Claiming the sidewalk in defense of patients

September 6, 2018

In the days after Donald Trump won the 2016 election, a group of women from Everett, Washington, came together to channel their grief, anger and exasperation in a positive direction. Together, they decided to mount a pro-choice resistance to the steady presence of anti-choice harassers outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in their town.

Nearly two years later, the organization they created — Jane’s Sidewalk Supporters for Choice — is still going strong. They provide support and protection to women in need of reproductive health care, and they sustain each other as activists in the face of harassment from anti-choice forces. Cathy Benson, Suzanne Mahan Apodaca, Karen Knapp and Janean Desmarais spoke with Seattle clinic defender Michelle Farber about the history of their group and the plans they have going forward.

CAN YOU tell me a little about Jane’s Sidewalk Supporters for Choice. How did it got started?

Cathy: Jane’s started right after the 2016 election, knowing that our rights would be further under attack, and because we saw a need to speak out against the “birthers” who continually stand on our corner of health care in Everett.

Originally, we started with eight or nine women, just knowing that we wanted to do something. We stood outside on a cold, November Wednesday.

We were amazed at the hateful rhetoric coming from supposed Christians and birther activists. At that time, we agreed we should come back the following week, and so our group formed.

Protesters defend Planned Parenthood from attacks by the right
Protesters defend Planned Parenthood from attacks by the right

We originally were called Planned Parenthood Sidewalk Supporters, but because of the pushback from that organization, we changed our name to Jane’s Sidewalk Supporters for Choice, named after the famous Jane collective in Chicago in the days before Roe v. Wade.

We started out on Wednesdays, which are procedure days, and added Mondays and Saturdays around January 2017. When we first started, we had a plethora of antis, including many “abolitionists” and rosary-carrying zealots. On any given day, we had from a half dozen to a dozen.

We are still standing on Mondays and Wednesdays and the first Saturday of every month. We also stand during the “40 days of lies” twice a year. We stand with signs of positivity, welcoming people to the sidewalk, pushing back the horrible people trying to infringe on patients’ rights.

We have claimed the driveway part of the sidewalk, and they have pretty much stayed away as long as we are there. We hosted a rally in the summer of 2017, Our Time Rally, featuring many speakers on women’s rights and health-care issues, including Planned Parenthood and NARAL.

Suzanne: We started unofficially the week after the election. Most of us were strangers who were part of one of the pantsuit Facebook groups that popped up. Devastated, we knew everything we believed in would be under attack.

A gal named Robin commented that she saw anti-choicers outside Planned Parenthood in Everett. She wondered if any others might be interested in standing in support of Planned Parenthood and the patients.

I think there were eight of us that first week after the election. Word started spreading, and others joined us. We organized through Facebook, and since we weren’t Facebook friends, we had to keep going back to that original post to update everybody.

After about four weeks, we spun off and made our own group, and chose the name Jane’s. From the start, we made a difference. Patients and staff were thanking us, and the anti group was frazzled. We were doing something, anything to fight back.

Karen: Women come up to us and tell us their stories. It’s heartbreaking that a difficult time in their lives is being made worse by the intimidating tactics the forced birthers use to manipulate women with guilt.

We’ve all done our own bit of “sidewalk counseling” by letting them know we understand that they made the best decision they could for themselves and their current life conditions when they underwent the procedure.

We are ultimately there to support the patients and make sure they know we encourage their access to health care and their rights to autonomy about their own bodies. I would love to see legislation that puts the rights of patients, staff and escort before the religious dogma that extremists try to push on others.

HOW OFTEN do you defend the clinics? How many pro-choice supporters are usually there and how many antis?

Janean: I started my time as a volunteer patient escort in April 2015. There was no one out there on the sidewalk in support of Planned Parenthood. We saw anywhere from one to 20 people on our shifts.

During the fall session of 40 Days of Life, they had a rally in the street with a platform and a bullhorn, and there were at least 50 people, if not more. There were just the two of us escorts to fend off anyone coming onto the property or causing a scene.

THERE IS a big debate among pro-choice activists about whether we should be doing clinic defense or counterprotesting, with Planned Parenthood itself discouraging the type of actions that the Janes and other groups like Seattle Clinic Defense and NYC for Abortion Rights are doing. How do you feel about that?

Cathy: How do I feel about it? I believe that we are doing good things. The clinic employees, escorts and patients have been very happy we are there. They have stated that the atmosphere at the clinic is so much better. We haven’t seen some of the hardcore idiots in quite some time.

So I believe as long as we continue to have people outside of our health-care clinics trying to prevent patients from seeking medical care, we will be there. It is just as much our right as it is theirs.

Janean: I can see where they are coming from, because all they want is for their patients and their clinics to be left alone. However, that is not the reality we live in, and in my opinion, the clinics need all the support they can get, as long as it’s helpful and not harmful.

We have seen an enormous positive result on the anti-choice groups with the pushback and presence of the Jane’s Sidewalk Supporters. Honestly, if done properly, it can have a profound impact, and in my opinion should be embraced, not discouraged.

LAST SEPTEMBER, a man invaded the Everett Clinic and assaulted a patient. Can you tell me more about what happened, and what the Janes have been doing since?

Janean: I was on shift that day and showed up early to find John Bywater being put in handcuffs. After we found out what happened, I approached the victim who was assaulted. She told me the story, indicating how upset she was that the police let Mr. Bywater go to stand out there, instead of being arrested for trespassing and assault. She was so upset that she left the parking lot with barely a pause before she entered traffic.

It was a sad day for us that it occurred and even more so that we felt that law enforcement let her down.

Cathy: It has been almost a year now since John Bywater stormed the clinic in Everett. He was handcuffed and released back on the sidewalk within 15 minutes.

We have continued the vigil of going to all his court hearings and have finally seen that he will be going to trial in September — almost one year from the day that he violated the FACE Act.

When mentioning this to the police, they had no clue. We have talked to several dignitaries in the community, and really, if I’m honest, we are not getting help. We keep pressing the fact that this is not acceptable.

RECENTLY, FAKE clinic escorts were spotted stopping cars at the Everett clinic. Can you tell me more about what happened, and what the Janes are planning in response?

Cathy: We are now doing drive-bys on Fridays, making sure that our sidewalk is clear, not to say that they are doing this on other days. But we do have an open forum on our Facebook page, where we shout out and try to get someone down there if we see the need at any time.

Janean: We had been alerted to their presence first on August 4. I personally approached them on August 17 when I was in the area and saw them outside, and video-recorded my encounter with them.

They are without a doubt impersonating patient escorts by wearing vests and waiting at the entry of the property, and getting the cars to stop so they can ask them what their appointment is for, and trying to get them to leave.

HOW HAS getting involved in Jane’s impacted you?

Suzanne: These women have since become some of my closest friends. The sidewalk has been our therapy, every week venting, laughing, crying. We were unfriending family and friends for their ignorance, but growing a tribe of sisters.

WHAT’S NEXT for Jane’s Sidewalk Supporters?

Cathy: As for what’s on the horizon, we are continually sending postcards, phone calling, working on get-out-the-vote efforts, attending rallies, etc.

I would like to try to do another rally next year, but am not committing right now, as it is a lot of work, and I’m not sure I’m up to the task right now. Are we doing the right thing? I believe so. We are all warriors.

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