Emily Gillingham, Resident Blogger (’15, Michigan State University College of Law)
The Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force is an all-volunteer, anti-violence group founded in the 1980s to promote peaceful and safe access to women’s health clinics in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. WACDTF sends volunteers to abortion clinics that are being harassed by “pro-life” protestors (or as they call them, “antis”). WACDTF volunteers are not counter-protestors and aren’t there to engage with the antis; rather, their goal is to de-escalate the situation, deter antis from trespassing, help patients get safely inside the clinic, and provide a calming presence for patients, their companions, and clinic staff.
I’m studying in DC this semester and have been volunteering as a clinic escort with WACDTF. As law students, a lot of our reproductive justice advocacy is more high-level and nebulous, on the policy side; I have found volunteering with WACDTF to be really rewarding and enjoyable because I feel the impact I’m making right away. Plus, check out these fly shirts (pictured below)!
The coalition became WACDTF and made their role to be a calming presence at clinics. “At the beginning some people would hold signs and do chants, but the understanding was always to keep things calm,” said Alicia.
Alicia said that in response to the blockades, “Clinic Defense would throw a monkey wrench in the antis’ plans. They would take advantage of the fact that they organized very hierarchically. They wanted it to be a surprise what clinic they would blockade or else Clinic Defense would be there, so they didn’t tell anyone until that morning.”
Once, a WACDTF member determined where the antis’ rendezvous point would be ahead of time, arrived there before the anti with the maps, and gave out fake maps that led somewhere else entirely, thus leading the antis to a random shopping center instead of the clinic. Another time, a WACDTF member’s car “happened to break down” at the entrance to the parking lot where the antis were meeting, preventing them from going to the clinic. Alicia also recalled, “one time we were in a long line of cars [antis on their way to protest at a clinic] and we turned left and they followed us.” As Alicia pointed out, “these were not official WACDTF decisions. Rather they were done thoughtfully by smaller groups of people in WACDTF but working on their own.”
Gradually, the antis’ tactics began to evolve. Alicia explained, “In the mid to late 90s, the blockades were tapering down because of a number of things. A number of injunctions, bubble laws, ordinances, that made it more difficult for them to do it.” There were also changes in how the police enforced trespassing and other existing laws, and the things WACDTF did to protect the clinics which made it harder for the antis. The antis fell in numbers and smaller groups began to do more extreme things. They would disable a car in front of the clinic entrance to block access; they engaged in “lock and blocks,” locking themselves with chains and locks to things like the bar of the front door.
I asked Alicia whether the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) impacted WACDTF’s work. She said that FACE is “about the penalties you can get. It doesn’t do anything right there in the moment. Joe Anti may still block. It may be a deterrent, but it doesn’t do anything except that we can say that you could be charged with a FACE violation.”
Although the large blockades and lock and blocks are largely a thing of the past, current anti-choice tactics at clinics, while different, are still deeply problematic. “The harassment is every week, directly accosting and harassing women seeking reproductive health care including abortion and many other services,” Alicia said. “Some anti groups also try to turn landlords against the clinics, harass them in other ways. Week in and week out.” So, WACDTF’s work is still needed in front of the clinics. This is still needed, this is about basic access to healthcare.”
Do you want to learn more about WACDTF? Visit their website at http://www.wacdtf.org/