Early morning on Saturday, Angela Muto was jolted awake by the sound of a protest outside her window on Mott Street in the Village.
“Pro-life. That’s a lie. You don’t care if women die,” a group of 20 men and women repeated, walking around in circles outside Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral across Muto’s apartment. They had been holding up abortion rights signs since 7:45 a.m. and an hour later, even amidst high winds and cold drizzle, their chanting could be heard from a block away.
While this wasn’t the group’s first organized rally at this location, Muto didn’t know that NYC for Abortion Rights, an advocacy group, was not organizing a protest, but a counter-protest. Every month, Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral hosts a vigil that marches to the Planned Parenthood on Bleecker Street and stations itself outside the clinic for an hour. Protestors pray and hand out anti-abortion fliers to incoming patients. NYC for Abortion Rights, formed in response to Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, started facing off with these church protesters about five months ago.
Muto, a 61-year-old typist and transcriber, has been living across the church for the last 40 years. “I’ve been hearing them once a month for a while now,” she said, annoyed at the early-morning chanting. “I always wondered, why aren’t you in D.C., and protesting things like Kavanaugh, where this really matters?”
But after finally confronting one of the organizers on Saturday, Muto decided to join the counter-protest herself.
“I used to go to that Planned Parenthood when I was younger,” Muto said, having always thought the church across her apartment was progressive. “I had no idea that pro-lifers regularly organize around it.”
Just as in previous vigils, as soon as the clock struck 9 a.m., a large group started to inch its way out of the Cathedral and onto Mott Street. The leaders of the ceremony wore long robes, and protestors prayed with rosary beads as they softly chanted. Two of them held a large image of the Virgin Mary and a robed man carried a large crucifix.
At about 60 to 70 people, this particular anti-abortion crowd was larger than usual because Saturday marked the end of the annual 40 Days for Life campaign. A countrywide movement, 40 Days for Life is organized by anti-abortion supporters who spend 40 days praying and reaching out to the community to end abortion.
This month’s vigil was organized by a group in Brooklyn called God’s Precious Infants. Representatives of the group did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.
On Saturday, as the vigil headed away from the church, the counter-protestors immediately blocked it on the sidewalk, attempting to slow the vigil’s arrival at the Planned Parenthood clinic two blocks away.
“We delayed the vigil by 45 minutes last month because we walked backward super slowly,” said Lily Brown, an organizer with NYC for Abortion Rights. “It was really powerful being able to delay them because even if they get to the clinic later, they always leave … around 10:00 a.m., which means they have less time to harass the clients.”
But on Saturday, this tactic didn’t work. A group of around 10 police officers shut down the blockade attempt. One officer got out a blowhorn, threatening to arrest the counter-protesters for interfering with passage on the sidewalk.
“I’ve never seen so many police officers at one of these protests before,” said Anne Rumberger, a volunteer for NYC for Abortion Rights. The month before, she said, a vigil member had punched a counter-protester for blocking their way, giving him a concussion and spawning police intervention. This time, the officers preemptively cleared the path on the sidewalk with barricades and prevented the counter-protesters from blocking the roads.
With the blockade attempt only lasting 10 minutes, the church protestors successfully made their way to Planned Parenthood and spread out along Bleecker Street. While most stood or kneeled in a group and prayed on the sidelines, some of the vigil members, including members of the group Pro Bikers for Life, handed out fliers closer to the clinic entrance.
“We’re just trying to let pregnant women know that they don’t need to turn to abortion,” said Lewis, a grey-haired biker handing out brochures outside Planned Parenthood in his leather jacket. “If your parents or your boyfriend kick you out of the house or don’t support you, we want you to know that you can come to us for help when you’re pregnant.”
Meanwhile, counter-protestors gathered across from the clinic’s doors, singing songs of power and solidarity.
“We want to sound supportive, not angry,” said Brown. “We just want the clients to know that we support them going inside, and that they don’t need to pay attention to the protestors.”
Last year, The Nation reported that the clinic had asked NYC for Abortion Rights to stop protesting outside as it disturbed the clients. The group has persisted rather than let anti-abortion protests go unchallenged.
“We were tired of the pro-lifers gaining so much ground all over the country,” said Brown, who actively supports Planned Parenthood in all of its efforts but wants the abortion rights movement to make a wave. “We were tired of their voices growing and not ours.”
In the weeks leading up to Saturday, Rumberger said that NYC for Abortion Rights canvassed the neighborhood with fliers in an attempt to let the public, as well as the clinic, know that there would be a rally. On the morning of the stand-off, volunteers and staff of Planned Parenthood refused to comment on the protests, using their time instead to shield and guide patients coming in. The Planned Parenthood media team also did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.
During the hour that the church group stood vigil, several counter-protesters complained to the police that having some of them block the door and harass women with tragic-sounding brochures was an unfair tactic. The officers shook their heads. “They’re just doing what you’re doing,” one officer said.
As the church group sang hallelujahs towards the end of the hour and prepared to march back to the church, biker Lewis straightened his jacket and got ready to join them. “I don’t understand why these people are even here,” he said, pointing to the abortion rights supporters. “But hey, it’s a free country.”
Meanwhile, NYC for Abortion Rights followed the vigil back to church, switching back to powerful chanting as soon as it was off Planned Parenthood’s block. And Angela Muto, still in her pajamas from that morning, marched with the group.
Header Photo: Outside Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Saturday. (The Ink/Jeevika Verma)