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How a group of clinic volunteers use TikTok to battle anti-abortion protesters

Written by on September 11, 2020

Sometimes you need to fight fire with fire — or fire with “WAP” lyrics.
A group of abortion clinic escorts and defenders have developed a devoted fanbase on TikTok after going viral for their unconventional methods of opposing religious protesters. The clinic, which is based in North Carolina, is often swamped with protesters who read Bible passages and chant about sin in an effort to intimidate patients seeking reproductive care. The army of primarily teenage girls defending the clinic’s patients are fighting back in the most quintessential Gen Z way possible: bullying them on the internet. 
In one video, an older (and notably unmasked) protester, attempts to preach in front of the clinic. A woman with fuchsia hair and a “Black Lives Matter” face mask, TikTok user alexthefeminist, drowns him out by reading the lyrics to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s summer hit, “WAP.” 
“I have communed with my heart,” the protester tries to say, but alexthefeminist powers through with “Gobble me, swallow me, drip down the side of me.” 
The protester is evangelical minister Philip “Flip” Benham, an outspoken anti-abortion activist who, in 2011, was convicted of stalking a Charlotte doctor who provided abortions. He leads the group Operation Save America in protesting reproductive rights in front of the clinic almost every day. The clinic defenders refer to him as a “domestic terrorist” because of the threats he’s made against patients seeking safe abortions and the doctors who perform them. 

The videos are wildly popular on TikTok, and rack up hundreds of thousands of views. Its audience even coined the term “ChrisTok” to describe the subsection of viral videos posted by the group of clinic defenders. The portmanteau stems from another particularly ardent anti-abortion protester named Chris, who’s a regular outside the clinic, and the hashtag #christok has 52.8 million views. 
Throwing it back in front of scandalized fundamentalists and mocking them with BigKlit’s viral song “What The Mouth Do,” which features the verse, “If there was a god, I would make him eat my pussy,” is objectively funny. But aside from getting a rise out of the religious protesters, the clinic defenders are performing a valuable service: distracting protesters from harassing the clinic’s patients. 
The nonprofit the TikTok users work with, Charlotte for Choice, provides clinics with volunteer escorts and defenders. Clinic escorts walk patients from their cars to the entrance for security and emotional support. Clinic defenders, like the group posting on TikTok, directly engage with protesters to keep them from approaching any patients during their escorted walk. 
Hannah Bauerle, a 19-year-old student, had been posting snippets of her life on TikTok before she started volunteering as a clinic defender. Her mother volunteered with the clinics for years, so Bauerle joined her for the summer. 
“Defenders are the people who are basically on the frontlines. They’re the ones who engage with the anti-choice protesters,” Bauerle told Mashable in a FaceTime call. “We also advise [on] clinic parking, we sometimes do counter-protesting. But that’s not our main goal. The main goal is making people feel safe.” 
Bauerle and her childhood friend Jaicie Smallwood, who’s also a 19-year-old student and volunteer with Charlotte for Choice, began posting their encounters with the clinic’s protesters on TikTok. As the videos started to gain traction, more of Bauerle and Smallwood’s friends joined the volunteer brigade. They also inspired others in the area to volunteer at the front lines. At the start of the summer, Bauerle told Mashable, she worked with two or three defenders per shift. Now she works with anywhere from five to 15 defenders, and guesses that if not for the cap on volunteers per shift, there would be at least ten more defenders joining them every day. 
“We don’t want it to look crazy,” Bauerle said. “We want to look like a medical facility, like it’s somewhere where someone’s going to get their appointment. It’s not a protest.” 
She added that the clinic defenders have been so encouraging, patients have even asked if they could join the volunteer roster, too. 
The daily showdown between the clinic defenders and the Operation Save America protesters is a physical representation of the generational divide in the fight for reproductive rights. A majority of the protesters who show up armed with Bible verses and religious condemnation are older — Flip Benham, for example, is 72 years old. While the clinic volunteers run the gamut of ages, those posting on TikTok tend to be in their late teens and early twenties. 
Nationwide support of legal abortion has been steadily increasing over the last two decades, per Pew Research Center. Data compiled in 2019 shows that 70 percent of adults under the age of 30 say “abortion should be legal in all or most cases.” 55 percent of adults 65 and older agreed. Furthermore, 77 percent of white evangelical protestants “think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.” 
A Gallup poll also conducted in 2019 found 62 percent of those 18 to 29 consider themselves “pro-choice,” and 33 percent consider themselves “pro-life.” Compare that to the 65 and older age range, of whom only 37 percent identify as “pro-choice” and 56 percent identify as “pro-life.” 
Bauerle noted that once the protesters realized how overwhelmingly young the army of clinic defenders was, they enlisted a few teenagers to protest with them. But Bauerle feels bad for them because they seemed “brainwashed” and don’t understand meme references. 
“The other weekend one kid had to go home because he cried, and I was like, ‘Dude, if you’re gonna be out here [protesting the clinic], you need to know how to take the heat,” Bauerle said. 

