ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Under the dusky evening sky, more than 60 pro-life men and women, including families with children in strollers, gathered in Rochester Sept. 25 for a candlelight prayer vigil to begin the 40 Days for Life prayer event outside the Planned Parenthood abortion center on University Avenue.
But the gathering was a real first in Rochester — a raucous crowd of more than 40 counterdemonstrators from the International Socialist Organization chanted their abortion-rights slogans over bullhorns and met the pro-lifers in the middle of the road. And in the 10 feet or so between both groups stood the thin blue line of the Rochester Police Department.
The electric tension within the evening air centered on another thin line — the yellow line that marked a 15-foot buffer zone around Planned Parenthood’s entrance.
Barely a week ago, ROC Sidewalk Advocates had celebrated a short-lived victory when the city of Rochester agreed that the court-mandated buffer zone did not apply to them. Just a few days before the 40 Days for Life kickoff, the city reversed its position, based on the counsel of the New York Attorney General’s Office, and the buffer zone was restored.
“Keep your rosaries …” chanted the socialist officiant with the bullhorn. “Off our ovaries!” finished the socialist congregation. Among the socialists, one participant held an Antifa flag, while another held aloft a large pink “Trust Women” sign; others carried “Free Abortion on Demand!” signs.
Opposite them, the pro-life group prayed silently and sometimes broke out into softly sung renditions of Amazing Grace. The sounds of people singing, “I once was lost, but now am found” had a hard time rising clearly above the full-throated chorus of “Back up, back up; we want freedom, freedom; all you anti-choice bigots, we don’t need ’em, need ’em.”
In the backdrop of the participants loomed the mural wall of the abortion center. The mural depicts a local poet and abortion advocate with a halo and a quotation that meant something different to people on both sides of the line: “Your body is your story; its chapters full of adventures and hardships and living, and only you can Write It.”
The yellow buffer zone around the Planned Parenthood entrance prevents pro-life sidewalk counselors from handing out pro-life literature to people driving into Planned Parenthood or accompanying them to the entrance of Planned Parenthood, which sits back from the road. Sidewalk counselors are able to have the most direct conversations with people walking to appointments — until they reach the yellow line.
Jim Havens, who leads ROC Sidewalk Advocates and is host of the Love Will End Abortion radio program on 1460 AM, The Station of the Cross, told the Register that his group has respected the buffer zone, but did not see how the court order applied since his group was new and not named among the parties covered by the injunction.
Havens had experience with sidewalk counseling in Pittsburgh and started the Rochester sidewalk counseling group a year ago, after moving to the city from Florida. He said Planned Parenthood demanded the injunction be enforced against the group when they saw the sidewalk counselors become more effective at persuading people not to have abortions.
“I think it was hurting Planned Parenthood’s business, and so they decided to push back,” he said.
Thomas Olp, attorney for the Thomas More Society, which is representing ROC Sidewalk Advocates, told the Register that the law group expects to challenge the court order’s enforcement in U.S. district court.
“It’s important that people have rights on the public sidewalk — it’s the public forum,” he said. “We think it’s an important case to make sure there is proper and full access on the public sidewalk and the law be understood correctly.”
“Hopefully the court will agree with us,” he said.
New York AG Weighs In
The New York attorney general instructed the city of Rochester to enforce the yellow buffer zone after determining that ROC Sidewalk Advocates for Life was subject to the injunction by its association with the individuals that fell under it.
“Based on our review of the matter — including evidence demonstrating that Mr. Havens and his organization are in fact acting in concert with several of the defendants from the original action (see attached and below) — Mr. Havens and ROC Sidewalk Advocates will have to abide by the 2005 injunction and respect the 15-foot buffer zone,” the attorney general’s office said in an email to the Register.
The attorney general’s office stated that Rescue Rochester and Mary Jost are named in the 2005 court order. It pointed to several Facebook posts that it said show coordination and made Havens and ROC Sidewalk Advocates subject to the order.
The attorney general’s office pointed to a Rescue Rochester Facebook post and mailings promoting training by Havens and Sidewalk Advocates at the Focus Pregnancy Help Center, which is directly across from the Planned Parenthood and run by Jost. It also pointed to other Facebook posts from Havens and Focus, promoting sidewalk trainings and events, and provided screenshots to the Register.
No Dialogue, No Peace
The contrast between the raucous nature of the socialist protest for abortion and the peaceful, prayerful witness of the pro-life gathering was not lost on the neighbors in the University Avenue townhouses. One older man came out and confronted a socialist organizer wearing a mauve shirt and long blond hair in a ponytail, telling him that the chants and bullhorns were upsetting residents, and the disruption was unprecedented.
“We’re on your side! But these people are being quiet and respectful, and you’re making them look like the good guys!” he said.
Another pro-life attendee, Dorothy Hayes, approached the socialist leader, saying, “Please, we have people that would be happy to dialogue.” He refused, saying the pro-life movement was filled with murderers.
The leader was hesitant to speak with the Register, but finally agreed and said the group came to send the message that the pro-life movement had lost and the majority of Americans support abortion. According to polls, Americans fluctuate between identifying as “pro-life” or “pro-choice” — but on abortion itself, a majority believes that first-trimester abortion — 91% of all abortion — should remain legal.
“The political pro-life movement has to be destroyed,” he said. Then a few of the socialist women said they were going home, and the leader asked if they needed someone to walk them home.
“God bless abortion!” he shouted to Jost, who was passing by with her pro-life sign. Jost told him that she lost her brother to abortion. He then said, “Thank God your mother had an abortion!”
Jost became visibly upset, but an RPD officer stepped between them to prevent any kind of escalation. The words burnt painfully in Jost, who told the Register that her grandmother aborted her uncle in 1920. Her mother aborted her baby brother in 1949 — but did not know she was carrying twins. Jost is a survivor who wants others to choose life and not feel the pain of loss from abortion.
“We’ve never had this kind of response at all,” she said. “Maybe it’s good that we know whom we need to pray for.”
Capt. David Smith of the central precinct told the Register that both groups remained law-abiding and peaceful. He said the RPD did have to enforce the buffer zone, but the pro-life demonstrators and 40 Days for Life, he said, have generally respected the buffer zone.
“I have no reason to believe the contrary,” he said.
Power of Prayer
At a certain point in the evening, the socialist group began cycling through other chants, including “Black lives matter!” But the pro-life group took up the response, “In the womb!”
Among the pro-life witnesses was Ayesha Kreutz, president of the Frederick Douglass Foundation of New York, who credited her 13-year-old daughter’s birth to a timely intervention by Rescue Rochester. That day changed her life as a post-abortive mother of two.
Kreutz said the protesters do not know what they are saying or how abortion has a disproportionate impact on African-American communities that hinders them from growing and thriving as they should.
“Black lives do matter, and they also matter in the womb,” she said.
Kreutz said the buffer zone does hinder people’s line of sight to the 40 Days for Life pro-life witness. But she believed the prayers of people on the sidewalk are still effective.
“With or without the buffer zone,” she said, “God is going to do something in people’s hearts.”
The candlelight vigil and counterdemonstration ended early, at 7:40pm, by common consent with the RPD. Eventually, the chants and prayer circles faded away, and both sides went to eat pizza or doughnuts on their respective sides of the street.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.