The nonviolent philosophy of clinic escorts

After reading some of my recent posts about clinic escorting Aspen Baker emailed me asking for more focus on the nonviolent philosophy behind escorting. Aspen, Founder and Executive Director of Exhale, is an inspiration in the way she brings philosophies of peace to reproductive justice organizing. In her writing Aspen argues the abortion debate has become a polarized war of ideology and politics that has little relationship to the lived experience of abortion. To bring peace to this conflict and break out of this debate, Aspen advocates basing our work around the voices, experiences, and needs of women who have actually had abortions. This “pro-voice” philosophy is very much connected to my thinking around the nonviolent approach of clinic escorts.
The atmosphere outside reproductive health clinics when antis are present is tense. The threat of physical violence is always present, and verbal harassment is all but guaranteed. Many antis are obvious in their attempts to engage escorts in debate – they’d love to piss us off, get us angry, and get a chance to spew their rhetoric in a verbal battle with someone on the opposite side of the abortion war. They want the outside of the clinic to have a toxic atmosphere (er, I mean, be a space “full of saints and angels”) that gets in the way of women accessing abortion.
As an escort in the DC area I have agreed to WACDTF’s nonviolence policy. When escorts make a commitment to nonviolence we are deliberately deciding not to engage with antis in the way they want. We recognize that fighting with them does nothing to help women access reproductive health care, and instead contributes to making reproductive health clinics frightening or even dangerous to access. When we practice nonviolence we are refusing to engage on the antis’ terms.


Our goal is to de-escalate the situation outside the clinic so women can access reproductive health services. Sometimes we have to step in to stop physical clashes between antis and patients, those accompanying patients, and passers by on the street. We wouldn’t be able to do this if we engaged with the antis on their terms. We are trying to create a space free of conflict, and thus our work needs to be grounded in nonviolence.
Nonviolence connects us to a history of struggles for justice. It is a way to step outside conflict as the framework of a debate and model a different approach. It also gives us the tools to do the necessary work instead of get distracted by a conflict that’s not actually about the needs of real people. When met with nonviolence those behaving violently (verbally or physically) are often at a loss. It doesn’t match their expectations and doesn’t engage with them on their own terms so it throws them off and, if they’re actually interested in a productive outcome, makes them behave differently. At the very least it keeps antis outside clinics from getting to define that space on their own terms.
Nonviolence is a tool to model a different approach to abortion. I don’t want to be locked in a fruitless debate – I want women to be able to access reproductive health services, including abortion, without coming up against barriers. The abortion wars do nothing to help create this reality, and in fact get in the way of realizing reproductive freedom. Nonviolent clinic escorts are simultaneously dealing with a sad reality by working to help individual women access abortion and living an approach to abortion that represents our vision for a world where abortion is not understood through a violent conflict that has little to do with actual women’s health care.

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21 Comments

  1. rebekah
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Hi jos,
    Great post, but I want to know how can we as escorts incorporate the nonviolence pledge into our escorting, when the antis at our local clinic will frequently kick, hit, throw things at, and just generally abuse our patients? The local police refuse to stop the protesters from hurting the patients. One patient who came in last week was actually punched so hard that she miscarried her baby- a baby that she was going into the clinic to get her weekly checkups because her OBGYN and her had an issue and she left the practice and didn’t feel comfortable finding another doctor. She tried to get the police to do something, even going in and filing a report, which she got harassed by the police for mind you, but they don’t want anything to do with the protection of the patients outside the clinic. With these kinds of people standing outside there what are we supposed to do?

  2. Jos
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    rebekah, that sounds absolutely horrible, I’m so saddened that’s the situation you have to deal with and so grateful you’re doing that work. How does your group of escorts respond to violence? Because nonviolence doesn’t mean responding, it means not responding on the same terms. But it’s definitely a tactic for getting in the way of and stopping physical violence.
    If this is a larger conversation, if your group of escorts needs support and ideas from other groups, please feel free to email me at jos AT feministing DOT com and I’ll see what I can do to make those connections.

