Meet the Abortion Clinic Defenders of Duluth
They're going toe-to-toe with protesters, going viral on TikTok, and playing a lot of Megan Thee Stallion along the way.
9:13 AM CST on March 9, 2022
Out of context, the TikToks look like they could have been posted by an oddball improv group, or a wacky troupe of street performers.
In one, a woman in a rainbow vest dances to “My Neck, My Back,” while a man stands with his back turned, trying to ignore her. In another, an older woman reads from a Bible next to someone twirling a purple umbrella, who pulls down their mask to stick out their tongue.
“So cringey you can taste how uncomfortable we are,” reads one caption, and indeed, the men pictured, singing gospel songs as they slowly shuffle their feet, do kind of recall characters in a Tim and Eric sketch.
These people represent two sides of an ongoing battle taking place outside of an abortion clinic in Duluth, one that’s unfolding at clinics across the country.
The anti-abortion protesters gather each day to hassle and hurl obscenities at people seeking reproductive care inside. They’re met by a small army of pro-choice advocates in hot-pink or rainbow-striped vests who shield patients with umbrellas as they usher them in and try to drown the protesters out, dancing as Megan Thee Stallion blares from their boombox.
These are the MN Clinic Defenders.
Having their CupcakKe and Defending it, Too
WE Health Clinic is located on a busy corner of East First Street in Duluth, inside a multi-story stone building emblazoned with “Building for Women.” It’s the only place in northern Minnesota where a person can get an in-clinic abortion.
For many years, the clinic carried out its mission relatively quietly, providing care ranging from birth control to PrEP for HIV prevention to breast cancer screenings. When Cassidy Thompson started escorting about four years ago, there were very few protesters, and very little interaction between protestors and escorts.
“I think some days I saw five at the most,” says Thompson, who today oversees the escort program. “And we were there mostly as emotional support.”
Two things happened when the pandemic hit in 2020. First, the clinic started spacing out appointments for COVID safety. That meant escorts were needed almost four times as long as they had been prior, when most patients showed up during an hour-and-a-half window. And outside the clinic, more and more protesters, finding themselves with free time on their hands, started showing up each day.
The situation isn’t unique to Minnesota. Emboldened by a slew of recently passed anti-abortion legislation around the country, protesters have become a full-time fixture at clinics across the U.S. With an upcoming Supreme Court decision that could overturn or dramatically undercut Roe v. Wade, “Clashes at America’s abortion clinics are getting noisier,” The Economist reported last year.
The TikTok account was Thompson’s idea. She’d noticed a group of clinic defenders in Charlotte who started posting to the app and raising a lot of money for their cause. She remembers thinking, “We have pretty wild protesters. We should film them and see what happens.”
Their account, @mnclinicescorts, took off almost immediately after the first post in September. That seven-second shot shows pro-choice activists blocking the gates to the clinic courtyard while anti-abortion protesters kneel at the gate. CupcakKe’s “Deepthroat'' plays softly in the background: “All I need is my body/My pussy pink just like salami.”
Playing the most joyfully filthy music they can find lightens the mood and drowns out the opposition, and TikTok commenters often make song requests. (You can listen to their Spotify playlist, “Abortion Clinic Anthems,” here. CupcakKe shows up a lot.) Other commenters offer support from as far away as Queensland, Australia. Occasionally TikTok’s algorithm gets ahold of a video, rocketing it onto the For You Pages of its 1 billion global users, which is why many MN Clinic Defenders posts have been viewed millions of times over.
The escorts haven’t changed what they’re doing—“we’re just filming it,” Thompson says—and they’ve placed a list of ways for people to support them in their bio. As a result, the donations and supplies have been pouring in. Three months after creating the TikTok, it had 190,000 followers. Today that number is almost up to 260,000.
