It was a hot and sunny Los Angeles morning and we were standing on the dirty paving stones as the traffic blasted past. The sidewalk was narrow, with a constant flow of people trying to get past, to the 7-11, to the dry-cleaners - it was not a comfortable place to be. So why we were there? Because they were there.
They were a mixed group - from a young, olive-skinned man who looked to be in his 20s, to a white man probably in his 60s. A Hispanic lady in her 30s had brought two beautiful young boys with her, wide-eyed long-lashed angels no older than five. A tall, grey-haired man in a light green polo shirt with mirrored aviator shades walked up and down the pavement handing out small business-size cards. And a lady with a too-perfect dyed red bob cut and a face that betrayed the effects of more than one cosmetic procedure slithered up and down the pavements at such an eerily slow pace she appeared to be in a trance. There were a few others, but they were the ones I noticed.
What did this diverse group have in common? Well, they were all clutching rosary beads. They were all murmuring in prayer, and at one point recited the entire rosary in one voice. But the thing that united them was something no one actually mentioned - that they were all anti-abortion, and they were there to try to persuade, intimidate or emotionally blackmail the women who passed them into eschewing the services of the women's clinic around the corner.
They couldn't go any closer to the clinic than this sidewalk, which gave those entering the clinic a buffer zone and, if they came in via car, a chance to enter unmolested. But anyone on foot would have to walk the gauntlet of people praying, swaying, murmuring, and be handed a card depicting pictures of miscarried foetuses.
We were a smaller group, but still diverse. Male and female, white and Hispanic, mothers and childfree. Orange-vested, we stood and chatted and smiled, breaking away every now and then to tell a passer-by 'These are protesters. You don't have to listen to them, you don't have to take anything from them' or to offer to dispose of the disturbing card they'd just been handed. A young woman who was clearly disgusted by the image she'd just been presented with gratefully handed the card over saying, 'Yes, please, throw it away'. A young man looked at the card and boomed 'I don't need to see that shit, I got one on the way'.
A Hispanic lady left the clinic and leaned against the outside wall, clearly waiting to be picked up. Green Polo Shirt swooped in like a vulture, handing her a card. I followed quickly and asked if she wanted me to throw it away. She said it was OK, then asked me what we were doing. I explained that we were volunteers there to help women get into the clinic without harassment, and that the other group were anti-abortion protesters. The woman told me she had just had a tubal ligation and was feeling dizzy. I found it hard to quash my anger that in the middle of a sweltering day, having just had an anaesthetic and an invasive procedure, this woman was being bothered by proselytisers handing her an image likely to make most of us feel queasy even if we hadn't just undergone an operation. The woman pointed out that the clinic provides many other services other than abortions, and delicately said of the protestors 'I think these people are a little confused'.
A college-age white woman stood looking at the protestors for a while. I stepped forward and told her she could ignore them. 'Oh no,' she said, breaking into a smile. 'I think they're great!'. She gave the group a thumbs up as she walked past them. I cringed inside to see a young person so supportive of those wishing to take her bodily autonomy away, but I suppose her 'Catholic University' hoodie should have given me a clue that I wasn't going to win this one.
A fellow escort told me that she had formed a 'good relationship with some of the protestors', and that she even swapped stories of motherhood with one of the anti-choice women. The shouting, confrontation and violence my partner and I had been expecting were nowhere to be found, although we were told that this was not necessarily a typical example, with other clinics being much more beseiged. Instead, the protestors murmured their prayers, and the two little boys played on the sidewalk, at one point even wrapping their mother's rosary beads around themselves and pretending it was a seatbelt. I had to laugh at that one.
It was the later shift so most women were already inside the clinic and we didn't have to do any real 'escorting' - it was more just like a quiet turf war to see who could influence pedestrians the most. So many people accepted the dead-foetus-picture cards without a blink, and only a few threw them away. I suppose it's just a reflex to put out your hand when someone comes towards you offering something. Some groups walked through the protestors totally oblivious - the most likely group, I was heartened to see, being teenage girls, preoccupied with their cellphones and conversations. The protestors didn't even register to these groups, and for once I was grateful for the self-obsession of adolescents.
Gradually the protestors peeled off, and as the mother walked her two boys away they grinned and shouted a cheery 'Goodbye!' to us. Their mother pulled them away angrily. We waited until the last protestor had left, then called it a day.
I hoped we had done something good, but I couldn't be sure how effective we'd been. Despite our orange shirts stating 'PRO CHOICE ESCORT' in huge letters, many people seemed unaware of what we were doing. A man even congratulated us, under the impression that we were protestors.
What I wondered most was how the protestors would have been able to justify their actions without religion to hide behind.