On the morning of March 6, 50-year- old Phillip Claiborne Todd was standing next to another man who was assembling a tripod in order to film patients and volunteers outside a Raleigh abortion clinic when Todd’s gun went off. Blood pooled, and it was soon clear to dozens of people outside A Woman’s Choice healthcare clinic, located next to a block of apartments on Drake Circle, that Todd had shot himself in the leg.
Someone called 911 at 9:17 a.m., according to records from the Raleigh Police Department. Officers interviewed witnesses about the accidental discharge and secured a small handgun that had been in Todd’s pocket at the time, according to an RPD statement. Todd drew a weapon charge—state law prohibits bringing a gun to a protest.
“Police pretty much acted like everything was fine and normal,” Kelsea McLain, a volunteer coordinator and founder of the Triangle Abortion Access Coalition, told the INDY that Saturday afternoon. Officers didn’t shut down the protest and disperse the protesters and volunteers. They didn’t search anyone else for weapons.
“We are genuinely confused and concerned why the protest was allowed to continue uninterrupted,” McLain said.
Statistics show a “disturbing escalation” of intimidation tactics, clinic invasions, and other activities aimed at disrupting abortion services, harassing providers, and blocking women’s access to care across the country, according to a July report from the National Abortion Federation (NAF).
In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, clinic invasions more than doubled, with 19 incidents reported, up from eight in 2018. Abortion providers reported an increase in threats of death and harm from 57 in 2018 to 92 in 2019. NAF identified more than 1,507 trespassing incidents—the most ever since recording began in 1999—up from 1,135 in 2018, the previous record. Hate mail and harassing calls increased by 125 percent over 2018, clinic obstructions by 11 percent (at 3,387 incidents), and 123,228 instances of picketing were recorded, far exceeding any other year since the NAF began tracking this data in 1977.
“Since 2016, there has certainly been an escalation around the state in terms of how many people are showing up to pro- test at clinics and how they are getting more aggressive,” says Tara Romano, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, which works to protect and advance the reproductive rights of North Carolinians.
“You had four years under an anti-abortion White House ramping up rhetoric and appointing three anti-abortion Supreme Court justices. That has made folks feel ready, like abortion access is going to be re-criminalized.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the stress for patients, clinic staff, and volunteers in the last year as many of the protesters had little regard for safety precautions against the virus. They regularly flouted state-imposed limitations on gatherings, clinic staffers say, and wouldn’t wear masks or socially distance.
“It shows their blatant disregard for patient safety and health, and not just for patients and staff, but for our community,” says Amber Gavin, the vice president of advocacy and operations for the three A Woman’s Choice healthcare clinic locations in North Carolina. “That’s disturbing and upsetting, and for folks who claim they’re all about being pro-life, it is the exact opposite of that.”
Like McLain, Gavin says RPD’s response to the incident on Saturday was “outrageously insufficient.”
“We have been asking for RPD’s support for years and they’ve been dismissive of the harassment, intimidation, threats, and acts of violence against our staff, volunteers, and patients,” Gavin wrote in a press statement about the incident.
She called on Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin and the city council to investigate the police officers’ response and, now that the regular protests have escalated into violence, to mandate a buffer zone outside clinics to protect abortion patients and providers.
In a message to the INDY, Baldwin said she and the other council members are concerned about the clinic’s staff and patients’ safety and that the council will direct city staff to see if there are any actions the council can take to ensure safety, balanced with protesters’ constitutional rights.
RPD insists it acted appropriately, writing in a statement that it had “no information suggesting that anyone else present was connected to criminal activity” and therefore allowed the protest to continue.
“RPD investigated the incident and witnesses cooperated in providing details,” the statement continued. “The suspect was transported for medical care, his weapon seized, and individuals on scene were observed in prayer and other lawful activity.”
In response to Gavin’s statement asking for RPD’s support, a spokesperson told the INDY that RPD has worked with the medical facility and its staff and that it will continue to do so.
“Violations of the law by visitors to that location are not tolerated,” wrote RPD’s public affairs manager Donna-ma- ria Harris in an email. “At the same time, the department also understands and respects the rights of peaceful pro- testers … Certain places, like sidewalks and street rights-of-way, are considered by the courts to be ‘traditional public forums’ where public speech is given the greatest protection.”
As far as public forums for protected speech go, the Drake Circle clinic and another Raleigh abortion clinic on Jones Franklin Road are highly problematic ones. Since 2016, 212 calls to 911 have been placed in reference to the Drake Circle clinic; for the Jones Franklin address, it’s 488 calls, an average of 35 calls and 81 calls per year, respectively. In 2018, callers dialed 911 from the Jones Franklin clinic 186 times and 118 times in 2019.
Complaints from callers range from reports of harassment, to trespassing, to noise violations, to obstructing traffic. Gavin says this is typical.
“[The protesters] frequently block and prevent traffic, redirect traffic from the clinic, and wave patients into nearby parking lots in hopes they’ll be towed,” Gavin says. “There is no way to enforce a sound ordinance. I just don’t think RPD is equally enforcing what they say is free speech. The threats and intimidation that our patients and staff face would not be tolerated at any other facility or job. [Police] have not done a good job mediating or reducing this harassment and intimidation.”
McLain says volunteers used to joke that it would take someone getting shot before RPD would do anything to intervene with the protesters.
“[The protesters] think they are going to be treated with kid gloves, and it makes these situations so much worse,” she says. “It was pure luck that the gun was pointed at [the shooter’s] leg and not out into the crowd. The protesters bring children. As much as we hate what the protesters are doing, we don’t want to see them harmed.”
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