The Guise of ‘Gentle’ Protesters and Buffer Zones

I don't remember ever seeing the word "gentle" used to describe queer activism in the '90s, anti-war marches in the 2000s, or the Occupy movement in 2011, even though those activists have a much more "gentle" record than anti-choice protesters do.

I don't remember ever seeing the word "gentle" used to describe queer activism in the '90s, anti-war marches in the 2000s, or the Occupy movement in 2011, even though those activists have a much more "gentle" record than anti-choice protesters do. brunosan / Flickr

Read more of our coverage on the McCullen v. Coakley case here.

When the Supreme Court heard arguments for the case in which they just unanimously decided to restrict buffer zones between reproductive health clinics and those who protest outside them, the media persistently used one word to describe Eleanor McCullen, the plaintiff who was contesting the law in Massachusetts: “gentle.”

The Los Angeles Times, for instance, ran a piece with the headline, “Gentle protester wants court to end abortion clinic buffer zones: No!”

And on NPR we heard:

McCullen says the buffer zone violates her First Amendment rights and prevents her from communicating with complete effectiveness. “It’s America,” she says. “I should be able to walk and talk gently, lovingly, anywhere with anybody.”

Of course, that ability wouldn’t apply at the site of the Supreme Court itself. As the official NARAL account pointed out on Twitter, the Court’s buffer zone is a lot bigger than that allotted for clinics in Massachusetts.

Perhaps the Court justices fear protesters allowed to get too close to them might resort to tactics that aren’t “gentle.” Or the justices would feel intimidated about doing their jobs if, as they entered their workplace, random strangers were allowed to get within kissing distance of them to say directly into their ears, “Jesus doesn’t want you to do this.” And Supreme Court justices, like the rest of us, are also free to make all personal health-care decisions—except one—without interference from those who object to their options.

@DrJaneChi on Twitter:

As someone who has taken part in a number of protests—queer activism in the ’90s, anti-war marches in the 2000s, and the Occupy movement in 2011—and who has read much of the media coverage of those efforts, I don’t remember ever seeing the word “gentle.”

If “gentle” seems like an unlikely word to describe the activist movements I participated in, please remember that each of them has, in fact, a much more “gentle” record than anti-choice protesters do. No one who attended an anti-war demonstration, no matter how vehemently opposed he or she was to the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, has killed anyone in an effort to stop either of those wars. No member of the Occupy movement, no matter how frustrated with the 1 percent and the disastrous effect their misdeeds have had on the country, set off a firebomb in a big bank to show his or her disgust. Not one of the AIDS activists in the late ’80s and early ’90s, many of whom would themselves die because of government inaction, picked up a gun to assassinate an official who blocked AIDS funding.

So why does the anti-choice movement get to be “gentle”? Maybe because the plaintiff of this case is a “grandmother” type. But one look at the people who take part in anti-war protests shows that many of them are “grandmother” types too. Even AIDS activism had a fair number of older women who were protesting because their sons or daughters were dead or dying.

Every time one person in an Occupy march made up of thousands of people broke a window, the media made that offense part of the larger movement. But more than one person with ties to the anti-choice movement has gone on to kill the people they were protesting while the rest of that movement deflects responsibility because “we’re not all like that.”

Some say anti-choice protesters are better than advocates at choosing labels—like “gentle”—for themselves, which the media then repeats endlessly. The problem is that advocates don’t have the shamelessness that our opponents do. Many of us would inwardly cringe every time we called reproductive rights “pro-freedom” or “pro-democracy” or called ourselves “supporters of legal rights for women” (or even “gentle”)—even though each of those labels is more fitting for pro-choice advocates than anti-choice protesters.

Twenty years ago, after John Salvi killed two women at clinics in Brookline, just outside of my hometown of Boston, I remember that local media watchers—including ones who had never taken a side in the abortion debate before—decried the continued use of the term “pro-life” in reports because it was neither accurate nor objective. But anti-choice forces continued to call themselves “pro-life” without a moment’s contrition, and within a year even the diehards in the media followed their lead, as if the murders had never taken place. Now protesters against reproductive rights, under the guise of grandmotherly “gentleness,” will be free to do even more damage.