WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s the first snowy weekday of 2016 in Washington, D.C., and a group of bundled adults are congregating in the shadow of Two Rivers Charter School, just north of Capitol Hill.
Inside, the classrooms are empty. Two Rivers, a K-7th grade charter school, is closed today — but it has nothing to do with the inclimate weather. The school administration decided to cancel school this Thursday solely due to the crowd of anti-abortion protesters growing outside of its doors.
“Behind us is the future site of a Planned Parenthood megacenter,” shouts a man from a podium at the front of the crowd, pointing at the empty building next door. “Innocent children are going to die here. Innocent women are going to be bruised here.” He then led the group in prayer.
There currently isn’t a Planned Parenthood clinic in D.C. that offers abortion services, a need that a new clinic being built next to Rivers Charter School hopes to fill. But since the organization began construction on the northeast D.C. location last summer, protesters have clogged the sidewalk, holding signs directed specifically at the students — some as young as three. “They kill babies nearby. Tell your parents to stop them,” reads one of the regular signs, complete with pictures of frowning cartoon babies. Others hoist massive posters of bloodied, dead fetuses, asking students to tell their parents to stop the “bloodbath that’s coming,” according to a lawsuit the school filed against the most aggressive protesters in early December.
But today’s protest is an especially big one. It falls just one day before the March for Life, a yearly anti-abortion event on the National Mall timed to coincide with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade that draws hundreds of opponents from across the country. Some of the protesters outside Two Rivers — many of whom traveled here from other states — are already clad in “March for Life” sweatshirts.
Two Rivers will also be closed Friday to avoid the larger march, as its school is situated walking distance from the National Mall. On the school’s email listserv, many parents have expressed concerns about finding childcare for these two days.
Regardless of whether or not classes were in session Thursday, the protest would have taken place, said Lauren Handy, a member of a group called Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust. Next to her, a teenage boy holds a picture of a dead fetus.
CREDIT: Alex Zielinski
“They should know that this is what’s going to happen if a Planned Parenthood opens. Abortion is bad business,” said Handy, one of the seven people charged in the school’s lawsuit. “There will be disruption every day until it’s gone. It’s for the good of the community.”
“It’s mostly the parents who dislike our protest, the kids don’t really care about the signs,” she added.
School administrators say otherwise. In an email to parents the day the school board filed the lawsuit, Two Rivers Director Jessica Wodatch wrote that many parents have told staff how their children are upset and scared by the daily protesters. “It is heartbreaking that a small group of individuals are harming this environment by scaring students and yelling at children as they walk into school,” she wrote. “You’ve entrusted us with your children, and we hope that our action today will help restore our safe learning community.”
The lawsuit claims the protesters have threatened the school for failing to oppose the clinic’s construction. It includes an email sent to school administrators by Jonathan Darnel, a protester from Ohio.
“If you are failing to challenge Planned Parenthood, I feel a moral obligation to alert the community (including the parents of your students) myself,” he writes. “I’m sure you don’t want to see me, my anti-abortion friends and our graphics images any more than we want to be in your neighborhood.”
Darnel isn’t alone when it comes to his out-of-state interest in the Two Rivers’ new neighbor. None of the regular protesters being sued alongside Handy live in D.C., let alone in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Nonetheless, protesters say their presence is a way to educate the students about the issue. Georgette Forney, co-founder of the Silent No More anti-abortion campaign, said it wasn’t easy to explain abortion to her child, and she’s sure many parents feel the same way.
“Unfortunately, having these signs and pictures may be the best way children can learn about it,” she said. “It’s like violence on TV. There’s no way around it.”
Forney is more concerned about the new building’s regulations when it comes to its medical practices. She said Planned Parenthood facilities lacks “quality control,” based on what she’s heard from women who’ve had abortions at other locations. She refused to say she opposes the medical procedure of an abortion, insisting she’s simply concerned about the way the organization handles its patients.
This argument is familiar to the one currently facing the Supreme Court, which involves a state law that places burdensome, unnecessary facility guidelines on Texas’ dwindling abortion clinics. These regulations, while framed as improvements to safeguard “women’s health,” ultimately have nothing to do with patient safety — and simply impose additional, costly red tape on clinic staff. So far, the law has successfully cut Texas’ abortion providers in half — and, if it’s upheld by the Supreme Court, the legal precedent could do even more damage to clinics across the country.
Forney said that Two Rivers’ move to take this issue to court isn’t the “adult” way of going about it.
“None of the adults in the room are acting like adults. The school should work out a solution with the protesters, not sue them,” she said. “What kind lesson is that to students? That they should take something to court whenever you’re mad?”
Tony Goodman, chair of the neighborhood committee where the school is located, said they’ve heard the protester’s concerns, but there’s no legal problem with the construction of the building.
“They have all the right permits, and they’ve been open about the construction from the start,” he said. “There’s nothing there.”
That’s not the only reason why Goodman is hesitant to meet with them again.
“I’ve gotten emails and phone calls from them,” he said. “But some of the protesters have a violent criminal history. And that makes it challenging for us to take time to meet with them.”
And his community agrees. Goodman hasn’t heard from any complaints from neighbors who are against the new construction — only against the daily picketers out front. He said that once the construction is over and the clinic opens its doors, there may be less stress on the community — but it’ll only be directed toward another innocent group.
“I believe the protests are going to be very different when the building is open,” Goodman said. “Not that they’ll be any better, since they will be targeting women who have the right to access its services. But they hopefully won’t be as directed toward the kids.”