On Saturday mornings, I put on a bright pink or yellow vest and go get between people who think abortion is the world’s big evil and people who want or need one. As someone in this position, I can’t help but think that much of the talk about wearing safety pins to tell people you’re a resource in the face of the freshly empowered right is reinventing the wheel. My vest isn’t a perfect analog of the safety pin or the situations its meant for, but it’s close enough to make it worth talking about.
When I put on my vest, I’m making a promise to the clinic I work with and to its patients and their companions. I’m promising to watch, to see and document what happens, to be aware of everyone’s rights in the situation and the resources we have (or don’t) for protecting those, and to intervene as needed and wanted in a way that puts the patient first. If I’m not prepared to do that, I don’t go put on a vest that day.
There is the possibility of violence any time I put on a vest. It isn’t likely. The vast majority of anti-choice protesters aren’t prepared for more than passive-aggressive prayer and ugly signs. Even the ones who shout and try to physically intimidate patients will rarely touch them. But people have died over this. I have to know this could happen. I have to face the possibility head-on if for no other reason than to keep from freezing if something happens to or in front of me.
I also have to know violence is a possibility because my behavior could make the difference in whether it does. If I rile up a protester, offensive violence is more likely. If I fail to engage a patient or companion in a way that makes them feel safer, defensive violence is more likely. And for all the violent urges protesters can engender in me, violence is not why the patients, companions, or clinic are there. There are situations in which people go looking for violence, but most of the time, they’re trying to live their lives more safely. Bringing violence to them does not help them.
I put myself physically between protesters and patients or companions, both to shield them and because I am a much less safe target for a protester to attack. Part of it is that people know we’re organized politically, that we have some clout with authorities, but part of it is that we’re not such acceptable targets. It’s much harder to justify violence against me, a volunteer, than against a “baby killer”, “irresponsible slut”, or any of the other dehumanizing terms used against our patients. I decrease my safety by inserting myself, but the overall odds of violence decrease.
Most of what I do as an effective escort, though, is deflecting and redirecting. I draw protesters’ attention to me over something small but important when they’re doing too much yelling. “You’re blocking the way. You need to step back.” I draw patients’ attention to the practical things they’d still have to pay attention to if there were no protesters. “Yes, these parking meters are weird and annoying.” “Do you know where you’re going inside the building?”
I walk a fairly fine line in directing patients’ behavior. I give a lot of permission to dismiss social expectations. “You don’t have to talk to them.” “You don’t have to take that pamphlet.” “They’re not with the clinic.” I confirm that protesters’ behavior is not “normal” or acceptable while treating patients’ behavior as exactly what’s to be expected under the circumstances. I haul out my best apologetic, sympathetic smile a lot.
At the same time, from a patient’s perspective, I’m part of the whole, huge, messy problem. They didn’t ask for any of this. Even if I’m there because the protesters would keep coming with or without us, I’m still not what they asked for or need. There are times and places in my life to protest both-sidesism, and I will do so vigorously in those times and places. In the face of a patient who wants all of us to just get the hell away is not that place. That’s the time for me to hang back, get in the protesters’ way, and do whatever I need to do to remind myself this isn’t about me but about the person who just told me not to make their life harder. If I do that, then I can do it all again for the next patient.
Those are the kinds of things being a human shield entails as an escort. I’m still thinking through how things are different in the broader world and what kinds of commitments I can reasonably make and keep. If you are too, that’s a wise thing to do before telling people they can count on you. Hopefully this kind of information helps.