It was 21 days into an anti-abortion prayer and fasting campaign in front of the Walnut Creek Planned Parenthood when armed guards hired by the religious activist group turned to sanctimonious use of pepper spray against pro-choice protesters. The anti-abortion group still planned to keep at it for another 19 days, so we took a deeper look at who they are and what it is they do.
The Texas-based 40 Days for Life group is currently in the middle of its fall push to “end abortion locally through prayer and fasting, community outreach, and a peaceful all-day vigil in front of abortion businesses,” according to the organization's website. You’ll see groups praying outside clinics throughout the country and internationally under the organization’s umbrella campaign that runs from Sept. 23 through Nov. 1. Information on their website indicates the group coordinates similar events every fall and spring.
The incident in Walnut Creek culminated after days of confrontation near Planned Parenthood on Oakland Boulevard. According to a statement received from Kristin Nill of 40 Days for Life:
“(C)ounter-protesters were very vicious toward our volunteers, law enforcement refused to help, forcing us to hire private security through Off Duty Officers (ODO) in order to protect our volunteers and practice our first amendment rights.
Off Duty Officers, a private security company, was hired by 40 Days for Life as a third-party contractor to make judgments about how to handle counter-protestors. [sic]
When Antifa members who previously physically threatened and blew marijuana in our Walnut Creek volunteers’ faces, arrived and antagonized the Off Duty Officers, the professional guards took protective action, including using mace against the hostile individuals.”
Trevor Henrich, a 28-year-old photographer who came to document the protest, had the video rolling when he was struck by pepper spray by guards blocking the sidewalk. He continued filming and captured the guards spraying protesters as well. One woman who was chemically assaulted, Lacey Brown, recounted the story on Facebook.
The use of the term “Antifa” to describe the pro-choice counter-protesters is noteworthy since that assertion has not been confirmed in any reporting where participants were interviewed. The 40 Days for Life group has not responded to our request for clarification, nor would they confirm if guards had been hired in other locations and if confrontations or use of chemical agents had occurred in other instances.
The statement we received by email was accompanied by the following caveat:
“They will not be commenting further on the matter.”
Scouring news for other confrontations, we’ve found that most 40 Days volunteers do just show up and pray for 12 hours each day, sometimes on their knees. They’re commonly seen holding or situated near anti-abortion signage, but some hand out misleading literature and pink and blue rosaries, as highlighted in a 2013 story published by The Guardian.
Four women and one man were posted Friday at the Planned Parenthood in Concord. There, we spoke with Marlene Rodriguez, a devout Catholic from “the community” who attends the local Queen of All Saints. She sat in a folding chair, holding a rosary and a poster board with a picture of her younger self and her newborn.
Though Rodriguez was not present during the Walnut Creek incident, she referred to the counter-protesters as “bullies” and repeated the same accounting of events offered in the official statement and in press coverage. However, when asked if she would welcome the assistance of armed guards in her vigil location, she hesitated and ultimately said, "That’s a difficult question. I don’t know. I personally — my weapon of choice is the rosary and if someone comes and bullies me the way that they bullied them over there, which they were really bullied … I would just go on my knees and let them do it."
When pressed about the armed guard presence, she agreed that guns can create additional tension and said, "The person I would welcome. If they have a weapon, the weapon would have to change. If they’re Catholic, to a rosary or to a crucifix, or whatever.”
Rodriguez said she hasn’t accosted workers or patients coming in and out of the Planned Parenthood office, but made clear she doesn’t speak for the 40 Days for Life organization or for prayer volunteers in other locations. On the subject of clinic workers, she said, "These are great people. We are very much aware that everybody has to win the bread for their table and they need to know that they’re not alone, that they are loved and that we are here praying out of love for God. And if God sends us here, we’re here."
However, the 40 Days for Life group openly celebrates that "vigils often lead abortion centers to shut down." While Rodriguez acknowledged the breadth of non-abortion services Planned Parenthood provides patients, the group applauded vigil participants for causing a one-week closure of a Planned Parenthood in El Paso, Texas.
According to Rodriguez and the group’s website, more than 500 of these vigils are simultaneously underway internationally. People sign up to hold campaigns at medical offices that provide abortions in their own communities and other volunteers join their efforts. As Rodriguez pointed out, volunteers come from various denominational shades.
It seems difficult if not impossible for the group to vet each volunteer or closely monitor situations at the hundreds of events. But the disconnect may in fact be the point. If volunteers do not officially represent the broader organization and if the organization is not responsible for the actions of each volunteer, there’s a certain level of built-in deniability if things go awry.