  3. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    The whole problem with “non violence” is that it assumes that the other side is acting in good faith – which, in the case of the anti choicers, is very much not the case.
    Also, as an ideology, “non violence” has historically been a failure.
    Contrary to popular belief, Indian independence was NOT won by “non violence” but was a byproduct of World War II and, specifically, the fact that large numbers of Indian soldiers in the British colonial army in India defected to the Japanese side, with arms in hand.
    This – plus widespread social unrest in India – made British rule untenable even after they won WW II, and forced England to withdraw.
    “Non violence” also did not lead to African Americans winning civil rights and affirmative action – the threat of social unrest from the urban uprisings (“riots”) and armed urban guerrilla groups like the Black Panther Party and the Coalitions is what forced the US government to make concessions to African Americans.
    In Northern Ireland, Catholic civil rights activists tried “non violence” – and the British government’s response was the Bloody Sunday massacre, where British troops fired on “non violent” protesters.
    Northern Irish Catholics only won their civil rights thanks to a 25 year long campaign of armed resistance led by the Irish Republican Army.
    Bottom line “non violence” does not work – but self defense does.
    Good luck – but, based on the historical evidence of the failure of “non violence”, I don’t expect this to end well for the pro choice cause.
    Honestly, I wish “non violence” was a viable strategy – because, on a personal level, I abhor violence… I’m just enough of a political realist to accept facts when they stare me in the face.

  4. PamelaVee
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    That is heartbreaking and sickening.
    The only thing I would think the woman could do is file a suit against the entire police department and go to every media outlet and tell her story..but it would be re-living the trauma over and over.
    How horrible and shameful of those police officers.
    In this instance I can’t say I would be non-violent with the protesters. That is not protesting- that is assault, plain and simple.

  5. dancerjess
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) that something like that is a FACE violation. Perhaps you should try contacting your local branch of the FBI or Department of Justice? If the local police can’t help, go up the chain of command, I say :)

  6. Nepenthe
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    So, if non-violence truly does not work, as you claim, what do you propose that clinic escorts like Jos do in their work? Should she punch the lights out of the next anti that gets in her way? Should escorts carry weapons?
    The philosophy of non-violence explicitly does not depend on the good faith of the opposition. Gandhi did not expect good faith from the British Raj and MLK did not expect good faith from the racist establishment. Non-violence is a commitment independent of the intentions and actions of the opposition.

  7. Lily A
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    This patient should get records from her doctors documenting the injury and establishing that the assault played a role in her miscarriage. She should be able to press assault charges on the protester.
    If the clinic does not already have surveillance cameras, it should. Talk to the folks in charge of security there. Video footage of a woman being assaulted with the police witnessing but not interfering would be damning in court.

  8. AMM
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Also, as an ideology, “non violence” has historically been a failure.
    But so has “violence.”
    In the long run, violence generates its own opposition. It’s like defending yourself from a false indictment for a crime by killing policemen.
    Of course, if you’re a terrorist, you can use this to your advantage: do something that “forces” those in power to overreact, and hope that this overreaction will destroy them.
    (OK, now that I’ve got that out of my system….)
    You seem to be talking about the Barney-the-purple-dinosaur school of non-violence, which is the way they present it in school and the media. And, yes, that is a failure.
    Non-violence as a philosophy basically requires:
    (a) seeing that violence is not going to achieve your goals in the long term, and
    (b) doing a lot of thinking and “thinking outside the box” to find other ways of getting where you want to go. The most successful non-violent strategies are generally ones that no one has thought of before. One of the biggest mistakes that Progressives make is to assume that the tactics that worked half a century ago will work now.
    For what it’s worth, even the people who do use violence and are successful try to suppress it once they get into power. Violence is like poison gas in warfare — it’s as likely to blow back and poison your own troops as to kill your enemy.

  9. makomk
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    “In Northern Ireland, Catholic civil rights activists tried “non violence” – and the British government’s response was the Bloody Sunday massacre, where British troops fired on “non violent” protesters.
    Northern Irish Catholics only won their civil rights thanks to a 25 year long campaign of armed resistance led by the Irish Republican Army.”