Some commenters, looking at the goofy group of colorful escorts, wonder how they can volunteer and join in on the fun. And the MN Clinic Defenders do have fun, though escort Ollie Morris clarifies that this is work that takes extreme patience and a superhuman poker face: “We have to work through a lot of the stuff that gets hurled at us.”
The account has been an incredible tool, Thompson says, especially in terms of showing people around the world the kinds of awful and bizarre things anti-aborion protesters say and do. (In this video, you can watch a protester confronting a victim of sexual assault, saying, “It’s not the child’s fault that you did that.”) When content goes viral, it’s not an accident—they post the silly stuff that they know is going to go viral. For example:
But their focus is less on TikTok than it is on the patients and ushering them safely inside as quickly as possible. “I love dancing! We spend maybe 10% of the time dancing,” Thompson says. “The rest is watching our perimeter and documenting things for the FBI to investigate.” TikTok doesn’t give a complete picture of the challenging, sometimes heartbreaking, and occasionally unsafe work of fighting for reproductive freedom.
It’s not uncommon for new escorts to train in, show up once, and never come back again. “Because it’ll be like two hours of silence, and we’re just standing there in the freezing cold,” says Mangelsen.
“We don’t post us sitting there when it’s negative 30, we don’t post the patient who holds us while they’re crying,” Thompson adds. “That’s the reality of doing this work.”
Other folks can’t quite get themselves into the zen-like state required to keep your cool while people scream at you about murdered babies. Tamping down your belief that abortion is necessary healthcare to focus on the situation at hand is tough to do.
“People think they want to get involved in it because they can bring their logic,” says Catherine Conlan, who’s been an escort for many years. But escorts aren’t going to change any minds out there on the front lines of choice any more than anti-abortion protesters are. “You’re not there to be an advocate for the movement,” she says. “You’re there to be an advocate for patients.”
For Conlan, it’s about keeping your head on a swivel while keeping your mind clear and your demeanor cool. That’s the third time that truck has gone by. Is it a patient who’s nervous, or is it a protester who’s scary? The person approaching us now—are they here for an appointment, or are they going to do something unpredictable?
And each escort has their own triggers that signal it might be time for a break—for example, says escort Katherine LaFleur, the frequent invocations of the Holocaust.
“They want to engage you,” LaFleur says. “They want to start telling you why you’re wrong. And they want to keep telling you the same ugly things, comparing the abortion clinic to Auschwitz.”
Sometimes she can feel the anger building, and she knows it’s time for a walk around the block to cool off. Other times, she says, all you can do is look at protesters and laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation, the fact that someone is reading a Bible verse while escorts throw it back and “Thot Shit” booms in the background.
“Because it is, it’s absurd. The absurdity—it’s almost art-like,” LaFleur says, laughing dryly. “It is the hilarity of the absurd. It has to be comical at some point, because it’s so deeply sad.”
Minnesota After Roe
Clinic defenders don’t talk about Roe v. Wade falling in terms of “if,” but “when.” The Supreme Court makeup being what it is, it seems certain that pending case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health will overturn Roe as we understand it. When it does, the decision will instantly change the landscape of abortion access across the country as trigger laws—which go into effect automatically when Roe falls—outlaw abortion entirely in some states.
“When Roe is overturned, we’re looking at Minnesota and Illinois being the only states in the Midwest that can provide abortion care,” Thompson says. “Twenty-six states are going to ban overnight.”
There are only eight abortion providers in Minnesota as it is, and most can’t conduct in-clinic suction abortion. At WE Health Clinic, defenders worry about what already-emboldened protesters will do when they feel the federal government is on their side, especially when more people seeking abortions are forced to travel out of state.
Thompson points to Jackson Women's Health, the last abortion clinic in Mississippi and the subject of that Supreme Court case. There, protesters hold guns and scream threats of violence, and police haven't responded to the clinic's calls for help in the past five years. Sooner or later, something like that could happen in Duluth.
