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“You never know when death may come.” “You could die by a bullet.”
That’s what Randall Thomas said to clinic escorts outside Choices Women’s Medical Center in Queens, New York, on January 9, 2016—about six weeks after a fatal shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs—according to testimony by clinic escort volunteer leader Margot Garnick.
Thomas is one of 14 defendants who appeared in federal court in Brooklyn last month in Schneiderman v. Griepp, an anti-harassment federal lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
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While protests at clinics that provide abortion services are not new, several videos shown in court outlined the extent to which anti-choice activists bullied and blocked approaching patients and clinic escorts at the New York facility.
Deputy Director of the National Organization of Women New York City (NOW-NYC) Jean Bucaria, who attended part of the hearing, told Rewire.News she was shocked by the account of Thomas’ comments she heard in Garnick’s February 23 testimony.
It isn’t uncommon for anti-choice protesters who come from area church groups to talk in biblical terms about the end of days outside Choices. “But this was definitely different,” Bucaria said. “Talking about a bullet and talking about death like that stood out.”
NOW-NYC partners with Choices to organize the clinic escort volunteers through its charitable arm Women’s Justice NOW.
“My thoughts were that this is terrifying. That this is something that no clinic escort or patient should hear. To me it feels extremely threatening, extremely scary, especially in the context of violence at clinics that has happened across the country,” Bucaria said. “When you know that history and you’re doing that work and you hear people calling you or calling patients murderers, and then you hear someone say something like this, it’s extremely alarming.”
Schneiderman conducted a year-long investigation into the protests, which have been held nearly every Saturday since 2012 outside the Queens clinic. In the lawsuit, he described a five-year “barrage of unwanted physical contact, as well as verbal abuse, threats of harm, and lies.”
The defense has called the allegations vague and has focused on protecting what they call the defendants’ First Amendment rights. Closing arguments are set for May 10. Meanwhile, abortion rights foes continue their picketing outside Choices, activists told Rewire.News.
These tactics designed to “menace” clinic visitors are illegal, Schneiderman said in a statement last year, referring to the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, the New York State Clinic Access Act, and the New York City Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act, under which the lawsuit was brought.
The laws were created to protect staff and patients from force, threats of force, or physical obstruction at any hospital, doctor’s office, or clinic. These laws do not prevent people from protesting by carrying signs, handing out fliers, shouting slogans, or even saying things that anger or upset people outside health-care facilities, according to Schneiderman.
Clinic access laws were created after incidents of anti-choice deadly violence at abortion clinics in the 1990s. There has since has been a tug-of-war between the access rights of patients and the free speech rights of anti-choice activists.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s McCullen decision in 2014 struck down the statewide reproductive clinic buffer zone in Massachusetts. Schneiderman is seeking a 16-foot buffer zone (one foot larger than current law) around the Choices clinic.
Pro-choice advocates consider this case critical because the New York clinic access law has never been tested for enforcement. “We are glad the AG’s office has taken this on because we need to hold these protesters accountable and we need to find ways to do that,” Bucaria said.
Bucaria said she values the right to protest and has used it many times, but “this is different.”
“This crosses a line. This harasses individuals as they are trying to see their doctor and we really need to find a way to push back against this type of activity.”