Planning a Wedding While Battling Protesters: Clinic Director Calla Hales on Her Unusual Wedding Day

"There’s no guidebook for how to keep your wedding safe from protesters."

[Photo: A group of clinic escorts pose outside for a photo.]
"So many escorts from other states showed up [at the clinic] specifically to make sure that patients could be seen and I could have a wedding. If they hadn’t come, I don’t know how this day would’ve gone." Courtesy of Calla Hales

Violence against clinics and abortion providers is insidious. It wreaks havoc on the day to day of clinics around the country; it also seeps into the private lives of those who work every day providing abortion care to their patients. Calla Hales has experienced this firsthand over the last five years in her role as the director of A Preferred Women’s Health Clinic (APWHC) in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she runs the primary location and four affiliated clinics.

Many of the clinics are hot spots for protests. The anti-abortion organization LoveLifeCharlotte regularly holds demonstrations at APWHC’s Charlotte location, where group members harass clinic staff and patients. Hales, who documents the ongoing harassment campaign on Twitter, says they gained ownership of the land next to the clinic’s administration building in 2018 and now hold regular Saturday protests in their new lot, in addition to the handful of “parades” they conduct each year.

These bigger demonstrations pose a unique challenge for APWHC, as LoveLife obtains a parade permit to hold them, closing down part of the street on days when clients are still obtaining care.

“It’s a huge pain because it radically changes traffic patterns and adds even more chaos for incoming patients,” Hales told Rewire.News.

Hales said that while the parades take an exceptional amount of preparation, she has to consider safety at her clinic every day. She is constantly navigating while under siege to keep her staff safe, interfacing with clinic escorts and police to ensure protesters keep their distance so that patients can still access the building.

On November 16, the day of one of this year’s parades, Hales had an additional major event to juggle: her wedding. She and her husband married on a day that started out at 5 a.m. with Hales painting demarcation lines to prevent protesters from trespassing at her clinic, her maid of honor at her side (if only to ensure that Hales actually left the demonstration, she laughed).

Rewire.News spoke with Hales about the looming weight of constant harassment and violence against clinics and providers, the emotional toll it takes on caregivers and patients, and how she prepared for a wedding and a protest at the same time.

Rewire.News: Can you explain the logistics of preparing for a parade? What about this particular one, on your wedding day?

Calla Hales: It usually takes me somewhere between four weeks to fully prepare. This year, I applied for an Urgent Action Fund emergency grant and that helped us out with security needs. We had a lot of out of town escorts from other clinics come in, and [reproductive rights nonprofit] Abortion Access Front paid for their hotel rooms so they could have a place to stay.

It didn’t hit me that it was my wedding day until, maybe, 2:00 p.m. My maid of honor came with me, and I know it was really upsetting for her to watch me put a vest on and have to be protected and talk to cops.

We arranged [our volunteers], got them paired off. Talked to the police. I painted down lines and put up cones and chains to make sure that the property line was clearly demarcated so I didn’t have anyone calling me and saying somebody was trespassing, because that was a real fear. I was there for around three hours—I left after I talked to the cops and made sure everyone was OK. I was taking phone calls and tweeting throughout the morning.

I really did have a fear that the wedding would be protested, so I tried as much as I could to keep it quiet. I know that a lot of protesters did know it was my wedding. They didn’t know where it was, though, thankfully.

Rewire.News: What made you feel fearful of protest at the wedding?

CH: I had gotten notes, and things on Facebook and Twitter being like, “Congratulations. I heard you’re getting married on the 16th. It would be a shame to ruin it.”

There’s only so much we could’ve done [to keep the wedding safe]. There’s no guidebook for how to keep your wedding safe from protesters.

We did everything we could to make sure the clinic was open and that patients could be seen that day and feel as safe as they could be walking through a mass of a thousand people. We kind of got lucky in the fact that it was shitty weather, and they only had about 1,000 people this year—last year, it was at least double the size.

Rewire.News: How did you manage preparing your clinic while managing your wedding plans?

