Photo by the author
"We're just a fellowship of guys who feel it's the Lord's calling to do this," explained Charlie; a short guy with a stocking cap, dark sunglasses, and a video camera around his neck. He seemed generally pleased to have me there with him. I, on the other hand, felt scared shitless. "We do it for the Lord and we do it for the babies," Charlie added, holding aloft a large sign that graphically depicted a bloody fetus.
It was a Saturday morning and we were standing in front of Planned Parenthood (or, as Charlie called it, "The Temple of Moloch") to protest abortions. Charlie has been picketing abortion clinics every weekend for the last 17 years—"I think I only missed one Saturday," he said.
I was here to infiltrate the group, as a way of understanding what the hell goes through these peoples' heads. So I gave Charlie a weak smile and began chanting their mantra: "Let's save two lives at a time."
We were across the street from a local YMCA in a very quiet neighborhood. I had brought along a homemade sign with a hand-scrawled "HEY-HEY! HO-HO! ABORTION HAS GOTTA GO!" but I still felt like a total amateur. My fellow protesters held signs about a million times more elaborate, with bold colors and graphic images, some of which were rigged to the back of a truck decorated with large American flags. Subtlety was not the order of the day.
The sign that Charlie held looked like a blender accident gone awry: a bloody, mangled twisted fetus. "I met one woman who's had four abortions," Charlie admitted. "I told her, when you get to heaven, you'll get to hold those babies."
I wasn't really sure how to respond, so I vigorously nodded my head and replied: "Let's save two lives at a time."
Around the corner, a group of roughly 35 people were gathering along the sidewalk, on their monthly excursion from a local Catholic church. They were in the midst of an intense prayer hymn, and some had brought their small kids, who were curiously staring at us.
"What's the deal with the dogs?" I asked, noting several stern-looking Planned Parenthood workers suspiciously looking on while monitoring the facility's parking lot. Several held vicious German shepherds on leashes, presumably to deploy into action if a protestor crossed the line.
"They're there to intimidate us," explained Dave, a soft-spoken older man with glasses and a crew-neck sweater. He was clearly a veteran. He knew all the Planned Parenthood workers by first name, and he didn't hesitate to share some horror stories: "One time Curtis let his dog jump at us, and then he said, there's your dinner! Can you imagine the mindset of that?"
I honestly could not imagine that mindset, so I just shrugged my shoulders. Meanwhile, one of my fellow protesters hoisted up a large sign labeled "Unborn Jesus," with an illustrated version of exactly what Unborn Jesus would look like, including a full beard.
Photo by the author
Dave asked why I wanted to become a sidewalk counselor. I paused for a moment, and then gave him the exact answer I knew he would want to hear:
"I want to save two lives at a time!"
Dave looked reasonably pleased, and proceeded to offer some veteran advice. "We can't block the driveway. When you see a car pulling into the parking lot, go up to the window and say, "Can I give you some literature.'" He motioned towards a pamphlet that read, "Simply get up and walk away," with a God Bless America sticker on the back.
"One woman read the literature then drove away. That's one child I've saved, and I feel pretty good about that," he said, adding that Planned Parenthood was an "abortion mill."
A beat-up late model car with a scared-looking teenage guy in the driver's seat pulled into the driveway. Dave sauntered over and gave him some literature through the driver's side window. Minutes later, a teenage girl got into the car. Dave walked back over to me.
"The Hispanics, you'll find, are usually quite respectful," he said softly, in reference to the interaction. But as the beat-up car drove away, Dave suddenly snapped, yelling, "YEAH, BUT HE STILL WENT AND HAD IT KILLED!"
Dave pulled out a cross attached to some beads. "Do you do the Rosary?" he asked. "You bet I do," I responded.
I joined the others in forming two parallel lines on the sidewalk as we collectively did the Rosary. Some eyed me with mild suspicion, so I started mouthing the words to "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow," since I have no idea what you're actually supposed to say. A microphone was passed down the line to allow each person to do a verse, and I was greatly relieved that it didn't stop on me. Then our prayer vigil was concluded with a rousing chorus of "God Bless America," which I actually do know the words to, and sang loudly with great fervor.
"GOD BLESS AMERICA..."
When we finished singing, a few members of the group looked down the sidewalk. "Here comes Carl," someone yelled, and everyone started to smirk. A man rounded the corner dressed in—I shit you not—a Grim Reaper costume.
Carl, as it turned out, was the clown prince of abortion protests, and he was decked out in his Sunday best: a skeleton mask, a hooded robe, a sickle, and two large signs that read "Death Sold Here" and "The Killing Place." The little kids staring at us from the church thing refocused their attention from Unborn Jesus to Carl, clearly delighted.
"Mommy! Mommy! Can we go talk to the skeleton? Can we go talk to the skeleton?! Can we Mommy?!" Carl was becoming a main attraction.
"Do a lot of people dress up in costumes at these protests?" I asked.
"Sometimes," said Dave.
"In general, it takes a little bit of guts to do this, so it's part of it," added Charlie.
"Is it okay if I come back in costume next week?" I asked.
"Sure. What do you have in mind?"
I thought for a moment. "Well, I have this great ninja costume!"
Dave pointed at Carl. "I one time saw an abortion mill worker dressed in the same costume for Halloween. Think of the mindset of that." We all thought about it. Dave could be such a downer sometimes.
Glen, another protester with the hardened look of a POW camp survivor, pulled out a large yellow tape player and turned up the volume, pointing it directly towards the Planned Parenthood parking lot.
"That's something Glen likes to do," Dave explained softly.
