Make a Difference

What to do when protesters show up

July 2022

Written by

Michele D. Shoun

Plans for the September 9 walk were proceeding smoothly, and then Shelly Burkhart, executive director at HerChoice (formerly Bowling Green Pregnancy Services) experienced a moment of panic. A coworker had learned through social media that a local pro-choice group planned show up at the center to protest.

Questions raced through Shelly's mind: Would they bring a mob? Would tension or even violence mar the celebration of life? Should they cancel? What could they do to prepare?

Shelly reached out for advice from NIFLA, Life Matters Worldwide, and others. She came away with ten action items that helped Her Choice plan for the best and prepare for the worst.

Here’s what they did:

1. Asked board members, staff, and donors to pray and fast for one day. After all, prayer should be any ministry’s first plan and is always the best way to prepare. Shelly felt a little like Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20 –  powerless against what could become a “great horde.” So they prayed as he did: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You.”

2. Created an evacuation plan, and made sure their board, staff, and volunteers knew what it was. If someone drove into the parking lot – where tables, tents, and the bounce house would be located – to run people down, “bouncers” would usher everyone into the church next door for safety.

3. Designated six physically imposing men to serve as “bouncers.” In addition to managing the crowd of supporters, they would be tasked with keeping protesters off the property. The men serving in this capacity were expected to speak kindly but firmly. They would also videotape any interactions with protesters, serve as a buffer between supporters and protesters, and call police if necessary. They would remain at the center during the walk to protect the building.

4. Notified local police. In this case, Her Choice contacted both city and campus police from nearby Bowling Green State University. The police were cooperative and helpful, escorting the walkers the entire distance of the walk.

5. Asked supporters not to speak to protesters.The plan was to encourage supporters to go about the walk with joy, peace, and love. This was communicated prior to the walk in mass emails and on social media (Facebook), as well as in announcements the day of the event.

6. Had every participant sign a pledge. The pledge form required them to refrain from responding to protesters and to behave without violence or aggression.

7. Discouraged supporters from carrying signs.The purpose of the walk was not provocation or persuasion but to demonstrate support for the center. Participants were given t-shirts that identified the center and the purpose of the walk.

8. Suggested that walkers sing praise songs softly in order to counteract the yells and chants of protesters.

9. Designated certain people to speak to the media. Shelly prepared a “script” for them to follow, and instructed them to stick with it. That way they would stay positive and reflect the true nature of the center. Talking points included:

  • HerChoice loves and empowers women.
  • HerChoice employs medical professionals.
  • HerChoice offers all its services free of charge.
  • HerChoice does not discriminate in any way.
  • HerChoice offers women a safe space to express their feelings, fears, and hopes.
  • HerChoice supports women no matter what they choose.

The center also offered client testimonials to media representatives.

10. Notified their insurance carrier about the walk.

These preparations served Shelly and her team well. After the walk, she was glad to report that everything went smoothly. The 25 protesters were outnumbered by 150 supporters.  While they were “loud and proud” in their chants, two police officers served as a buffer between the two groups along the walk.

Local media did take notice, and a report appeared in the Bowling Green State University Falcon. I’m curious as to whether readers noticed the irony in the names of the two groups who faced off last Saturday. The protesters who claim to be pro-choice marched under the acronym FORCE, which stands for Feminist Organization Raising Consciousness and Empowerment. Meanwhile the group that they protested as “anti-choice” is called HerChoice and offers women real choices!