Good Friday. One of the biggest days for anti-abortion activists and clinic escorts alike. Both groups gear up and call in everyone they can to make an appearance outside abortion clinics across the country. This Good Friday was no exception and I was able to experience this eerie environment outside of Affiliated Medical Services in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
I arrived early to become familiar with the clinic and its surroundings. Jessica, a former escort at this clinic, showed me around and introduced me to several escorts. Many use nicknames so as to not reveal too much personal information to the protesters. They have been known to record names, license plate numbers, and descriptions of escorts, clinic staff, and patients as well.
(See the Chicago installment.)
I met “Dennis the Menace”, Steve, Leslie, Chad, and Jim. Jim has been a clinic escort on Fridays for about 20 years. He began at a different clinic down the street. He was told that the patients at AMS needed him more so he moved. Later, that clinic closed.
I moved on to see a handful of men speaking quietly to one another, each holding a different sign or pamphlets for the Crisis Pregnancy Center across the street or religious material. One man donned a leather jacket and hoodie. He was in his 50s and is outside AMS 3 or 4 times a week. The other 4 men also appear to be Caucasian and in their 50s or 60s. One in particular was labeled as pushy and aggressive. Another is known to the escorts as a Holocaust denier and is there every weekend. The man shown here, while described as gentler, only allowed me to get one shot of him before he covered his face with his sign. This is common amongst the anti-abortion activists I photograph outside these clinics. They are often unwelcoming of cameras as well as questions.
In the alleyway beside the clinic, the escorts placed a sign. This Friday, they rented a large moving truck to park directly in front of the clinic. “Frenchie” parked it and joined the others. They do this and whatever else they can to help prevent the protesters from being able to take up all the spaces in front of the clinic as this allows them to camp inside the car which can prolong their stay.
The neighborhood’s Crisis Pregnancy Center is almost directly in front of the abortion provider. “Almost” being the key word. This street is one way and when driving, one actually sees the bright pink sign on the side of the CPC’s brick building before they see AMS on the left. In addition, AMS’s sign is on the front of the building which makes it not as noticeable. The CPC touts free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, two of many tactics used to draw women into their building. They even have their own fenced in parking lot, something AMS doesn’t have. If they did, they would also benefit from the lot being private property which would reduce the amount of interaction the protesters would have with patients, escorts, and clinic staff.
At the “Women’s Care Center”, there are no doctors or other trained medical personnel. Once a woman enters, they are typically told they will receive free goods if they decide to go through with their pregnancy. Women face shame and guilt inside this building and it is often very difficult to leave . One former clinic escort told me women who have appointments at AMS often think this center is where they are supposed to go.
Clinic escorts often name protesters to easily relay information on happenings at the clinic. Before it is time for the procession to show, I ask about a man across the street. The escorts tell me he is referred to as “Santa Beard”. He has a restraining order against him prohibiting him from coming within 30 feet of the door so he must stand across the street from AMS. An escort recalls an incident which led to this order; Santa Beard parked his car in front of the clinic and restrained himself by pulling and fastening his seatbelt through PVC pipes and then followed with his own arms so his seatbelt couldn’t be unfastened. He was there until the FBI showed. He is known to be with Missionaries to the Preborn, a group based out of Milwaukee. Here, he holds the most classic anti-abortion sign. Later, he is joined by a woman who adamantly refused exposure to my camera and ended up leaving shortly thereafter.
Another man set up his folding chair near the alley and sat down. I approached and began to photograph him. His attitude is a rarer one being friendly and proud of his attendance there. He smiled at me and proceeded to tell me about his sign. He showed me how he has cleverly poked holes in his poster and wrapped zip ties through them. These act as handles so the sign doesn’t fall over and he can hold onto it in wind. He then lifted his hand to show me his spray painted baby dolls which hang by their necks from a string. When not hanging from his wrist, they lay on the ground, this day, next to some old cigarette butts.