"This is my prayer medallion!" Glen exclaimed sarcastically, pointing to a photo of Planned Parenthood worker Curtis pinned to his jacket and throwing a nasty glare towards real-life Curtis in the parking lot. Glen cranked up the tape player as loud as he could, as if we were US troops trying to get a South American warlord out of his compound by blasting rock music. The tape methodically explained how to pop the head off a fetus.
"This is one of their very own tapes. It's a doctor explaining the procedure of how to give a partial abortion." Dave added with disgust, "They actually applaud at the end. Can you believe it? Think of the mindset of that."
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
"Fuck off!" someone suddenly screamed from a passing car, flipping us the finger. Glen quickly grabbed his camera and started snapping photos of the vehicle.
"I usually take a picture of anyone who flips us the bird," Glen explained while I pulled out my camera and also started snapping away. "It's for our own protection."
"Just remember, it's against the law to take a picture of anyone going into the abortion mill," Dave calmly advised. He added that law was his other passion (other than, you know, protesting abortions). "Just like you can't take a picture of someone going into a dirty bookstore. We used to take pictures of guys coming out of the dirty bookstores and then send it right to their homes," he said with a smirk.
"Back in `89, I was with Operation Rescue," Dave continued. "We used to block the doors of an abortion clinic. One time we had 800 people out there! A few of us ended up going to jail." He recalled the golden age of the most radical pro-life groups with more than a hint of nostalgia. They used to employ bicycle locks along with human chains and sometimes automobiles to keep people out of abortion clinics.
"It's now a felony to block the entrance of an abortion mill," Dave said with revulsion. "You can block an animal testing clinic, but you can't block an abortion mill. Think about the mindset of that."
"Are you reminiscing about the good old days?" Glen piped in, and we all shared a hearty chuckle.
But the moment was short-lived. A police car pulled into the Planned Parenthood parking lot. Glen pulled out his camera and snapped a photo of the patrol car. This was going to be good—a direct police confrontation! With both hands fastened on his belt, an officer got out of the squad car, giving a "here we go again" kind of look.
"How many times do I have to tell you, you can't have your signs on public property," he said sternly, gesturing at the numerous graphic and horrifying blender accident signs, which were resting against trees and wired to street traffic signs for all the peaceful neighborhood residents to enjoy.
Glen immediately got in his face, while Dave tried to calmly mediate.
"Well, how come you can hang political signs on traffic signs," Glen retorted angrily. "We're expressing our right to freedom of speech! What about that sign," Glen asked, pointing across the street to a YMCA Construction Parking sign, posted in front of, well, the YMCA parking lot.
Dave, who had up until this point been calm, suddenly snapped and, screeching in an angry tone, yelled, "WE DON'T WANT TO BE DISCRIMINATED AGAINST!"
The Grim Reaper and I exchanged looks of disbelief. Glen stormed off to gather reinforcements, and returned minutes later with a stack of legal papers from the Life Legal Defense Foundation and presented them to the officer.
"What are you showing me here?" asked the officer, who was clearly annoyed. Glen pointed to various sections, but the officer shook his head. "This says nothing about having the right to post your signs on public property."
I tried to help out the cause by bellowing a chorus of "GOD BLESS AMERICA!"
Dave advised me to save my singing for later. The police officer was unrelenting. "You can have your signs, but you have to carry them. Do you understand?" He returned to his patrol car, waiting, to assure that this would actually happen.
"Can you hold this sign?" Glen asked sharply, handing me a very large, horrific sign with a very disturbing, graphic color image and words reading "The Eighth Week."
"Sure, no problem," I replied as I grabbed the highly disturbing sign and took my place on the side of the road. Two Planned Parenthood workers saw me in action, and started animatedly whispering, clearly putting me on their crazy-list. For their benefit, I threw in some loud, screaming chants with the spirit of a sports fan:
"Two, four, six, eight! WHO DO WE APPRECIATE? JESUS! JESUS! YAH, STOP ABORTION!"
Drivers passing by gave double-takes at my sign—not in a way that suggested they'd changed their opinion on the abortion issue, but more in a manner of incredulousness, given that my sign featured a bloody, hacked up fetus and we were in a nice, quiet neighborhood. People were not tickled pink about our overbearing presence, and I was flipped off by more than one passing car.
"Kids can see that, you know," screamed an angry bicyclist.
"Well, what about all the kids who can't see it," I retorted, seizing abortion protestor moonman logic.
There were some children being picked up from the YMCA, perhaps from a tap-dancing class, who looked highly disturbed. Perhaps it was my sales pitch? I gave them a big, hearty smile and a friendly wave, enthusiastically lifting my horrific sign up higher, gesturing to cars as if beckoning them to a junior high charity car wash.
"Can you move your sign?" screamed a woman with a teenage daughter in an SUV, trying to depart Planned Parenthood.
"Hey! Free speech," I yelled, taking a cue from Glen, and then burst into another chorus of "God Bless America."
"You're blocking the view of the traffic," Dave explained, motioning me out of the way.
"Can I give you some literature?" I shouted at another car, filled with a distraught passenger, in the millisecond window of opportunity as they pulled into the driveway.
I left the hardened group of men because I was starting to develop an uneasy feeling that I was going to get a lead pipe to the back of my head; either from being discovered as an imposter pro-life protestor, or from some angry boyfriend with a newly traumatized girlfriend. I sincerely hoped that did not happen.
I gave the Grim Reaper, Glen, and Charlie a knowing nod; leaving these men to their own devices. I wouldn't be back next weekend—but I left feeling safe in the knowledge that this group of men could surely handle how to incite fear and dictate what young women should do with their bodies. I came wanting to get into the mindset of extremists by becoming an extremist—but it was now up to them to save two lives at a time on their own.
Follow Harmon Leon on Twitter.