, respectful, and interested more in prayer than conversion or conversation. One woman tells me that she is here to join in prayer with the other worshipers, and that human life is of intrinsic value and should be defended. She also is against birth control, as human life begins in the womb. Another tells me she is recent Catholic convert, and that her religion says that the murder of any life is wrong. She corrects me when I call what they are doing a protest, informing me that they consider it an event of prayer.
Meanwhile, the prochoice marchers continue their songs and their cheers as more and more cars come by. Someone has written alternate lyrics to “Amazing Grace” that involve a woman’s right to bodily sovereignty, and they sing it with relish, a stark contrast to the slower, mournful version of the song sung in the other circle. It’s a joy-filled celebration, especially when they realize that by noon their “Pledge a Protester” drive has raised almost $17,000 – nearly two thousand more than their goal. The food drive containers are overflowing as well, and need to be emptied yet again and more and more supporters come bringing food and goods to donate.
It is exactly noon when the rain begins.
By 1:30 it is much grayer and darker. The prochoice protesters have to exchange their sodden, ripping signs for new, fresh versions. One woman jokes that she hopes the volunteers are taking the old signs in to be blow-dried and returned to the marchers so they can recycle. The horns are nearly continuous now, as are the cheers from the protesters in response.
In the other circle, a shift change appears to have occurred. Although I still recognize some faces from the morning shift, a new set of anti-choicers have arrived. There are many more children now, many more signs. The signs are also less sedate. More “Planned Parenthood Lies” and genocide signs. Two women march with “I Regret My Abortion” signs, although when I ask them if they would like to do an interview and talk about it they tell me “absolutely not.”
More people are joining the prochoice side as well, although many are leaving too, because of the rain. Tiffany Campbell arrives, driving all morning from her home in Nebraska. “It’s imperative that we take the opportunity to show our support for Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights,” she explains when I ask her why she drove so far to attend. There were no events in Nebraska today. Volunteers from the South Dakota clinic come as well, showing support for the doctors who come out once a week to their clinic to provide services to the women in the state. A few in the crowd are wearing white coats, medical students who are advocating for reproductive health and demanding that abortion procedures be included as a part of a doctor’s training. “Even if abortion is legal and it’s supported, if there aren’t any providers for abortion, that doesn’t mean anything,” one tells me.
I hang out under the overhang by the side of the building, trying to avoid the rain for a bit. A taxi pulls into the parking lot, and an escort leads a small family to the cab. I had seen the man walking with the toddler earlier, the child stumbling up and down the sidewalk with the steps of one new to walking. Now they are with a younger woman, and the three climb into the vehicle together and pull slowly away from the building, avoiding the protesters on both sides.
I ask Kathi Di Nicola, the Media Relations Director of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, how many people actually come in for services on this Good Friday, and she tells me only ten. “We let them know what to expect before we set the appointment,” she tells me. “Most of the ones who still come just don’t have any other choice.”
Soon I decide to head home. The anti-choice group is beginning to thin out a bit, not as able to use their speaker system due to the rain and now lightening that is coming in flashes. The more determined continue in the circle, a group of children working together to carry a large cross, a nun here and there among the crowd. By this point the Knights of Columbus, who lead some of the previous prayers and songs are packing up. The crowd is still sober, melancholy, and decidedly quiet. This appears to be as much about mourning the death of Jesus as the death of “innocent life” and the event gives them a chance to focus that sorrow as they head into Easter.
But as I walk away from the clinic, heading back to my bus stop, I am amazed by how long I can continue to hear the horns honking, the cheers of support that is filling the street and following me home. If the anti-choice prayer vigil was about solemn focus on death and loss, then the pro-choice solidarity march epitomized the joy and celebration that always comes with spring.