I went to Planned Parenthood in Bryan, TX. And I had no other choice.
Many people I know have protested or waved signs, myself included. Red Light Cameras. End the Fed. Abortion. Ron Paul. War. Free Speech. End the Drug War. Police Brutality. Obama Care. The reasons to protest are endless. But how many of us have faced protesters? How many of you have been the focus of their dislike, disapproval, and maybe even anger? This was the first time for me. I know people who are activists in the greatest sense of the word and face down protesters and police in riot gear with fortitude I probably don’t possess. I haven’t been there. And I’m not sure I’d ever want to be. That’s not really my calling at this point in my life. I truly admire those courageous people who challenge the status quo and shed light on our corruptness and asinine laws.
I digress. I share my story not to condemn or praise the protesters I met, but to share my impressions and reactions as a target of the protest in the hopes of helping future protesters be more effective.
Some Background. My mom has Stage IV Breast Cancer that has metastasized, meaning it has spread. She has it in her lungs, spine, liver, stomach, bones, and lymph. She had radiation to relive the pain in her spine, as the cancer had eaten away half of one of her vertebrae. It fractured due to weakness. She is currently on a cancer drug to block the growth of her cancer, chemo to shrink the existing cancer, anti-nausea meds, pain medicine (I can’t even imagine the pain), and medicine to regulate her blood pressure. She gets a shot to make her body produce white blood cells. She’s been hospitalized 3 times in the last 5 months and has had a blood transfusion. What little hair she has left is white; she walks with a cane on good days and a walker on the other days. Her stature is hunched; the bone cancer is in her shoulders and pelvis, among other places, making it painful to stand and walk.
Because my mom is not old enough for Social Security, but has paid into a system for her whole working life that promised her benefits, she is trying to get those benefits under disability. She might not live to the specified age to get Social Security and Medicare. We hope she does. This month she needs a new form to fill out. The previous 162 forms aren’t enough, of course. Since it is merely 2010, practically the Dark Ages, this form is not available online in pdf. Furthermore, it cannot be emailed, snail mailed, or faxed. You must pick it up at your county’s clinic that handles that particular form. In Brazos County, that clinic is none other than Planned Parenthood. I went to Planned Parenthood because I had no other choice.
Mom and I get in the car and drive to Planned Parenthood. As we approach it, I see three protesters. Sinking feeling. The first one is a portly man holding a sign that says 4500 Babies. I have no idea what this means. Seriously. I assume it’s the number of babies aborted, but where, and over what time period? There are two women out there as well. I pull in the gated parking lot and a Planned Parenthood Volunteer approaches my Xterra. I hop out, smile, say hi, and run around to help my mom out of the car. At this point, one of the female protesters begins yelling at me through the fence. “You have options. I have information for you. You have a choice. You don’t have to do this.” Now my mom emerges from the car and the woman stops, but only for a moment. Recall the description of my mom. It’s obvious she’s not there for an abortion. I help her out of the car and we begin the slow trek across the small parking lot. The whole time we are shuffling along, this woman is yelling at us that she has information for us. I reply, “Do you have info on breast cancer?” She says yes, and I tell her I’ll pick it up on the way out. During this particular exchange the male volunteer is pulling my mom up the curb while I’m pushing. Does she really have to yell at us during this? It’s almost humiliating. My mother cannot climb a curb without the assistance of 2 people, and all the while she’s being yelled at by a protester. The protester continued yelling until we got in the building. We were only there a few minutes. How can a clinic be so quick when you need a longer respite? Murphy’s Law. When we emerged from the clinic, the protester began jumping up and down, waving pamphlets, and yelling, “I have that information you SAID you’d take. I have it HERE for you.” I kid you not. Her tone was demanding as if I owed it to her to get her information. She continued this the entire time we inched across the parking lot. Seriously, did she think I would leave my mom to fall in the parking lot to come get her pamphlet? Was she so absorbed in her cause that she couldn’t see another human being suffering, weak, and vulnerable?
