News Law and Policy

New Jersey Town Passes Buffer Zone After Protesters Get Aggressive

Emily Crockett

Anti-choice protesters in Englewood, New Jersey, can no longer come within an eight-foot radius of a health-care facility’s entrance, exit, or driveway, after the city council voted unanimously Tuesday to enact a buffer zone to protect patients from harassment.

Anti-choice protesters in Englewood, New Jersey, can no longer come within an eight-foot radius of a health-care facility’s entrance, exit, or driveway, after the city council voted unanimously Tuesday to enact a buffer zone to protect patients from harassment.

Volunteer clinic escorts who have helped shield patients from aggressive protesters outside Metropolitan Medical Associates in Englewood told Rewire that the buffer zone is necessary because protesters have stepped up their tactics in recent months, and that the measure is popular because members of both the city council and the local community have seen first-hand how bad things have gotten.

“Every single Englewood resident that spoke up [at the city council meeting], spoke up in support of the buffer zone. They were disgusted that this was happening. They’ve driven by and were just horrified by what they saw,” said Lauren Rankin, an escort at Metropolitan Medical.

After an article in the Bergen Record drew attention to increasingly “militant” protest activity outside the clinic, several concerned women decided to start a clinic escort program about three months ago. Ashley, an organizer of that program, said she was “blown away” that this kind of protection was needed in a blue state, her home state of New Jersey, just across the George Washington Bridge from where she now lives in New York. “I didn’t even know there was a need for it,” she said. Ashley asked not to give her last name because she, like many clinic escorts, fears harassment if aggressive protesters get a hold of her identifying information.

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Ashley said that city council member Lynne Algrant has been supportive of the clinic escorts from the beginning and was instrumental in getting the buffer zone passed. Just three women volunteered as escorts at first (now there are about a dozen at a time every week), and when they were outside one day, Ashley said Algrant “pulled up in her car and gave us her business card and said, ‘I’m on the city council, if you have any problems please call me.’”

Metropolitan Medical has been a target of anti-choice protesters for decades because it’s a large clinic that has performed later abortions since before Roe v. Wade. The protests were massive and problematic in the 1980s and 1990s, until an injunction sent them across the street. But when the clinic changed hands, that injunction was no longer in effect, and more aggressive tactics from groups like the fundamentalist organization Bread of Life Fellowship started being seen fairly recently.

Rankin has nicknames for certain kinds of protesters she deals with on a weekly basis at Metropolitan Medical. There’s “the runner,” a woman from the anti-choice crisis pregnancy center (CPC) across the street, who incessantly follows patients and escorts for blocks and ignores requests to stop. And then there are “the screamers,” the aggressive protesters from Bread of Life or the radically anti-choice group Abolish Human Abortion, who sometimes come in from out of town. They call themselves “street preachers,” Rankin said, and their “sermons” consist of screaming for three hours about the evils of abortion—but when patients get closer, “then the preaching becomes targeted with verbal abuse at that person,” she said.

Rankin said she has been shoved by an aggressive male protester and has seen the same happen to other escorts. Protesters also try to goad male companions into physical violence so they have an excuse to call the police, she said, and the vitriolic rhetoric often upsets and confuses patients.

She noted that not all of the protesters are problems. A Catholic group that prays across the street has always been peaceful, and while more of the CPC affiliates used to be like “the runner,” they have seemingly scaled back those tactics after realizing that Bread of Life’s extreme actions make them look bad.

On any given Saturday there will be about 20 to 25 protesters total, including peaceful ones, but on one particularly harrowing day there were about 40 to 45, many forming a “gauntlet” for patients to walk through, Rankin said. But she said the worst example of intimidation, even if more understated, might be the guy who always stands in the entrance filming everyone who comes into the clinic. Even an eight-foot buffer zone, which is enough distance to get protesters out of people’s faces, might not stop that man from making patients fear for their privacy.

More than 100 people filled the room for the city council meeting Tuesday, the majority of them supporting the buffer zone. A few anti-choice protesters stood in the back holding signs, and Edward Gilhooly of the Legal Center for Defense of Life in Morristown threatened legal action if the law passed.

After Joseph LoSardo, pastor of the Bread of Life Fellowship, asked why the council wouldn’t wait until June, when the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality a 35-foot buffer zone law in Massachusetts, Rankin recalled Councilmember Michael Cohen saying, “In Englewood, we don’t follow, we lead.”

“I wanted to hug him,” Rankin said, of Cohen. “You forget sometimes what it feels like to win something on this side. To have an elected official say, ‘No, this is wrong, you have a right to an abortion, and we’re willing to put ourselves on the line to protect that constitutional right.”

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