Illustration by Hokyoung Kim
Assuming the car was for him, Maddox hurried over and peered inside. Then he bolted away. What he saw in the vehicle, he later told police, was a white man with a white bandana over his face. The man was holding a shotgun and pointing it at the clinic doors.
It was Jan. 22, the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
By the time law enforcement arrived, the suspect was gone. The clinic’s front door, made of glass, was blown out. Shotgun casings were scattered on the ground. Inside, shot marred the walls. An investigation is ongoing, but so far, no one has been arrested or charged in the crime.
The clinic was closed and unoccupied when the shooting occurred. But it seemed intended to send an intimidating message to patients and staff: You are not safe here. It also had the practical effect of halting services for the day. On the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide, patients had their appointments rescheduled.
The fight over abortion rights is at a tumultuous stage right now, both in Tennessee ― which passed one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country last year, only to see it promptly blocked by the courts ― and nationally, as Republican-led states push extreme bills in the hopes that one will eventually serve as the vehicle to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Anti-abortion activists are regrouping after the defeat of former President Donald Trump, and grappling with a White House that supports abortion rights. Trump, who claimed to be the most pro-life president ever, spent four years demonizing abortion, spouting inflammatory rhetoric and spreading misinformation. During this time, abortion clinics across the country saw a spike in threats of violence and acts of obstruction and intimidation. The FBI predicted that attacks on abortion clinics would likely rise further during the presidential election cycle, and it says 2021 is apt to bring more unrest.
Despite Trump’s loss, many anti-abortion activists are still optimistic that a conservative Supreme Court, cemented by his three nominees, will vote to end the constitutional right to abortion. Others have become even more radicalized by President Joe Biden’s win. A handful of known anti-abortion activists were spotted in and around the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot, when Trump supporters stormed the building in a deadly assault.
One activist, who spoke at a pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., the night before the riot, was particularly notable to reproductive health advocates in Tennessee: Ken Peters, a fiery pastor who organizes religious protests outside abortion clinics.
An anti-masker who wrongly believes Trump won the 2020 election, Peters recently moved to Knoxville to begin the latest chapter of his organization, The Church At Planned Parenthood, or TCAPP. In his own words, TCAPP is a worship service at the gates of hell. Peters and his supporters set up as close to a Planned Parenthood clinic as possible, in order to sing and pray against what they see as the evils of abortion. His most recent target: the Knoxville clinic.
Tensions High In Tennessee
For years, Tennessee had fewer abortion regulations than neighboring states, due to a state Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that found that the state constitution protected a woman’s right to an abortion.
In 2014, the state constitution was amended to explicitly state that abortion was not protected. Ever since, the Tennessee General Assembly has been working overtime to catch up to its neighbors, passing a handful of bills to restrict abortion access.
“There’s been a ramp-up,” said Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state abortion legislation for the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research group.
On the last day of the 2020 legislative session, legislators passed a sweeping bill to prohibit abortions once a doctor can detect cardiac activity in an embryo ― which typically happens at around six weeks into a pregnancy, before many people know they are pregnant. The bill also prohibits abortion if the doctor is aware the decision is motivated by the race or sex of the fetus, or by a diagnosis of Down syndrome.
The vote occurred in the middle of the night, with no advance warning to the public, said Francie Hunt, executive director of Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood, who was arrested after attempting to observe the vote. Gov. Bill Lee (R) and the leaders of the state Senate and House had promised constituents they were only going to take up COVID-related issues, she added.
“Literally, at the 11th hour, we find out that they’re using an abortion ban, and our bodily autonomy, as a bargaining chip to the budget,” Hunt said.
Nationally, it was the first abortion ban to be passed since the pandemic began. Lee, who signed the bill into law, called it “the most conservative, pro-life” piece of legislation in the country. The law was blocked almost immediately, although in the months since, a judge has allowed one of its provisions to go into effect.
Lee has been outspoken about his rigid opposition to abortion rights. On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the same day the Knoxville clinic was shot, he tweeted: “Abortion isn’t healthcare.” If he knew that a Planned Parenthood clinic had been attacked in his state just a few hours earlier, he did not mention it. He has not publicly commented on the shooting.
“All of this ― the political attacks, his extreme rhetoric ― it creates a toxic environment where extremism can thrive,” Hunt said.
A Newcomer Arrives In Knoxville
Last July, Peters moved to Knoxville to start a new chapter of TCAPP. The group’s goal is to peacefully shine a light on the activities of Planned Parenthood, he told HuffPost ― not to harass patients.
But the history of TCAPP in Spokane, Washington, where the group began, tells a different story.
Since 2018, Peters has organized a recurring protest directly outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Spokane. According to a lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, these events attracted hundreds of people, some of whom carried firearms. The group used a professional PA system and loudspeakers to amplify their singing and praying.
For patients attempting to visit the clinic, the experience was often distressing. Some patients would drive away when they saw the protesters, the lawsuit states. Others burst into tears in the clinic as they could hear every word protesters were shouting outside.
Many of Peters’ posts on social media and speeches at TCAPP protests are laced with veiled references to violence and encouragement to disregard the law, said Kim Clark, one of the attorneys from Legal Voice who represented Planned Parenthood in the lawsuit.
When someone mused on Twitter that Black Lives Matter protesters should burn down abortion clinics because they were “literally designed to destroy black lives,” Peters retweeted the message, adding “Boom” and two fire emojis.