After I got my mom settled in the car, I approached the woman. I explained to her why I was there. I told her that I had been on the other side of the fence. I had handed out literature at an abortion clinic. This was the last place I wanted to be. I didn’t take her pamphlet. I really wanted to tell her what a rotten person she was, but I’m nice and my mom was waiting in the car.
Authors, speakers, and teachers plan ahead. They identify their audience and determine the desired outcome. Then they develop a plan. Protesting is no different. You are there to reach a target audience, to deliver a message, and to educate. You may even be there to stop an activity. What are you protesting? Why? Who will be watching? What is your goal? I don’t think the woman who engaged us had ever thought it through. I’m sure her goal was to save babies, but she didn’t have any sort of plan. Define a purpose. Set a goal. Make a plan. And truly understand your audience.
Some other pointers based on this experience:
- Signs should make sense. Remember that most people aren’t in your inner circle. They don’t know all the facts and figures and they don’t speak the inner circle lingo. Spell it out for people. Most people don’t wake up one day and say, “Gee, there’s a group protesting something I believe in. I think I’ll go over and get all the facts from the opposition and make an informed decision on the issue.” Most people run into a protest by chance. It’s on their way to work or along their route through their daily activities. It is NOT part of their schedule and your cause is NOT on their mind. Your message should be simple, direct, and clear.
- Targeting the weak and vulnerable makes you look like an asshole. There’s no way around it. Even if you can justify it, perception is reality. Ever seen a cop closing in on a homeless man? Our human nature kicks in. No matter what the vagrant has done (usually), our instincts say, “Leave him alone. He lives in a cardboard box. Cut him some slack.” Don’t kick a man when he’s down.
- Yelling is confrontational. If you are trying to change hearts and minds, don’t yell. If you’re expressing anger…YELL! When you feel attacked, you won’t respond positively. Our natures tells us to put up defenses when we’re attacked. Fight or flight.
- Don’t expect people to side with you if you’re belligerent. Respect others’ viewpoint. Respect their intelligence. Changing someone’s mind takes time and patience. If you’re aggressive, they’ll shut you out. Rudeness isn’t effective. People come to their conclusions for different reasons. Perhaps they have never really thought it through. Calm, respectful, rational discussions are far more effective than attacking people. Again, what is your goal? If you want to harass someone, be belligerent. Driving your Congress Critter batty may cause him to reconsider running for his 14th term. When it comes to educating people, try not to annoy them or make them hate you.
- Be prepared for multiple audiences. Not everyone goes to Planned Parenthood for abortions and birth control. Not everyone who walks past the Federal Reserve is Bernanke’s best friend. How will you approach them? Can you answer their questions? Where can they find answers that you don’t have? You might get an unexpected convert if you’re prepared.
- Know that people are always watching and your actions reflect the cause or the movement. Do you really want to be the person on the news who is yelling at a little old lady? How much sympathy and credibility will you have after that? The media loves drama and will jump at the opportunity to paint protesters as volatile. An effective protest will gain media attention, but not for the wrong reasons. Verbally assaulting the “weak” is never good PR.
A well planned protest can raise awareness to your cause. Positive or even neutral media attention can give you a good boost. Like-minded people who were formerly unaware of your cause may join you or donate to you. Successful protests build camaraderie and excite your volunteers. A well attended protest shows off your strength and numbers. Well-prepared protesters can inform and educate. Spend some time planning before you grab your sign and take to the streets. That extra effort could make a big difference in the outcome.
On a different note…My advice to those who are passionate about ending abortion: Create competition for Planned Parenthood. Build clinics in communities that offer free and discounted birth control, cancer screenings, gynecological care, and social services for women. A one stop shop that Planned Parenthood already is. Reach out to women in need before they come to that vulnerable point in life where they return to the place that has been there for them for years…for an abortion. I know how angry and assaulted I felt walking into that clinic. I can’t imagine if were facing an unplanned pregnancy and had to deal with a protester yelling at me. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted anything she had to offer.