    Ah. Let me guess, you’re American. First, let’s get a couple of things clear: the “25 year long campaign of armed resistance” was in fact a campaign of terrorist attacks on British civilian targets such as shopping malls. Funded, I might add, in large part by Americans.
    Likewise, while Bloody Sunday did indeed happen pretty much as you’re suggesting, the reason British troops were deployed in the first place was to stop Protestant attacks on Catholics that looked like they were going to turn into a bloody sectarian civil war. (Also note that about 30-40 soldiers had been killed by IRA splinter groups in the months leading up to Bloody Sunday, and that members of these IRA groups were involved in the peaceful demonstration though they were unarmed at the time.)
    That’s also why giving Northern Ireland “back to” Ireland – which is what the IRA demanded – wasn’t a solution. The Unionist/Protestant faction in Northern Ireland (which wanted it to remain British) was just as large and just as violent as the Nationalist/Catholic faction (which wanted to unite it with Ireland). Of course, this is all a result of English interference in Ireland in the 16th and 17th century, especially the Tudor conquest and the creation of the Plantations.
    Basically, it’s a huge and often oversimplified political mess with no easy solution unless you have a time machine, one that gave countless British politicians headaches. (Still does, actually – the Real IRA and other terrorist groups opposed to the peace process on both sides are active even now. Even the IRA and Unionist factions that aren’t are still carrying out lots of murders and kneecapping, since they’re effectively a form of organized crime.)

  10. Gordon
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    I think “non-violence” needs to be more clearly defined in this context. Surely no one wants a clinic escort punching someone out for calling him/her or the patient a baby killer, of some such blather.
    On the other hand, on August 6 of last year, an escort in Akron, OH, went to the hospital with 6 broken ribs because he was attacked by a biker gang, apparently invited in by local anti-choicers, while escorting.
    Speaking only for myself, I would not give the anti-choicers the satisfaction, nor a clinic a bad name, by doing anything illegal, or even questionably legal. That said, I think it is legal in every jurisdiction to defend oneself against physical attack. To a physically abusive protester, how about saying something like, “There are security cameras recording this. If you touch me again, I will break your fingers, and there isn’t a prosecuter in [jurisdiction] who will call it anything but self-defense.” Hopefully, that would head off actually having to do it.

  11. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Put it this way – I believe in the Second Amendment and that every American has the right to self defense, by whatever means necessary.

  12. Courtroom Mama
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    A UVVA case against a clinic protester. Now THERE’s a clusterfuck.

  13. Nepenthe
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    That’s a cowardly dodge. If you really believe something, don’t pussyfoot around. Say it. “Yes, I think clinic escorts should carry guns and be prepared to use them.” “Yes, I think that clinic escorts should be physically violent with protesters.”

  14. mightywombat
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    “Non violence” also did not lead to African Americans winning civil rights and affirmative action – the threat of social unrest from the urban uprisings (“riots”) and armed urban guerrilla groups like the Black Panther Party and the Coalitions is what forced the US government to make concessions to African Americans.
    This is a gross, gross oversimplification and shows profound ignorance of the history of the civil rights movement. This makes me think you are more interested in promoting violence than you are in honestly assessing strategy.

  15. KatieinNewYork
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry, but alluding that clinic escorts should be prepared to shoot protesters? Are you out of your mind?
    The purpose of a clinic escorting program is to help women access reproductive care. Please, please tell me how shooting bullets into the anti-choice crowd (and the assuredly high-profile trial that would follow) would accomplish this?
    Even if you’re firing fists instead of bullets this is a horrifying idea. An escort’s purpose is to HELP THAT PATIENT GET TO THE DOCTOR. Starting brawls and riots won’t do that. Period.

  16. rebekah
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jos,
    I volunteer at a privately operated clinic, not a planned parenthood. This actually makes the problem worse because the clinic isn’t just there for gynecological care. We share the actual office with another doctor’s office (I think it’s an ENT but I am not really sure). The protesters however, do not seem to care about this and they scare patients whether they are actually coming in to the clinic or the other doctors office. The violence escalates on a frequent basis apparently (I am filling in for another escort who is currently in the hospital with a broken leg from being pushed, shoved, and kicked by a protester.) I just started volunteering, the incident that I was talking about happened on my second week there. This friday will be my fourth time working, as one day a week is sadly all I can fit into my schedule. There doesn’t seem to be any real procedure to follow with the antis, we are basically told to just get the patients in there safe and sound. This did not happen with the woman who lost her baby and we were all yelled at for it by the doctor. I am getting really frustrated about this. Volunteering for the rape hotline was less stressful than this. At least there I was not afraid that I was going to be beat or shot at.

