When Cops Become Clinic Protesters

In Louisville, Ky., an armed police officer joined an anti-abortion protest outside a clinic. When the thin blue line of the police becomes aligned against upholding the law, injustice prevails.

Defying the law is not what police and governmental officials are supposed to do; they are supposed to uphold the law. But recent events illuminate concerted efforts to radicalize officers as anti-government agents. Those investigating such radicalization in relation to storming the Capitol might also look at what has been going on around abortion clinics. Anti-abortion militants have a well-developed rationale with which they encourage law enforcement to defy the law.

The Jan. 6 insurrection spurred several investigations into how police cooperated with rioters at the Capitol. Six officers have been suspended for their actions, and 35 more are under scrutiny. Additional investigations of the day will likely entail reviewing how the Capitol’s security process failed, how white supremacists have infiltrated police forces across the nation, and how far right leaders worked for homeland security. On the local level, too, we are in need of such investigations.

Last week in Louisville, Kentucky, an armed police officer allegedly joined in a protest at one of two reproductive health care clinics remaining in the state. Clinic escorts alerted the public via Twitter. Louisville Metro Council Member Jecorey Arthur notified Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) Chief Erika Shields and tweeted, “Maybe this is why @LMPD doesn’t enforce the law at these protests. They’re protesting too.”

Because such action is blatant disregard for police protocol and ethical standards, the LMPD responded promising an investigation. According to LMPD spokesperson responding to the incident, “It is essential that we maintain a posture of neutrality while representing the department and behavior contrary to this will not be tolerated.”

What motivated the cop to break the basic rules of his job? And to do it so brashly?

Reportedly pulling up in a marked police cruiser and parking in front of the clinic, the officer was wearing a sidearm, the gun visibly holstered at his hip. Based on the sign he carried while protesting, the officer appeared to be aligned with a group that promotes protests at clinics across the country forty days at a time. According to clinic personnel, he and his unidentified passenger joined anti-abortion protesters, marching around the clinic repeatedly for about an hour.

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Is this a citizen with religious convictions expressing his first amendment right to free expression while off duty? Then why the marked car and gun? Clinic personnel fear it is a policeman’s conscious act of defiance. If so, it bodes ill not only for clinic workers and the people they serve, but for all of us.

How Anti-Abortion Extremists Recruit Public Officials to Break the Law

Police who bend and break the rules are a standard trope in American popular culture. Dirty Harry and Axel Foley are classic examples. Moreover, there are plenty of examples we can point to in American history of police breaking the law. But this particular incident speaks to an actual plan by abortion foes to entice law enforcement to defy laws they don’t like. It is a plan that often exploits racial tensions.

The plan for police to break the rules and defy the law in Louisville was laid out in 2016—a year before a national group of militant abortion opponents, Operation Save America (OSA), planned to go there. Rusty Thomas, leader of OSA, blatantly appealed to police and to the governor to put their personal views before law and order. Thomas claimed, “Christians were remonstrating in Kentucky for months to encourage the state authorities to cross a line, be brave, and defy the lawless, corrupt and unconstitutional ruling of Roe v. Wade.”

No longer satisfied with opposing the law they felt was the result of federal overreach, Thomas had a different message: “Ignore Roe.” “Defy Roe.” T-shirts and bumper stickers with such slogans circulated during the siege of Louisville in July 2017. That summer, Thomas led protesters in a physical blockade of the entrance to the Louisville clinic, reviving from the 1980s the militant tactics of his group that was then known as Operation Rescue.

But it was not enough to enlist citizens to defy federal law by denying access to the clinic entrance. Thomas reached out to state officials, arguing their loyalty as officials of civil government rests foremost with God. This argument is spelled out in the “doctrine of the lesser magistrates”—a corruption of Calvinist belief that has been popularized by Matthew Trewhella, founder of Missionaries to the Preborn and early defender of the use of deadly force to stop abortion. When then-Governor Bevin entertained these anti-abortionists, they presented him with a copy of Trewhella’s book, which provides a rationale for “lower or lesser ranking civil authority” to “refuse obedience” to higher authority as a matter of holy “interposition.”   

Thickening the Thin Blue Line at the Capitol and the Clinic
An anti-abortion truck spotted in Louisville in 2017 during the siege on the abortion clinic. Operation Save America teamed up with Missionaries to the Preborn to appeal to the police to defy the law. (Carol Mason)

In addition to courting the pro-Trump, anti-abortion governor with religious appeals, Thomas also directly addressed police officers and their sense of being “targeted” as a result of recent campaigns against fatal police brutality. Thomas deployed references to the Black Lives Matter movement in an open letter, praising “the thin blue line that separates the criminal element from society.” Bemoaning how “anarchy runs rampant while government tyranny grows,” Thomas claimed this “violence has now targeted our law enforcement agencies.”

