CHARLOTTE, N.C. ― On any given Saturday morning, Calla Hales is faced with hundreds of protesters outside the abortion clinic she runs. Members of various anti-abortion rights groups flock to A Preferred Women’s Health Center to preach, pray, and shame women who are trying to access their federally protected right to an abortion.
Patients are told that abortion is a violent act and that a woman’s sole purpose is to bear children. They are called selfish murderers; their husbands and boyfriends are called cowards.
The city of Charlotte has granted these groups sound permits, thus allowing them to set up their microphones and sound systems just off the property of the clinic. Through the doors of the health center, patients can hear the anti-abortion diatribes, almost all of which are given by white men.
But this weekend brought more than just the usual suspects. Hales and her patients were faced with the added presence of the “Men for Life” prayer walk, led by Love Life Charlotte, or LLC, a conglomeration of Christian churches based in the city with the shared goal of “bring[ing] an end to abortion in Charlotte in 2017.”
The founder of the group, Justin Reeder, said in a video advertising the event that men need to “man up and stand up” against abortion.
“The truth is, this is more a man’s issue than a woman’s issue,” he says. “Yes, one out of three women will have an abortion in their lifetime, but it’s also one out of three men. We forget about the men so often in this story.”
Reeder told HuffPost that LLC wants to foster a culture of “love and life in our city at the busiest abortion clinic in the Southeast,” and that men play a pivotal role in that.
“Men are called to be providers and protectors of women and children,” he said. “We are calling for fathers to be fathers and take responsibility. If men were taking responsibility and standing with mothers then the majority of women would not feel like abortion is their only option.”
Though the turnout didn’t quite hit the goal of 1,000, Hales estimates that close to 600 people marched ― predominantly men, but some women and young children as well. Organizers of the event agreed with that figure.
The march officially began at 9 a.m., but LLC members began setting up before 8 a.m., just up the street from the clinic. Most of the members wore blue T-shirts provided by the organization. Fathers and their young sons stood on the side of the road holding and waving signs to direct parking for other LLC members.
By 9 a.m., those 600 people began to make their way down the street toward the clinic in a “prayer march” that culminated with a protest at the end of the road, directly across from the clinic, and into the mouth of already-heated anti-abortion demonstration that had started an hour earlier.
Reeder was given a microphone to lead the hundreds of men who’d followed him. To anyone new to this scenario, it looked much more like a rally than a prayer.
A flourishing pro-choice community
On the opposite side of the anti-abortion community in Charlotte is the city’s local activist group, Pro Choice Charlotte. The group works with Hales to support patients in the clinic and keep the anti-abortion protesters at bay and away from patients.
Pro Choice Charlotte has two separate groups ― clinic escorts and clinic defenders. Clinic defenders work off of clinic property to hold signs on the clinic’s street directing patients in the right direction, serving also as “counter-protesters” who face off with the anti-abortion protesters, or “antis.”
Clinic escorts work on clinic property to escort patients safely from their cars into the clinic doors. One volunteer counter protestor, Jasmine Sherman, told HuffPost that she volunteers because “abortion isn’t just a white feminist issue.”
“In Charlotte, black women are being persecuted by white men in the name of their God and it is wrong,” she told HuffPost. “This city isn’t doing it’s part to protect black women and that means it is my job as a black woman to help my sisters in need. That support is also extended to other people of color and white women.”
Pro Choice Charlotte extends its action off of clinic grounds, too. Its members frequently hold meetings with city officials, and members have also spoken out in town hall meetings with members of the city council. In January, the group marched at the Women’s March the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
But their goal, first and foremost, is defending the clinic from both regular protests and those thinly-veiled as “prayer marches.”
600 angry men ― with the city behind them
Hales, her clinic staff and volunteers say they struggle with city officials’ apparent complicity in giving anti-abortion groups a platform. LLC’s all-men prayer walk is a prime example.
Hales and Pro Choice Charlotte members keep a pretty constant eye on anti-abortion groups’ goings-on around the city ― they learned of the “thousand men march” a couple of weeks ago. Brooke Adams, a Pro Choice Charlotte member who volunteers as liaison between the group and city officials, told HuffPost that she saw the event promoted on LLC’s website and informed city officials and the Charlotte police on May 27, and asked what their plans were for protecting patients. No city officials or police leadership knew that the event was even happening before Adams notified them. LLC was planning on taking 1,000 men to march outside the abortion clinic without informing the city or the police.
Adams told HuffPost that, as of Tuesday June 6 (just four days prior to the event) LLC hadn’t even applied for a parade permit. She said she learned from the City Attorney’s office that the city had to tell LLC to apply for a parade permit, and that their application was approved on that same day. The city told HuffPost they knew about the planned march for two weeks, but wouldn’t confirm which group notified them.