CH: Planning this wedding was a lot like planning a protest, or a response to a protest. We had to sit down and really evaluate what was the date that would be—the least incidence of violence and the least incidence of problems. We had to think of a venue that was public enough for people to get to, but private enough so it wouldn’t be crashed.

I had an incident off the bat when we first got engaged. I made an appointment to go look at wedding dresses, and I’d gone to the wedding salon. [The salon] went through two separate bridal workers who didn’t want to work with me. So, the third person comes around, and I’ve been waiting for 30 minutes. They were like, “You know, we have some people who have disagreements with what you do for work, and they didn’t want to serve you.” And I said, “OK. I’m leaving. I don’t want to buy a wedding dress here anymore.”

I made a wedding registry online, not realizing that you could search it. Our first registry was through Target and, turns out, you could Google “Calla Hales wedding,” and it would pop up. It had your date right there. So, we got it down really fast.

I had intentionally chose this date because we knew that the Charlotte Marathon was occurring on Saturday, thinking there’s no way they’re going to grant any additional parade permits, we’re in a city with a police shortage. And that was not the case.

Rewire.News: What is it like to witness people outside of the clinic world, like your maid of honor, learn what these protests entail for you?

CH: It was a very interesting weekend for me in a lot of ways. One of the things that really stuck out to me was how angry my friends and family were that I was going to work.

I had talked to my parents about it. They weren’t happy, but they got it—granted, they’ve worked with me. They understand the situation. A lot of my friends were very angry. They didn’t understand why I couldn’t just have a weekend to myself, and why of all days, it had to be my wedding day. I tried really hard to explain, please don’t drive by. Patients are still being seen. I know you’re curious, but please don’t. I know a couple of friends still did, but I think they did to make sure I wasn’t still there.

I’ve openly said that half the time, I don’t know if this is important because I don’t hear people talk about it: the high volume of protesters and the excessive harassment we regularly face. We have pockets where a lot of people are talking about it, and then it disappears again, and nothing’s changed.

Rewire.News: But that’s not the reality of what’s happening on the ground; you are dealing with this every day—not in pockets.

CH: It never disappears. I always slide back and forth: Is this important? Am I just overreacting? Am I being hysterical? I gaslight myself.

I get gaslighting from the protesters. We get it sometimes from the cops. Even the [wedding] venue staff were like, “What do you mean you worked this morning?” For them to have such a visceral reaction, it definitely cemented something for me that [the harassment] is not normal and not okay.

But so many escorts from other states showed up [at the clinic] specifically to make sure that patients could be seen and I could have a wedding. If they hadn’t come, I don’t know how this day would’ve gone. We had people coming from the POWER House in Alabama. We had Pink House Defenders from Mississippi come. We had folks from Columbus and Toledo, Ohio, come. We had Indianapolis clinic defenders. We had [Washington] D.C. clinic defenders. And Charlotte for Choice volunteers, who were instrumental in making the day possible.

There were lots of tears when I showed up at the clinic and saw all these people there, their different vests. I was just like oh, god. This is real life. They cared enough to come. They also cared enough to come hang out with us after the wedding. We had an after-party at a bar, and everyone showed up. And honestly, it was rowdier than the wedding.

Rewire.News: And they understand that having to prepare for harassment, that’s there when you’re grocery shopping or going to the dentist.

CH: Dealing with anti-abortion harassment was something that I didn’t even think about as being uncommon. Having to have off-duty officers at your wedding is probably not normal. There were security aspects that went into planning this wedding that I didn’t think about until after the fact how exceptional they were—like having to tell all of our friends we couldn’t put anything on social media until it was over. It was heavy for a lot of folks to have to realize that.

Rewire.News: You look so happy in your wedding photos, like the protesters may not have dampened your spirits.

CH: I’m very upset the protests are happening. That’s not negating any of those feelings. But I’m still kind of wrapping my brain around how much love we had at that wedding and how many friends were there to celebrate us and knew [the parade] was happening, but wanted to wrap us even further up in their arms.

My dad always told us that the best revenge was living flagrantly happily. The fact is, this had the potential to be a really fucking awful day. And the joke’s on them because I had a phenomenal wedding.