  17. rebekah
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    I am just an escort. I am not a lawyer, I am not a politician. I am 18 and a college student. I do this once a week to be able to try and make a difference in other womens’ lives to give them the choice with their reproduction that had been taken away from me by the state. I do not know if this woman will ever go back to the clinic ever again because of what happened. I did not get a chance to talk to her after the fact. The only reason that I know what happened is because the doctor chewed all of us out for what happened. BTW, this isn’t just a response to you, it’s a response to all of the people who told me to get her to take action. As this event did not happen to me, I feel that it would be pouring salt into a wound if I was the one to bring this to anyone’s attention. She and the babies father (she is happily married) need to be the ones who decide if they go to the media or not.

  18. Spiffy McBang
    Posted February 2, 2010 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    This is pretty much my thinking. In the case of the woman at rebekah’s clinic, if I’m an escort and someone gets hit hard enough that they miscarry, I can hit whoever did it in defense of her.
    Additionally, while starting a riot is obviously bad, sometimes people are violent because they fear no repercussions (no police intervention makes this more likely). If an escort is capable of handling physical altercations- and I understand not every place has one of those- actively defending against a particularly aggressive protester can keep the others somewhat honest. But there’s no way to do it a lot and have it turn out well in the long run; the tactic has to be applied judiciously.

  19. AMM
    Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    … an escort in Akron, OH, went to the hospital with 6 broken ribs because he was attacked by a biker gang, apparently invited in by local anti-choicers, while escorting….
    … To a physically abusive protester, how about saying something like, “There are security cameras recording this. If you touch me again, I will break your fingers, and there isn’t a prosecuter in [jurisdiction] who will call it anything but self-defense.” Hopefully, that would head off actually having to do it.

    And if it does not head off an attack? Most people would see a comment like yours as threatening, and if you are dealing with someone who is experienced in the use of violence, as in your example, they’re likely to attack first, they probably know how to prevent you from doing much to them, you’ll end up in the hospital anyway, and maybe the woman you’re escorting as well, and you’ll come across to people reading the story as no better than the people you’re opposing. And you won’t be helping the women who you all are supposed to be escorting at all.
    Your attitude is the sort of macho myth that males in our society (USA) are indoctrinated with: that it is possible to be proof against violence if you are only mean and tough enough. But it’s a myth. No matter how tough you are, there’s always someone tougher, or who can get the drop on you. There is no safety in this life, and trying to be more violent than those who threaten you won’t make you any safer. If anything, it makes you less safe.
    What sort of “self-defense” could Paul Tiller have used? Bodyguards? Carrying a concealed weapon? None of those would have prevented his killer from killing him. At some point, you just have to accept that death and injury can strike you at any moment, no matter how much you try to defend against it, and decide you’re not going to let the fear of death or assault rule your life.
    The only real defense we have against people who would try to intimidate us is to show that we can’t be intimidated, and to let those who use violence show themselves for what they are: bullies. And hope that, in the long run, the majority of the population doesn’t want bullies running things.

  20. Lea
    Posted February 2, 2010 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Gregory didn’t say anything about shooting anyone. The Second Amendment covers arms in general, not just firearms. I agree that carrying a gun in the midst of a potentially violent crowd is not a good idea for the average person- even if you did decide using violence in self-defense was justified, you wouldn’t be able to fire it in a situation like that, for fear of hitting the wrong person; and in a mob of people there’s too much risk of it getting taken from you and used against you or someone else. But some kind of walking stick or staff could be very useful- even if you never used the weapon offensively, it could be used to block shoves, kicks or punches aimed at you or someone else, and held diagonally in front of you it could make it easier to shove through a crowd and clear a path.

  21. katicabogar
    Posted February 4, 2010 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    I dont know the us health-care provider business rules correctly, but here in hungary it is free, and paid by the government. as far as i know, in the us, clinics are profit oriented.
    clinics are profit oriented business companies, clients are customers, and protesters are persons, who violate the company in the rights of offering services for profit and income, and cause loss by their free will, and with full consciousness. isnt this punishable by any law in the us?
    so, the conclusion is: i would tell the clinic to sue the protesters for causing huge amounts of profit loss, and make them pay for every single patient, that has been lost due to them. a simple camera recording can be evidence for this.

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