What Hales and Pro Choice Charlotte found most frustrating, though, is that according to Charlotte city code, LLC needed to apply for a parade permit 30 days before its prayer march. Instead, the city expedited the permit, citing a clause that states they can do so “where other good and compelling causes are shown” in the permit application.
A city spokesperson explained to HuffPost that they were able to expedite the parade permit because the city felt it could accommodate the needs of both groups. “Because we were working in advance with both groups and had already developed a sufficient plan to protect the public and make sure there was open access to the clinic at all times, the city was able to adequately facilitate this event in less than 30 days,” she said.
To appease both anti- and pro-abortion rights groups, Charlotte police blocked half the street with orange cones on the day of the protest ― one half of the street was given to the LLC, and the other half was allotted to clinic patients and other members of the public driving in. Police officers (and, though illegally, members of LLC) directed cars at neighboring intersections to keep the flow of traffic moving and avoid any confusion on what is normally a two-way street, and Charlotte police lieutenant, Shawn Crooks, employed over a dozen officers outside the clinic to ensure safety for all involved parties.
As predicted by Hales and Pro Choice Charlotte, the prayer march was anything but “peaceful.”
LLC touts itself as a nonviolent religious group, existing only to stand quietly across the street to pray. But its members take up excessive space outside the clinic, and its leaders yell into the microphone and lead prayers and chants that are audible through the clinic doors. One member of LLC even had a drone with him, even though filming any private property without written consent from the property owner is illegal in the state of North Carolina.
The group also becomes an audience for the already-emboldened anti-abortion speakers from the other religious groups. Hales is used to the couple hundred who regularly show up to protest, but even if LLC did remain silent and peaceful, throwing in an extra 600 men doesn’t do much to keep the tension down outside the clinic.
The microphone was handed off from Reeder to other men, all of whom used similar shaming tactics. LLC members stood in the middle of the street, potentially blocking car or foot traffic into the clinic. They played loud Christian music, held their hands up in the air, and some children even brought baby dolls to hold up. (See video footage below.)
None of this is considered harassment enough to be banned by the city, and the organizations continue to be rewarded with permits for their anti-choice platform without the same level of support being provided to the center.
In fact, a member of Pro Choice Charlotte, Henri, has made thousands of attempts at obtaining a sound permit for the clinic on Saturday mornings ― the same sound permit that the anti-abortion protesters are granted for every single Saturday. (If one public group is granted a sound permit for the clinic location, it would bar another public group from doing so ― Pro Choice Charlotte being granted a sound permit would ban the anti-abortion groups from setting up their equipment.)
Henri told HuffPost that for his thousands of sound permit requests over the last few months, he has been denied every single time.
HuffPost reached out to Charlotte’s permit coordinator, Danielle Strayer, for comment and did not hear back in time for publication. But Strayer told BVT News earlier this year that, because the pro- and anti-abortion groups are bombarding the city’s online permit system with requests, “It’s down to the millisecond...you can time stamp it to the millisecond. It’s whichever hits first.”
Members of Pro Choice Charlotte told HuffPost that, though they’ve requested it, the city has no plans to revise their permit request system.
”I’m at my wit’s end”
The city’s compliance with anti-abortion groups doesn’t just take place in the bureaucratic systems that allow them to protest outside the center.
Last month, Hales said that Charlotte Mecklenburg police ignored a death threat made against her by a member of Operation Save America, an an extreme anti-abortion rights group. OSA is the same group that blamed the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on legal abortion, and two OSA members were arrested in 1988 for the attempted bombing of a San Diego abortion clinic. In 2009, when abortion doctor George Tiller was murdered in Wichita, Kansas, the shooter, Scott Roeder, was found to have connections with OSA.
On May 21, during a particularly raucous yet lesser-attended Saturday anti-abortion protest outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center, the OSA protester, Ante, told Hales that she “wouldn’t be alive” to see her own clinic be shut down, Hales told HuffPost.
Hales filed a police report that same very day, but to no avail she says.
“They said that because the phrasing was ambiguous, it wasn’t an immediate threat,” she said.
The following week, Ante was handcuffed and driven off property by police for violating a city noise ordinance. This weekend, though, he was back, holding a poster of an aborted fetus and harassing patients and members of Pro Choice Charlotte.
Hales told HuffPost that she fears no serious action will be taken until after someone gets hurt, in which the issue of clinic violence will be about response rather than prevention.
“I’m at my wit’s end, and frankly, I’m fucking terrified,” she said.