“We already see some pretty out-there stuff,” says escort Ollie Morris. The protesters, many from nearby Pro-Life Ministries of Duluth, aren’t deterred by the fact that they’re on camera. In fact, most wear their own body cams and try to record video of patients, which they’ll later upload to Facebook.
As a result, clinic defenders aren’t just providing moral support these days: “We evolved into much more of a physical barrier than an emotional barrier,” Thompson says.
In the relatively short time since Seeley Mangelsen started escorting early last summer, he’s seen the protesters get increasingly volatile. Mangelsen and the other escorts have gone from using the umbrellas to block protester body cams and protect patient privacy to using them as a physical barrier, trying to put themselves between patients and protestors.
“The umbrella—that’s not a guard to them anymore,” Mangelsen says. “They will just stand in the middle of the road and you have to shift around them, or they get a lot more physical.”
The clinic now needs between 10 and 15 escorts during each shift, because the protestors have gotten so verbally and physically aggressive. And the concern is that if (or when) Roe is overturned, things will only escalate. “It’s like we’re at a critical mass,” says Conlan, “where things are really bad right now, but it’s not gonna take a lot to get a lot worse.”
Duluth’s clinic defenders know, for the most part, how to handle the protestors they have now, so they look for ways to improve their structure and increase outreach, and think up new or better ways to protect patients in a post-Roe America. They’ve all had conversations about what they think protesters will do in the future, and one unfortunate consensus is that Pro-Life Ministries of Duluth will likely be among the least of their concerns.
“We’re looking at large white nationalist organizations like Operation Save America—they will put people in Duluth,” Thompson says. Katherine LaFleur points to the “raw, hot anger” of the kind of people who attend the Jericho Marches, where pro-Trump, #StopTheSteal Christians overlap with anti-abortion protesters.
We’re only a little over a decade out from the murder of George Tiller, the Kansas abortion clinic director who was shot and killed while serving as a church usher. Today, as the clinic defenders twerk to Snoop Dogg, the thought lives in the back of their minds: This could be the person who brought a gun. This could be the pickup truck that drives into the building. Mangelsen says he often thinks back to the active shooter training he received in school, mentally clocking the nearest exits and keeping aware of the surroundings. They are silently prepared for the worst.
From Duluth to Texas
Earlier this week, the Duluth MN Clinic Defenders shared a video of an escort facing down a protester at another Minnesota clinic, the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in Bloomington. He’s red in the face from yelling about the reopened building, and he gets within inches of the escort as they record.
“Just shut your mouth—you are so stupid,” he says. His hatred flows out of him visibly with the condensation accompanying each shouted syllable.
Protesters like this are not unique to Duluth, or Charlotte, or Jackson. They come from throughout the Midwest and around the country to alternatingly scream obscenities and sing gospel songs.
“When I started doing this and I would tell people what I was doing, it was always like, ‘What? In Duluth? We’ve got these crazies in Duluth?’” Conlan recalls. People can imagine it in Texas or Mississippi, or maybe even Wisconsin. But a blue town, in a blue state?
It’s one of the reasons the TikTok has been so valuable, even if it can’t quite capture the full scope of the movement. It shows, consistently, what these protesters are doing—“it’s not just a bad day, not just a march once a year,” Conlan says.
She and the rest of the escorts hope that each of the short videos they share will bring greater awareness to the challenges facing abortion advocates and rally viewers to get involved, whether that’s by donating, registering to vote, or joining them by signing up to become an escort in Duluth or the Twin Cities.
The support helps escorts like LaFleur continue to provide some comfort to the people who come to WE Health Clinic for care. She still remembers the day of her abortion: the unease she felt staring down screaming protesters, how blown away she was by the kindness and professionalism of the people at the clinic. Now, she volunteers as an escort once a week.
“If I can lessen that noise for somebody, or at least try and ensure that it’s not so deafening—that’s kind of my personal mission,” LaFleur says. "At the end of the day, it’s just somebody making a choice for themselves.”
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