Thomas was referring to events in Texas, blatantly connecting “the issue of legal abortion to the racial tensions that were bubbling over across the country as two high-profile, videotaped killings of African American men by police officers were followed by the assassination of five police officers guarding a protest in Dallas,” according to a report from People for the American Way.

Thomas asked police to work with state officials to defy Roe: “We beseech police departments throughout America to rise up and demand the governor of their respective states to call a special session. Police officers need to insist their state immediately outlaw abortion, grant the police the authority to shut down” clinics and “arrest those who participate in the barbaric act of abortion.” He went on to dismiss calls for “[B]lack lives” and “blue lives” to matter when abortion is allowed, centering his own call for defiance of the law squarely in the midst of racial tensions.

Those tensions have spiked in Kentucky since police killed Breonna Taylor in her Louisville apartment a year ago, in March 2020. They got worse when local high school journalists a couple months later broke the story that Kentucky State Police training material titled “The Warrior Mindset” included multiple quotations from Adolf Hitler advocating violence as a means to success.

Was the police officer’s actions at the clinic last week in Louisville related to these racial tensions? Meg Sasse Stern, a clinic escort, noted an irony that suggests so: While this LMPD officer rallied with the abortion protesters, LMPD routinely surveils the park that in warmer months was the site of demonstrators protesting the acquittal of Taylor’s killers.

“It’s so painfully obvious which protesters [the Louisville police] support and which ones they actively monitor, arrest and intimidate,” she told Ms.

No wonder Thomas would woo them. His record of exploiting racial tensions is not limited to Kentucky and Texas. Thomas had also courted law enforcement officials in other jurisdictions, including Arizona. There he met with Richard Mack, a former sheriff of Graham County, Arizona, and his Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, as well as with the notorious former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Convicted in 2017 “for willfully defying court orders to stop detaining illegal immigrants and racially profiling Latino drivers,” Arpaio is reportedly regarded “as a hero for his repeated defiance of court orders, law enforcement norms, and the constitutional rights of detainees in his jurisdiction.” Donald Trump called him a patriot when he issued his very first presidential pardon to Arpaio later that year. Cozying up to Arpaio, Thomas was again exploiting racial tensions for the aim of convincing cops to defy the law.

By January 2021, anti-abortion militants were in the mix of white supremacists, paramilitary militia and conspiracy believers who stormed the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Cheering them on from the sidelines of social media were Rusty Thomas and Matthew Trewhella.   

Thomas posted: “Just heard from some of our OSA leaders on the ground at our nation’s capital.” He gave the same message he had sent to Louisville police five years earlier: In the face of “tyranny and anarchy” that he sees perpetuated by the government, “We are way beyond a political solution for what ails us as a people.”

Thickening the Thin Blue Line at the Capitol and the Clinic
Screenshot of Facebook posts by OSA’s Rusty Thomas. (Courtesy of Abortion Access Front)

Trewhella rebuked one of his followers who threw his own words back at him. A man shocked by the siege directly asked Trewhella: “What in the world? What about the model of the interposition of the lesser magistrate? Storming the Capitol is not a Godly way to deal with tyranny.”

Trewhella corrected him, pointing to the American revolution as example and claiming that “there are precious few righteous magistrates in America.” He added that in the absence of such civil servants, it was “the duty of the people to act when there were no magistrates doing their duty.”

Thickening the Thin Blue Line at the Capitol and the Clinic
Screenshot of Facebook posts by Missionaries to the Preborn’s Matt Trewhella. (Courtesy of Abortion Access Front)

That is how abortion opponents justified insurrection at the Capitol meant to defy the legal certification of electoral votes. It is the same rationale they use to encourage law enforcement to defy Roe. What we saw at the Capitol has been happening around the clinics.

When the thin blue line of the police becomes aligned against upholding the law, injustice prevails. American history has seen this manifest in lynchings, internments, torture policies, mass incarceration, inhumane detention, police brutality and other flagrant disregard for international human rights law. Abortion opponents’ plans to fatten that blue line of law enforcement in their favor combines with other efforts to radicalize the military and the police, thickening the propensity for more injustice and more violence from the right.

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Carol Mason is the author of three books on the rise of the right, including Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-life Politics. She is professor of Gender and Women's Studies at University of Kentucky and faculty affiliate of The Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies.