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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Noisy nights at Planned Parenthood lead to year of conflict between clinic, police

The evangelist came from Texas just for this: to stand in the rain on Indiana Avenue on a Wednesday, preaching a sermon about the walls of Jericho and Roe v. Wade.

“And I’m here to tell you God still brings walls down,” called Jon L. Groves, his voice amplified by four speakers. “I’m here to tell you the Holy Spirit will bring the walls of this demonic place down!”

Some 250 people, who had crowded onto the right of way and sidewalk outside the Planned Parenthood Health Center, raised their voices in agreement.

“Your praise is power,” Groves said. “What you’re doing is affecting the bottom line of this institution and they’re bothered by that. … We’re gonna keep going until they go bankrupt!”

The booming sermon, in which Groves decried women who “sacrifice their children on the altar of convenience” and asserted that despite Roe v. Wade “abortion is still murder,” was carried up and down the block.

Inside the clinic, perhaps 25 feet away, a young mother and her child were moving from one exam room to another. The protests, and particularly the singing before the sermon, had made it too hard to concentrate in the exam room where her appointment originally was scheduled, clinic officials said.

For more than a year, the protests and occasional counterprotests – as well as the disruption inside the clinic – have become a monthly occurrence known as The Church at Planned Parenthood. Billed as “a worship service at the gates of Hell,” they’re organized by the pastor of Covenant Church, which has become a center for archconservative politics in Spokane.

Clinic officials have tried to persuade police that the protests are violating the city noise ordinance, as well as city and state laws prohibiting interference with or disruption of activities at health care facilities, to no avail.

The interference law includes a specific prohibition on “making noise that unreasonably disturbs the peace within the facility.”

To Paul Dillon, spokesman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, it’s obvious that the peace is being disturbed and operations are being disrupted. Appointments are regularly moved around – away from the side of the building nearest the sidewalk – or canceled. Staffers leave work early to avoid being accosted on their way to their cars. TCAPP members pace the entrances to the parking lots. Dillon has recorded decibel levels approaching 100 at the protests, which exceed maximums in the city noise ordinance for all types of zoning.

On Wednesday night, which was one of the smallest and quietest of recent TCAPP protests, the events outside were clearly audible inside the facility, though not blaringly so. I asked to go into the room from where the patient had been moved; the speaker and crowd outside were audible, if quieter than the musical portion of the event.

Through the walls, you could clearly hear a man telling the crowd, “Thank you for coming out in the rain. I love you all so much!”

‘We are completely neutral’

That moment was far from the loudest of the night, and Wednesday night was far from the loudest of the TCAPP gatherings, which have drawn crowds of 700, said Ken Peters, pastor of Covenant Church and organizer of TCAPP. But if you were in there having a medical appointment, it might well disturb your peace.

“This is about the noise,” Dillon said. “This is about disrupting our health care providers and patients.”

Police Chief Craig Meidl, who acknowledged that the Planned Parenthood facility is “technically” a health care facility, has decided, in consultation with city legal advisers, to treat the matter almost entirely as a free speech question. He said complaints about noise have not been borne out when officers have investigated, and denies that his officers have been reluctant or refused to investigate.

Officers are assigned to the regular protests, and they keep each side in its camp and work to avoid confrontation – much the way the department handled the Drag Queen Story Hour protests at the libraries.

Meidl acknowledged the protesters sometimes make a lot of noise, but emphasized that the counterprotesters do as well. (Planned Parenthood has asked people not to counterprotest, and there were no counterprotesters Wednesday.)

“My lens has been we are completely neutral in this,” Meidl said. “We will enforce the laws.”

To Meidl and Lt. Dave Overhoff, who leads the team that works the protests, the state law against disturbing the peace inside a medical facility means that the noise must be so loud it makes it nearly impossible to work – hard to hear others speak, etc.

A lot of us might have a lower threshold for what constitutes “unreasonably” disturbing our peace, when seeing a doctor, having a medical procedure done or recovering from one. It’s a vague legal standard, but it’s hard to imagine police responding the same way to an amplified protest of hundreds outside one of our local hospitals.

“If you had 200, 400 people outside Sacred Heart where you could be heard in a surgery room, how long do you think that would last?” Dillon said.

Dillon said his complaint focuses on the noise, not the content. But Planned Parenthood has taken other steps to try and thwart the protesters, including filing a request with the city to have the right-of-way outside the clinic vacated. The clinic would essentially buy the land where protesters gather.

That request, while still technically active, has not drawn support from city staffers, who note that the parcel includes infrastructure and right-of-way issues that would make it impractical to vacate.

But an effort to update the city noise ordinance is also underway. Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who is working on several elements of the law, has drafted a proposal that would explicitly prohibit intentionally making noise that can be heard inside a health facility and that is intended to interfere with services inside.

The proposed ordinance would increase the fines for a violation and create a private right of action allowing patients, clinic workers or other “aggrieved parties” to sue.

That ordinance will make its first appearance in committee Monday. If it goes to the City Council, it will surely make for lively debates.

‘I curse you in the name of Jesus!’

In the realm of anti-abortion protesters, Planned Parenthood occupies a unique position, because of its historic advocacy for abortion rights and the fact that it offers legal abortion services.

For those such as TCAPP members, it is Public Enemy No. 1 – a near-constant target of the accusations of the most insidious activities, couched in the most inflammatory terms. The conflict playing out in Spokane also appears at Planned Parenthood clinics throughout the nation.

In truth, Planned Parenthood offers many services in its clinics, and legal abortions are a very small percentage of what it does, according to the organization. It also offers routine wellness exams, testing and treatment for STDs, contraceptive services, cancer screenings and other services. They also do primary care and behavioral health care.

For Peters, the monthly gatherings are a form of worship – a commitment to pray for change at a “very hellish place.”

“We’re not there to break the law,” he said. “We’re there to exercise our constitutional rights, we’re there to do all we can within the law to exercise our freedom of worship and to state our position … that we believe it is evil to kill our young.”

Covenant Church has become a locus for a certain strain of religious far-right conservatism in Spokane. State Rep. Matt Shea takes the stage there regularly, and a recent service included a robust defense of Shea on the recent accusations that he’s a domestic terrorist, as well as an appeal to chip in to his legal defense fund. Shea has spoken at several TCAPP protests.

Many of Peters’ sermons, viewed online, are overtly political. Other politicians have rallied there, and make appearances at the TCAPP protests. On Wednesday, former Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan and former Spokane Valley City Councilman Caleb Collier, an ally of Shea’s, were there.

Jake Eakin – a man who was convicted of murder as a child and has become notorious for harassing patients entering the clinic – is there, too, as are other figures associated with groups such as the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist group that has promoted violence as political activism and that has been identified as a hate group.

The protests have taken on a national profile in anti-abortion circles. Speakers, activists and pastors come from around the country, as Groves did last week. At its peak, during warmer weather, Peters said as many as 700 people have attended; clinic officials say the largest crowd they’ve counted is closer to 450.

A smaller group of counterprotesters began appearing across the street – sometimes the groups would compete to see who could stake a claim to the public land immediately in front of the clinic, and relegate the others to the south side of Indiana.

Typically, hundreds of protesters fill the sidewalk and grassy swale abutting the clinic. A handful of men pace across the entrances to the parking lots, and sometimes stand near the alleyway entrance, as well. Clinic officials and patients see this as intimidating. There are prayers, songs and sermons, with a singular focus.

At one gathering in August, a visiting anti-abortion activist from Minnesota who calls herself the Activist Mommy led a collective cursing of the clinic, while wearing a T-shirt in the style of Black Lives Matter that read “Babies Lives Matter.”

“I want everybody to say, ‘I curse you in the name of Jesus!’ ” she shouted.

The crowd answered, “I curse you in the name of Jesus!”

‘Please come if you can’

Peters does not like the term “protest” for what TCAPP does. He insists that the goal is not to disrupt the clinic’s activities, and that because most of their gatherings occur on Wednesday nights between 5:30 and 7, which makes it easier for people to come after their workday, he doesn’t believe they do interfere with activities inside the facility.

“The purpose is not to disrupt them,” he said. “I would love to disrupt what they’re doing … but if we were trying to disrupt them we’d be doing it during business hours.”

Peters emphasized this point – “there’s nobody there” – repeatedly during an interview.

However, Dillon said, there are appointments inside the clinic during the protests, sometimes approaching 7 p.m. On Wednesday, there were patients in the waiting room and staff inside the clinic when the speakers started booming, and the last patient left not long before 6:30.

And Peters does, in fact, organize protests during business hours, including gatherings called “TCAPP in the Mornings.” He promoted one on Facebook in a video in which he said, “We’re going to do this with TCAPP about twice a month. We really should have Christians at Planned Parenthood every second that they’re open.”

Peters has also rallied protesters to go to Planned Parenthood during specific procedures by specific patients. This included calling for a morning gathering on a Thursday, because he had heard of a “young girl, connected with a TCAPP member,” who had an abortion scheduled that day.

“We will be there to pray and plead at 8:30,” he wrote on Facebook. “We will have praise and worship around 10. Please come if you can.”

‘Way more than four or five’

Though large portions of the services were indeed like a church service, and many in the crowd were happily greeting each other and sharing words of love and praise, there is also a clearly combative element to the TCAPP events.

The TCAPP team includes guys acting more or less like security guards, some of whom are open carriers of guns, and they hang around the edges of the protest, pacing in the parking lot entries and sometimes confronting people coming in or out of the center.

Wednesday night, one of the men called out Dillon by name, and when Dillon asked him not to block the entry because it was illegal, he responded, “Killing babies is illegal in the eyes of God!”

Meidl said the presence of armed protesters adds to the need for police to defuse possible confrontations. Peters ridiculed this concern in a Covenant Church sermon posted online last year.

“They came and talked to me and said that at the Church at Planned Parenthood, they complained to me, they said, ‘Did you know that four or five of your guys have guns?’” he said. “I said, ‘Trust me when I say this, (it’s) way more than four or five, way more, way more. Way more. And thank God.’”

