On the morning of Saturday, June 4, around 50 members and supporters of NYC for Abortion Rights (NYC4AR) clashed with Witness for Life, an anti-abortion organization that operates out of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in SoHo. For the past year, NYC4AR, a group of feminist-socialists, has been running an abortion-clinic defense in direct opposition to Witness for Life’s protesting and targeting of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Mott and Bleeker Streets on the first Saturday of every month.
Generally, the Witness for Life group marches from the church to the clinic, while NYC4AR walks the same path backward in attempts to stall the anti-abortion protesters. Once both parties reach the clinic, the abortion-rights group aims to impede Witness for Life from harassing people entering Planned Parenthood.
As the anti-abortion protesters left the cathedral, they were met by a group of NYPD officers that held the pro-choice demonstrators at bay.
“We take it very seriously. We’re not just reacting; we’re being proactive,” said Henessy Garcia, a member of NYC4AR. “There is no reproductive justice without racial justice, without the liberation of trans people, without climate justice — all of it is interconnected…we as a team definitely try to make sure we live by [intersectional values],” said Garcia, who is a socialist.
Conservative media personality, Elad Eliahu, spoke to the head of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral as the members of NYC4AR and their allies prepared for Saturday’s seemingly inevitable confrontation. The pro-choice group blockaded the street, walking backward slowly to stall the arrival of the 80 or so Witness for Life’s members at the clinic for as long as possible. A Catholic priest and a few lay members of the church watched on as NYC4AR began a looping march in front of the church’s gate. As the congregation ventured out from the cathedral’s courtyard, they were immediately assisted by a line of around 40 police officers that held the pro-choice demonstrators at bay. A large cross and a portrait of the Virgin Mary hovered over the crowd.
Both sides now squared off, face to face, with only the NYPD serving as a barrier between them. NYC4AR protesters jeered at the police, accusing them of serving as nothing more than private security for Witness for Life. Familiar chants rang out: “Not the church; not the state; the people must decide their fate!”
Some patrons and the owner of Cafetal Social Club, a small Italian cafe just down the street from the cathedral, voiced displeasure at the proceedings. The owner, referring to a pro-choice protester leading chants with a bullhorn, said, “I’m gonna take that thing and hit her right in the fucking head with it.”
The NYPD’s heavily outfitted Strategic Response Group blocked the intersection of Mott Street and Houston Street and broadcasted a pre-recorded warning that any individuals blocking traffic would be subject to arrest. Abortion rights defenders say that this message was targeted only at them, noting that Witness for Life’s procession was also blocking traffic. The confrontation continued onto Houston Street, blocking traffic in both directions.
Around 9:40 a.m., both groups reached the clinic. Witness for Life took its place on the sidewalk opposite Planned Parenthood, and members from the group hovered near the entrance, accosting people as they walked into the clinic. Two women from Witness for Life, one sporting a vest and posing as a Planned Parenthood clinic guard, attempted to force anti-abortion pamphlets into patients’ hands and block their entry into the abortion clinic but the clinic’s defenders were able to keep them at bay.
As NYC4AR mocked them and the police, members of Witness for Life broke out into droning chants of the Hail Mary. Some of the clinic defenders were dismayed by the behavior of the NYPD and said they were more aggressive than they normally are in their handling of the counter-protest. At 10 a.m. the majority of Witness for Life members left to enjoy a coffee and donut social, customary after demonstrations.
Leadership from NYC for Abortion Rights — who could be seen closely monitoring both side’s most ardent members over the course of the scuffle — offered a group meeting to decompress after the confrontation and to learn about upcoming actions.
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The number of pro-choice counter-protesters present on Saturday was just a quarter of that on May 7, when 200 people gathered to prevent Witness for Life from even leaving the grounds of Old St. Patrick’s. Last month’s success was confirmed when members of the NYPD informed the leaders of Witness for Life that they were not able to provide a safe escort to the clinic due to the sheer size of the counter-protest.
Many participants on the pro-choice side expressed dismay at the drop in attendance from the May 7 rally, which was the first clinic defense mounted by the organization following the May 2 leak of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion that strikes down Roe v Wade. Garcia told The Indypendent that the average number of counter-protesters has otherwise been around 30.
No arrests were made on either May 7 or June 4 rallies. Both sides are slated to meet again on July 2. It will likely be the first confrontation between the two groups following the much-anticipated release of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the fate of Roe v Wade and the rights of access to abortion in the United States.
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