“It looks like there’s some trespassing going on,” I announced as calmly as I could to the patient I was escorting through the throng of anti-abortion protesters toward her appointment at the clinic. It was 2017, the day before Mother’s Day. “Let’s go back to your car while the police handle this situation.” Operation Save America (OSA)—the extremist anti-abortion, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ (the list goes on!) group—had orchestrated a blockade of EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville. It looked like a swarm of bees was overtaking the entrance.
OSA, known for its regular harassment of abortion clinics, didn’t begin or end its weeklong fear-mongering in Kentucky that year. Last summer, the group’s activists stormed Indianapolis, disturbing the staff and patients at three of their reproductive health clinics. And now, OSA has set its sights on Milwaukee, protesting this week at Affiliated Medical Services, the only independent abortion provider in the state. Reproductive rights nonprofit Abortion Access Front has dubbed the weeklong hate fest the Garbage Fyre Festival.
Still angry at the terror they brought to my doorstep in Louisville, I’ve hit the road and joined the coalition of over 25 local and national organizations that have come together to counter-protest the hate of OSA in Wisconsin. We are rallying in solidarity with the abortion provider and the community around the clinic here. But even once OSA packs up its anti-abortion propaganda, we know our work isn’t done. Reproductive rights activists must continue to take a strong stand against this dangerous rhetoric that fans the flames of violence and hate toward clinic staff and patients.
Emboldened by the Trump administration back in 2017, OSA had seen Kentucky’s lone abortion provider as a prime target for its yearly descent on a region with a vulnerable independent clinic and a state legislature open to passing even more restrictive abortion bans. The group of clinic escorts and I had spotted some of their leaders scoping out the clinic during the winter, testing the waters with their massive, graphic signs designed to manipulate and terrify.
Then on that day in May, we realized that OSA leaders had been scouting the clinic access points where they could orchestrate a blockade. They seemed eager to test whether the Department of Justice under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions would charge them with a Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) violation. Thankfully, ten anti-abortion protesters were arrested, charged with trespassing, and given restraining orders. Not one patient missed their appointment that day, but the impact of the protest was still felt by everyone on that sidewalk in downtown Louisville.
Let’s be clear: OSA’s leaders promote the position that abortion providers and patients deserve the death penalty. The rhetoric they perpetuate is violent and dangerous. This is the kind of extremism that inspires someone to shoot a doctor in the forehead during church.
Since 2017, some of our Louisville “antis” have found an even more extreme home with OSA. The organization is recruiting locally, and we see their growing numbers of protesters each week. Clinic escorts know all too well that it would take just one person inspired by their vitriol to put lives at risk with a gun, an incendiary device, or as we recently saw in Alabama, a car.
As clinic escorts, we are not clinic “defenders” per se, but we have responded to this influx of protesters by ramping up our escort program, training dozens of new volunteers just in the last few months, and including incident response as part of our program.
OSA is lobbying state representatives in Madison for even more restrictions on abortion and gathering for their annual convening from July 13 to July 20 in Wisconsin, with the theme “Complete the Work.” Two of OSA’s leaders are based in Milwaukee, and they have already been influencing legislators, pushing for further restrictions, bans, and punishments, including the death penalty, for abortion patients and doctors.
It’s time for advocates and legislators to stop treating OSA as if it’s some wacky, fringe organization. When its leaders set their sites on their next location, local advocates must hold their communities accountable to not welcome these extremists. They’re going to have to eat somewhere, and they’re going to have to sleep somewhere. Please take a stand against hate and violence.
While in Milwaukee, in partnership with local groups on the ground, we have made it clear to OSA that theirs are not Wisconsin values and that extremists like them are not welcome in this community. Reproductive rights activists must continue to not let what looks like fringe extremists normalize and ingrain violent ideology into communities and statehouses nationwide. This is how we have to show up for each other, in Milwaukee and wherever these activists may go next.