It’s clear that some of the men at TCAPP are spoiling for a fight.

Peters, during our interview the week before the protest, complained that he had been the target of hateful insults in public, sometimes with his children present.

I asked him if he didn’t think that the way he talked about people inside the clinic fostered that very atmosphere – whether cursing people in the name of Jesus might not, in fact, sow seeds that produce the very fruit he was tasting.

Peters insisted TCAPP does not express hatred toward individuals, but toward the system and organization that carries out what he sees as evil. They love the sinner, he said, echoing the familiar phrase, and hate the sin.

Police conflicts

Dillon said he began complaining to police about the noise early in 2019, to no avail. After he began posting criticisms of the department online, Meidl reached out and the two talked in September and agreed to a “reset,” in the chief’s words. Dillon said this included a pledge that officers would look into the noise complaints from clinic staff.

But at the following protest, Lt. Dave Overhoff ignored Dillon’s request to come inside and see how loud it was, Dillon said. Dillon filed a complaint with SPD about it.

“When the noise began to get excessive, reaching above 100 decibels, I walked up to Lt. Overhoff to come inside and listen given the Chief’s instructions,” according to Dillon’s complaint. “He turned his back to me and walked across the street where the ‘Church Of Planned Parenthood’ was communicating the rest of the time with Clay Roy, an armed event coordinator for the group. More attempts to talk to Lt. Overhoff failed as I walked up to another officer and informed him what the Chief had told me – I was told that it didn’t matter what he had said, Lt. Overhoff was the commanding officer and wouldn’t come over.”

Dillon continued, “This is not new behavior for Lt. Overhoff. At a previous protest, a Planned Parenthood employee approached him citing the city and state laws when the noise got excessive to which he replied: ‘I’m not here to enforce the law.’ ”

Overhoff denies that account.

“He never approached me or asked to talk to me,” Overhoff said during an interview Wednesday night. “I’m always willing to talk to folks at public events like these … that’s my job.”

Dillon and others, including some who have counterprotested the TCAPP events, said Overhoff has shown favoritism toward the protesters. Dillon said, “We would just watch him out there laughing with the Church of Planned Parenthood members. It looked for all intents and purposes like they were buddies.”

Overhoff, like Meidl, denies being biased toward the protesters or acting in their favor. He also said that he and his team have measured decibel levels at the protests that are lower than those claimed by Dillon – in the range of 78 to 89. (These levels would still exceed the maximums in the city noise ordinance, for both residential and industrial areas.)

“I am unbiased,” Overhoff said. “I don’t pick sides.”

Meidl said department policy has focused on keeping confrontations to a minimum, and allowing each side to exercise their constitutional rights to gather and speak freely. When questions about the noise ordinance were raised in two interviews, he frequently noted that counterprotesters were noisy as well; he said the city noise ordinance requires that you ask an offender to lower the volume when there’s a complaint, and said TCAPP has done so when they’ve been asked.

He also pointed out that some people on the Planned Parenthood side of the debate have said insulting things about police officers.

Meidl and Overhoff argue that the noise inside the clinic is just not that disruptive. Overhoff said his view is that “unreasonably” disturbing the peace means approaching a level where people can’t hear each other speak.

He says there simply isn’t probable cause to enforce the law.

‘He told me the noise wasn’t a problem’

Zach Oxford is a grad student at UCLA, on sabbatical in Spokane. He moved into a home on Indiana Avenue about a block from the Planned Parenthood clinic in early November.

The first time he heard the protests, he wasn’t sure at first what was going on. He was inside his home, and the sound was coming through the walls clearly – a sermon of some kind.

“I thought my neighbors were blasting Joel Osteen or something,” Oxford said.

He called Crime Check and filed a noise complaint. A month later, when TCAPP showed up again down the block, he said he was sleeping because he had a very early day coming up.

Again, “you could literally hear the music and sermons through the walls of my home,” he said.

He tried to file another complaint, but was told he needed to approach an officer on the scene, and he didn’t that night. On Wednesday night, there was less noise, but he still found it bothersome inside his home. He approached Overhoff, who he said was dismissive.

“He first told me the noise wasn’t a problem, and I shouldn’t be concerned,” Oxford said. Then, “He told me there’s no noise ordinance in Spokane.”

When Oxford told him that he wanted to at least put a complaint on the record, Overhoff described a process full of roadblocks, which seemed to Oxford meant to discourage him: He was told that he’d have to file a complaint with Crime Check, and the department would then have to dispatch officers to his home to come in and investigate the noise level – and it would all have to occur during the period for which Oxford wanted to complain.

Overhoff didn’t offer to have one of the many officers sitting in cars at the protest to come over.

And the clamor had, by then, died down.

There is a noise ordinance in Spokane, of course, separate from the one that outlaws disruptions at a medical facility. It’s Chapter 10.08D of the Spokane Municipal Code, and it sets measurable maximum decibel levels for different types of neighborhoods, outlines regulations for public events, commercial noise and other types of noise.

The decibel levels that Dillon and the police have cited would both violate these maximums.

Like the prohibition on disrupting a medical facility, it very much exists. On paper, at least.

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