Despite growing support, the right to safe and accessible abortions is under constant threat. While abortion is technically legal throughout the entire country, individual states still maintain the power to interfere with access to reproductive rights through increasingly restrictive laws. 
In the effort to smother the legal medical procedure, various states have limited insurance coverage for abortions, placed unreasonable requirements on facilities that provide abortions, banned terminating a pregnancy after certain gestational milestones, and imposed emotionally taxing requirements on the patients who seek abortions, like mandatory ultrasounds and biased counseling. 
Smallwood, Bauerle’s friend, realized early on that the protesters couldn’t be reasoned with because they’re so deeply rooted in their beliefs. Engaging in any sort of debate in support of abortion would be futile. The logical next step, then, was to stoop to their level. 
“Do you spread your buttcheeks and let the water run down your butt crack when you’re in the shower?” Smallwood asks John, a regular protester at the clinic, in one of her videos. She’s referencing the concerning trope of toxic masculinity that keeps some men from properly cleaning their anuses
“God made you in his own image, and you became profane,” John starts, before Smallwood talks over him. 
“I bet you don’t,” she continues. “You actually look like you don’t. I can tell you do not spread those cheeks and let that water run. Get that booty clean.” 

Fluency in memes, referencing pop culture, and refusing to take yourself too seriously are all tenets of Gen Z humor. Smallwood noted that in dealing with conservative protesters, the innately raunchy nature of online humor helps distract them because they’re so easily scandalized. 
“When I initially came out [to the clinic] I was very intimidated…But as you get into it, it’s just like, these are people who have put themselves in a sort of hierarchy when really, we’re all on the same level,” Smallwood said in a FaceTime call with Mashable. “So I think we kind of make a joke, and dumb ourselves down and we can dumb them down as well. It’s humbling to be like, ‘Hey, you can’t just remove me from this conversation just because you don’t think it applies to me or you don’t think that my opinion is valid.” 
The defenders, who are mostly young women, appall protesters by belting promiscuous songs, twerking, and quoting a Euphoria line that’s now a popular TikTok sound: “Yeah, I’m not supposed to be here right now because I’m dressed like a hooker.” The group got a kick out of confusing the protesters by putting up a sign with that quote.
“The pro-lifers were like, ‘What is that? What does it mean?” Smallwood laughed. “They were trying to digest and dissect this phrase, they were going on about how we were speaking in code, how we were trying to summon things. I just think things like that are so powerful because they’ll always be to us, a game.” 
Arguing with protesters using their own language of Bible verses is guaranteed to be unsuccessful, Smallwood said. The protesters will always have a more expansive knowledge of theology and a deeper conviction that what they’re doing isn’t hateful, but right. Memes, though, are inherently exclusive — they’re an inside joke between those who understand them. Forcing the protesters to engage with a language they’re completely unfamiliar with is disarming and levels the playing field.
“I think I can just siay that the fight’s just beginning,” Smallwood said. “This year, and the upcoming months even, things are going to change in reproductive health.” 
If you can’t physically join the ranks in North Carolina to engage with the protesters, you can still get involved in advocating for reproductive rights regardless of where you live. Opportunities include petitioning state representatives to protect the right to abortion, raising funds for those who can’t afford them without insurance, and volunteering with local organizations and clinics. 
As fun as it is to troll religious boomers, the fight for safe and accessible abortion is an uphill battle.
 WATCH: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ director on the barriers surrounding rural abortions

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