Robin Marty is reporting this week from Jackson, Mississippi.
When I came through the door of Jackson Women’s Health Organization just a few minutes after 8 a.m., it didn’t feel like a clinic under siege. Diane Derzis, owner of the clinic, was welcoming and inviting, and the room had the atmosphere reminiscent of preparations for a party. Staff and volunteers were gathering to fill helium balloons with “Pro-Choice” etched proudly on them, and the only real hint of tension was the representative from the Feminist Majority Foundation, who was on site to help coordinate clinic defense. She was calm but sternly focused on running an efficient machine to create a safe space for clients in the face of the anti-choice protests expected to arrive at about 11 a.m.
It was only 8:30 when the first of them came to the gate.
Special rules are in place at JWHO on Monday and Tuesday as abortion opponents gather near the clinic to mourn the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Normally, JWHO has no buffer zone that can be enforced. Instead, those who want to “counsel” or harass patients are allowed up to the clinic gate itself, literally in the faces of those who come through the door. The only exception to that rule is the sole clinic stalker, who had a restraining order forcing him to stay further away from the front area.
This week is different. JWHO has a permit for their own supporters to be on site. That forces Operation Save America and the rest of their crew to stay across the street, away from both the clinic and the patients.
That rule was blown almost immediately at 8:30 a.m. when a man carrying what appeared to be a violin case came walking up to the gate, his bright red OSA shirt unmistakeably declaring his allegiance. Mere feet from the entrance, he looked intently at the “This Clinic Stays Open” banner covering a large portion of the fence, protecting patients from view as they approach the door from the parking lot.
One man was soon joined by another, and shortly after those inside the clinic sprang into action. Derzis charged out the door, informing them that they were not allowed near the clinic, reminding them that they were only allowed across the street.
As more protesters began to gather on their permitted corner, that was when a sprinkler was turned on.
From a coffee shop just down the street, customers watch the events with the mild interest that one pays when the nightly news is left on during the family dinner. The activists on both sides are noted then ignored, with occasional glances to see if anything interesting is occurring. One customer, who lives in the neighborhood, says this isn’t much different than normal, and it’s a presence they have become accustomed to. “There is always someone over there protesting,” she told me. “But this is bigger. It’s annoying that they will be here all week.”
When I explained that the bigger crowds should be gone by Wednesday, she and her companion looked visibly relieved. “It will be nice to have things quiet again.”
On a street of dry cleaners, drive ins, art and hair studios, the roaming “Truth Truck,” a small trailer covered in pictures of mangled fetuses and now, inexplicably, a man with guns pointing directly out that says “Sandy Hook” above it, seems even more out of sorts. Many of the buildings have a distinct 1950s architecture, and the Truth Truck is even more jarringly out of place aganst that facade. In the half hour I sat at the coffee shop the truck cruised by four times. Each time everyone near the windows glanced out, shook his or her head slightly and went back to whatever they were doing before it came down the street.
Back at the clinic the anti-choice protests have grown to around 40 or 50 people who have divided into two groups. On the side of the street nearest the clinic and its defense team is a smaller gathering the sole purpose of which seems to be to provoke those who represent or support the clinic into doing something inappropriate or illegal. The group is only a dozen at most, many holding signs with doctored photos or chubby-cheeked babies. Closest to the clinic defenders is a middle aged man and an elderly woman, the only two who try to talk to the mostly college-aged students holding up signs supporting the clinic.
“Stop the war on women! Murder babies!” yells the middle aged man, who seems intent on trying to start a confrontation. “Why don’t you crush this protest like you crush the heads of those babies in there?” he yells repeatedly at the team.
He also spends much of his time heckling the few young men in the defense group. “You aren’t a real man! They let you pretend to be a man! A real man would stand up for himself, he wouldn’t let them tell him what to do!” The protester continues to focus his harassment on the young man, who accepts it unflinchingly. Two other men in the group don red lipstick, infuriating the anti-choice protester even more. “Your lipstick matches your hat!” he shouts at one of them, a 31-year old Jew named Duncan, who is sporting a red yarmulke.
Duncan and a friend quip later away from the defense team, “How nice of him to notice. I had no idea antis were so fashion conscious!”
They joke about that sort of thing away from the front of the line and closer to the building, but while they are part of the defence line they intensely follow the rules of non-engagement. Even Duncan, especially when the heckler begins demanding to know if he would have stood silent during the Holocaust.
The small team trying to goad the clinic defenders into action are only a portion of the presence outside new buffer zone. Despite the incessant catcalling at the reproductive rights activists, the heckler goes silent when I come over to ask him if he’d like to do an interview. “You have to talk with a leader,” he tells me, and the elderly woman next to him stops yelling that the defense team is going to hell long enough to agree with him.
“You need to speak with a leader.”
They mean Flip Benham and Rusty Thomas, the leaders of Operation Save America and the States of Refuge Tour, who are across the street praying with the much larger group of anti-choice advocates. I swap small talk with Bruce, the sole African American presence among the antis. Bruce, who holds a large poster of a smiling black baby, comes across as a gentle, friendly persona in the tight pool of those who shout across the street towards the clinic. Bruce and I talk about the Vikings and sports in Minnesota while I wait for the other group to finish their prayer, and he tells me to be careful as I cross the street.
The street, which like many in Jackson is lacking lights or crosswalks, is fairly busy. But as drivers pass by, occasionally one will honk the car horn, a clear signal of rebellious support in a city that remains mostly silent when it comes to the status of the clinic.
On the other corner Benham and Thomas are jovial, in their element in what is obviously a tight knit group of activists. Benham’s smile breaks only a second as he looks the tiniest bit disappointed by the turnout, no doubt wishing that every member of the movement had taken his advice to come down to where history could literally be in the making with the last clinic in the state near closure. “Still, we made the call,” agreed Thomas. Whether the rest of the anti-choice movement chose to answer that call wasn’t their doing.
Like the clinic defenders, Benham and Thomas primarily stick to their own side, mostly ignoring the clinic and its supporters. They are busy men, rallying their troops and preparing for whatever item is next in their schedule. They leave the heckling and interaction to the team across the street, except for one moment when Benham appears to have caught a glimpse of Derzis by the clinic gate. “Why don’t you come over here and talk to me, Diane?” he shouts, as he heads over to join the vocal antis.
“Maybe later, Flip,” she calls back with a little wave.
The sprinkler turns back on again soon after. It may or may not have been a coincidence.
By 11 a.m. the anti-choice presence is mostly dispersed. Soon the last poster, sandwich board, and protester has packed up. Despite believing that the siege would start around 11 a.m. by that point in the day everything had concluded.
Some defenders stay on to be certain everyone is actually gone. The clinic staff moves back inside permanently, no longer popping back and forth to keep an eye on what was occurring outside. Many of the college students relax onto the lawn, signs at their side, chatting with each other about everything they had just seen.
Meanwhile, cars continued to drive up and down the street. Occasionally, one would still honk its horn as it went by.