Published Date Written by David Carkhuff
Months of abortion protests outside the Planned Parenthood Portland Health Center at 443 Congress St. have been monitored by city officials, but next Tuesday the city's response may move to a new phase.
At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 30, the Portland Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee will discuss the protests and whether to enact a Portland "Patient Safety Zone" as requested by Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. The meeting will take place in the City Council Chamber on the second floor of Portland City Hall at 389 Congress St.
The committee isn't expected to take public comment, but supporters of a "safety zone" or buffer to keep protesters a distance away from patients and staff has sparked interest in the meeting.
"We need to pack the room with Planned Parenthood supporters to show the City Council that Portland residents support the right to access reproductive health care free of harassment and intimidation!" wrote CodePink, a peace-activist group.
Jill Krowinski, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said it was her understanding that
public comment will not be accepted, but they will be discussing how to handle the ongoing protests, which occur every Friday and Saturday morning.
"We've been petitioning for a while now to let city councilors know how important this issue is to the community and their constituents," Krowinski said.
"Our staff has been working with the city and the police department to try and deal with the protests that have been happening at our health center, and it has become a public safety issue," she said.
"It's been determined that the best way to deal with it is creating a patient safety zone," Krowinski said.
"What we're seeing with our staff and volunteers and patients is they're being harassed as they enter the local health center," she said.
As public affairs director in Vermont, Krowinski said she is familiar with a similar effort for a health center in Burlington. "We were experiencing a very similar problem," she said.
Different parties worked to create a 35-foot buffer for the center in Burlington, Krowinski said, calling the result a "compromise that gave protesters close enough access and our patients and staff access."
Trish McAllister, neighborhood prosecutor for Portland, an attorney responsible for city code enforcement, said she will speak to the committee on Tuesday to offer an update.
"On Tuesday, there's not really a proposal, the committee asked me to give them information about what has been going on," she said.
Asked if she thought an ordinance would be in order to provide a buffer, McAllister said, "I'm not sure yet, we constantly dealt with the balancing act, of course people have First Amendment rights to protest on the sidewalk, but there are rights of these people seeking services to access the building."
McAllister said police officers who routinely patrol at the site when the weekend protests occur "have not witnessed criminal activity," but she acknowledged they face a difficult task.
"It's very tough for the police officers, and they've done an amazing job," McAllister said, calling the situation a "very delicate situation enforcement-wise."
One enforcement case has been referred to the Attorney General's office in Augusta, McAllister said.
"We did have one incident a few months ago where there was a preacher who was being loud and possibly in violation of the Maine Civil Rights Act," she recalled.
The preacher quieted down after being warned, and per state law, no enforcement resulted.
"Lots and lots of warnings, of course," have ensued from the protests, McAllister said.
"It simply hasn't risen to the criminal level yet," she said.
But dozens of written complaints have been received from clients to Planned Parenthood, she added.
"Buffer zones have been upheld in many courts across the country," McAllister said, but the city proceeded with enforcement of existing law.
"The city stance has been let's make sure we're doing everything we can with existing laws," McAllister said.
Planned Parenthood has been paying for an extra police officer to be at the scene, so an off-duty police officer can provide additional security during the protests, McAllister said.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said the question now is does current law meet the needs of the situation.
"There clearly has been a persistent group of protesters that are there on a regular basis on a regular time and we have countless reports of verbal abuse and intimidation," Brennan said.
"For a number of months, we have been monitoring the situation rather closely because initially we had complaints from people who were trying to access the building and tenants in the building," he said.
"We have had requests from individuals, we have had requests from Planned Parenthood itself and we have had requests from other councilors to review the situation to see if a buffer zone is necessary," Brennan said.
Tuesday's meeting will seek "to start that initial discussion," he said. The city's corporate counsel has reviewed some of the laws and court decisions, and the reported purpose of the meeting is information gathering, Brennan said.
"We're always concerned about First Amendment rights in anything we do, and in this situation people clearly have a right to protest," Brennan said. "What we need to determine is the balance of that right to protest and people having access to health care that's protected under the law."
The mayor said initially protests were more confrontational, but added, "I think over time there has been an ebb and flow to the protests."
"We decided that our first step would be an educational step," so police talked to the protesters about what is admissible under law, and what is not, Brennan said. The city also notified the Attorney General's Office that the city would cite someone if they violated the law.
"We've made a conscientious effort through the police and our neighborhood prosecutor to advise the people who are protesting about the current law," he said.
Mike Fink, owner of Guitar Grave pawn shop and neighboring Mike's Restaurant at 437 Congress St., said he wants to see a buffer zone enacted.
"I'm more for this thing than I have been for any other political thing in my whole life," he said.
Extra lobbying from Planned Parenthood appears to have swayed city leaders, Fink speculated, although Fink acknowledged he detests politics and doesn't get involved in the political part of this effort.
"It's kind of obnoxious and horrible," Fink said of the protests, and blamed the ongoing demonstrations for the looming demise of Mike's Restaurant.
"I'm just going to close and go away. I'm going to close my other store on Friday and Saturday mornings as well, I'll open later," he said, referring to the pawn shop.
In less than a month, Mike's will be closed, Fink said.
"I'm not going to keep trying to sell sandwiches with pictures of dead babies on posters out on the street," he said.
"It's not just the pictures, it's the way they confront women going into the clinic sometimes," Fink said.
"The two women who organize these protests out front each have had four abortions," he said, citing the leaders of the protests.
Leslie Sneddon, with Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine based in Richmond, said she and Donnn Hebert organize groups to protest and educate people going into the Planned Parenthood health center.
"We're just preaching the gospel and warning people who are going into the clinic," Sneddon said.
"They give us grief all the time, they call us hypocrites," Sneddon said of hecklers, confirming that "we've had multiple abortions between the two of us. ... We're not hiding that fact, we're here to help women not make the same decisions."
Sneddon — who also is affiliated with the Center for Bio-ethical Reform, Maine and New England, which spearheaded a graphic anti-abortion display at University of Southern Maine — said the protests outside of Planned Parenthood "don't inhibit entrance to the clinic."
"We can't because that's against the law, we cannot do that, we're the first ones to tell our people, 'Clear the sidewalk.' We know where we can stand, and where we can't stand," Sneddon said.
The atmosphere can vary from week to week, she said, stating that last week, a police officer intervened when she tried to hand a brochure to a woman entering the building. "It changes every week," she said of the enforcement.
"All I can say is we won't go away, and if we need to seek legal counsel, we will," Sneddon said.
"We have hours and hours of videotape of us not doing anything except warning people who are going into the clinic," Sneddon said. "We will fight it (in the case of a buffer), we would abide by the law, but we would definitely seek legal help" to overturn such an ordinance, she said.
McAllister came out "several times in a month to watch what we were doing," Sneddon confirmed.
"We're abiding by the law, I'm sure there's heightened emotions and tensions, but that's what happens when you're doing front-line work," she said.
McAllister described an emotional atmosphere as well, with some protesters objecting to police.
"They've kind of been in my face sometimes with their cameras telling me we're infringing on their First Amendment rights," she said.
Lisa Savage, CodePink local coordinator, said the group's involvement in the abortion issue extended back to a controversial new law passed in Texas. Savage said she and her sister and others stood in Augusta on July 15 "in solidarity with the Texas women," and with the chapter in that state.
"CodePink usually is active on war and peace issues ... but there is a CodePink chapter in Texas that is very active," Savage noted.
Planned Parenthood has circulated a petition urging a "Patient Safety Zone" (see http://tinyurl.com/lqls8jl). Fink said he isn't sure the city will go along with a buffer zone, saying, "I think the city is afraid that they're going to get sued and have to pay legal fees, that's what I've heard."
Fink added that counterprotests he organized "may have delayed any buffer zone," and backfired in a way.
"My approach was humor and common sense against them, but it seemed to work at first but it didn't have the correct results in the end," he said.