I saw the procession coming from down the street. This group was coming from church and reenacting the Stations of the Cross on their way to the sidewalk directly outside AMS’s doors. They marched with various religious materials, singing hymns and praying. The escorts turned the volume up on a radio they keep near them. This helped to drown out the noise from the protesters.
Many with the procession glared at me. I am often faced with a “who are you with?” sort of attitude. Those at the front of the procession took their places directly in front of AMS’s doors. A young man was armed with a megaphone and began a sermon, struggling to be heard over the escorts’ radio. At this point, more escorts had arrived. Dennis was joined by fellow head escort, Maureen, as well as Muriel and a few others.
Escorts accompany AMS patients down the sidewalk and to the doors of the clinic. They are trained to not engage the protesters or patients unless the patient speaks to them. This is common with all clinic escorts. They try to take a neutral approach and are there just to protect and assist those trying to access the clinic.
Here, two children peek around Peggy Hammil, former State Director of Pro-Life Wisconsin. She stood just a few feet away from the doors of AMS. When I asked if I could take a photo of her with her rosaries, she became very standoffish. She said, “No, I, I don’t think so. Who are you? Are you with them?” I told her I was a photographer and I didn’t work for the clinic or anyone else. I explained I am freelance and wanted to make her portrait. At this point I was preparing to inform her that I was being polite and I don’t have to ask. Before I needed to, she reluctantly gave in.
I moved down the sidewalk back towards Baby Doll man, to photograph a few more stragglers. I heard yelling behind me and turned. A woman was yelling at the Baby Doll man and the two others next to him. “You’re sick! How dare you! How dare you show those sick images to children! How dare you shove those pictures in my face! I’m Pro-life and that is just sick! You’re sickos! Shame on you! I don’t want to see that! What gives you the right?”
She clearly took them by surprise and they didn’t respond. They seemed really unsure what to make of her. I was also pretty surprised as this is an issue I often wonder about but had yet to see someone respond to. At the same time, a police car was driving towards us and pulled into the gas station lot across the street. The woman stomped away mumbling to herself, clearly still agitated. I waited, wondering when the police would come over.
Some time later, the police officer arrived. He approached Frenchie and they stepped to the side to talk. The escorts and I wondered if he was wanting to know about the yelling woman or Santa Beard or any of the other protesters. Instead, he was there to tell Frenchie that the moving van was parked in a loading zone. He had been waiting in his car to see if someone was loading the van or not.
Clinic escorts there wear bright red vests when on duty. Protesters often buy the same vests that escorts wear to confuse women when they approach. This helps them lure women to the CPCs. At AMS, the escorts chose to have large rainbows added to their vests to dissuade copy cats (due to the connection between the rainbow and the LGBTQ community). It seems to have worked.
A woman walked toward the clinic alone. Her name is Annie and Jessica tells me she always brings her stroller and her baby dolls. I took her photo and she leaned down to make sure her tiny baby powder bottle was straight. She pet the head of the smallest doll with her gloved hand. She is also believed to be with Missionaries to the Preborn.
As time went on, the crowd of protesters became more aggressive. Over 50 feet away from the entrance a woman was approached by protesters and she began to quicken her pace. Escorts had to surround her to help her access the clinic as quickly as possible. As she came closer to the clinic, protesters were mere inches from her face. The escorts put their bodies in between her and the crowd. Other escorts remained in front of the crowd to keep them from getting any closer.
I watched this happen over and over again. Some prayed quietly while others followed patients, and whomever was with them, all the way to the clinic doors. In addition to patients, women walking down the sidewalk needed escorts just to pass the clinic. They were still accosted with pamphlets, rosaries in their faces, and cries of “That’s a murder factory!”, “Don’t kill me Mommy!”, and “Don’t murder your unborn baby!”
At a point when the protesters were at their thickest, two young women went into the clinic. About 45 minutes later I saw them both step just outside the doors. Two clinic escorts were right there to walk with them but they stopped. They looked at Maureen and Frenchie and asked, “How can we do what you do? How do we volunteer?”