“He says these totally incendiary things, and uses metaphors and [religious] references that are clearly meant to be threatening. He publicly has bragged about the number of people who carry guns to TCAPP protests. At one protest, he actually asked for hands in the crowd of how many people had been to jail for the cause of abortion,” Clark said. “But in the next breath, he claims that he doesn’t endorse violence.”
A Spokane County Superior Court judge ordered that TCAPP protests had to move at least 35 feet away from the Planned Parenthood building, and that they cannot start until at least one hour after Planned Parenthood closes.
In an interview with HuffPost, Peters downplayed the lawsuit, joking that patients claimed they were traumatized by the protesters’ poor singing voices.
“We’re not doing anything violent,” he said. “All we’re doing is worshipping, praying and preaching and giving. That’s the weapons of our warfare.”
When Peters relocated to Knoxville, he left his church at the time, Covenant Christian Church, in the hands of former Washington state Rep. Matt Shea, a far-right figure who in 2016 participated in an act of domestic terrorism, according to a report produced for the Washington state legislature.
“This is God moving generals around,” Peters said when announcing that Shea would replace him as pastor.
Peters promotes TCAPP at his new church in Knoxville, called Patriot Church, where right-wing politics and the gospel are fused at the pulpit in his weekly sermons. Trump, election fraud, the Capitol riot, sexual immorality, the left, the fake media, free speech and abortion are frequent topics of conversation at his church, which is held in a barn with a giant American flag painted on the roof.
He does not identify with the term “Christian nationalism,” preferring the phrase “God and country,” but he believes in many of its tenets, including that the U.S. is a Christian nation, the federal government should advocate Christian values, and that God took a direct interest in the 2020 presidential election and wanted a particular outcome. His sermons often feature militaristic language of soldiers, war and weapons.
“What is a patriot? What kind of Christian are we looking for in this church?” Peters asked during a sermon on Jan. 24. “A patriot, I believe, is one who is willing to give their life for the gospel, for their family and for their country.”
When asked by HuffPost about his use of violent imagery in his speeches, he laughed. He said he was not concerned that anyone could be inspired to take violent action after listening to him.
“If they did, there’d be something wrong with their psyche,” Peters said. “Anybody who hangs out with us knows the difference and the distinction between actual warfare and spiritual warfare.”
Clark says this is disingenuous. Even if Peters doesn’t engage in violence himself, his messaging can be interpreted as an encouragement to do so, she noted.
She called Peters a pawn in the broader Christian nationalist movement ― a movement that is less about religion than about political power.
“The masterminds behind the movement, right-wing policy groups and the like, use pastors like Peters to recruit followers, co-opting religion to exploit the basic human need for identity and belonging, even if it means spreading hate,” she said.
A strange series of events lead to Peters being at the Capitol on the day of the riot. As he explained in a Facebook video, he drove to Dalton, Georgia, for a Trump rally on Jan. 4. While he was there, he was invited to speak at a pro-Trump gathering the following day in Washington, D.C. Peters wanted to go, but wasn’t sure how he would make it in time ― the drive would take him all night.
His problem was solved when MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who was also at the rally, offered him a ride in his private jet. Peters didn’t have a hotel room booked, but Lindell put him up in a corner suite at the Trump International Hotel in D.C., he said.
At the rally on Jan. 5, Peters was given only a few minutes to amp up the crowd with his words.
“We are not just up against politicians, and we are not just in a culture war. We are in a kingdom war. This is the kingdom of darkness versus the kingdom of light,” he told the crowd, wearing a “RIGGED 2020” hat. “This is our time, and if we do not hold up the shield of faith, Satan will take over this land.”
Peters did not take part in the Capitol riot himself. But online, in the month since, he has both downplayed what happened that day and blamed the chaos on antifa. “The ones who truly stormed the Capitol illegally were all the Congressmen who refused to audit the vote and discover the will of the people,” he tweeted on Jan. 26.
Love Your Neighbor
The Knoxville Planned Parenthood clinic, which has been in operation since 2010, is one of only eight abortion clinics in the state. Mississippi, to the south, has just one abortion clinic. Arkansas, to the west, has two. So does Kentucky, to the north.
Things have been different at the clinic since Peters moved to town. Before, they had only a handful of regular protesters. Now, there’s been an uptick in both the number of demonstrators and the level of vitriol.
“I’ve been with Planned Parenthood in Knoxville for 10 years. And this is new,” said Tory Mills, director of community engagement for Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi. “We’re seeing more folks who are trying to engage with patients, trying to engage with us.”
She said she was not surprised that the Knoxville Planned Parenthood saw its first act of violence within months of Peters moving there. “The words and actions that he uses do incite violence,” Mills said.
So far, TCAPP has held two events outside the clinic. Another one is scheduled for Feb. 16. The theme is “Love Your Neighbor.”
Clinic staff can’t do anything to stop the protests. Instead, they’re focused on making sure patients know it’s safe to obtain care there. They don’t want people to feel intimidated or afraid.
Since the shooting, the clinic has been inundated with support from the community, Mills said. The office is brimming with flowers and cards. Many people have stopped by to offer words of encouragement.
“By and large, the vast majority of Tennesseans want to see Roe v. Wade remain the law of the land,” said Hunt, the Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood director. “Most Tennesseans want to make sure that abortion remains safe and legal, because we know that banning abortion doesn’t eliminate abortion. It just makes it illegal and unsafe. And people here understand that.”
Peters is not representative of the Tennessee community, Mills said.
“He doesn’t know our community. He doesn’t want to get to know our community,” she said. “A lot of us here really value the ability of families to make decisions that are right for them without interference from politicians.”
CORRECTION: This article previously misstated Arkansas’ geographical relationship to Tennessee.