For years now, anti-abortion protesters have demonstrated in front of A Preferred Women’s Health Clinic (APWHC) in east Charlotte, with groups like Cities4Life attempting to convince women to go through with their pregnancies, and a coalition called Love Life Charlotte hosting large gatherings on the surrounding properties to pray and sing songs of faith at high volume as the escorts help patients access the clinic’s services.
The situation has already prompted countless headlines, a documentary, and was the driving force behind last year’s passage of a new noise ordinance by Charlotte City Council. Now, local and statewide stay-at-home orders have brought the conflict back to the forefront, and though the recent arrests of protesters who refused to obey the orders have quelled much of the activity there, some worry that the new Reopen Meck movement could lead to resumed activity.
On April 4, CMPD officers made eight arrests after more than 50 people gathered outside of the clinic, putting them in violation of the Emergency Prohibitions and Restrictions laid out in the statewide order, which prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people. Police warned the group of protesters, which included nationally known activists like The Activist Mommy and the Benham family, infamous conservative activists from Concord.
The group also included protesters with Love Life Charlotte, which each year holds a 40 Week Journey of Hope in which groups of protesters from churches around the region show up outside of APWHC on Saturday mornings for 40 consecutive weeks to pray and sing songs.
Following warnings from police that morning, 12 protesters still refused to disperse, and all were cited for violations. When eight of them still refused to leave after receiving citations, they were arrested.
Three generations of the Benham family — Flip, David and Bailey — were among the eight arrests, and a video of Bailey being handcuffed and led to a police car went viral, with over 200,000 views at time of writing. In the video, David is seen arguing with Captain Andy Kornberg, pleading his case that they were considered an exempt charity organization performing social services.
The incident made international news and was further signal-boosted by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who tweeted video of the arrest, calling it “unconstitutional.”
In a statement to Fox News, Mecklenburg County attorney Tyrone Wade said, “It is reasonable to limit a person’s freedom or movement to a gathering of no more than 10 people and a requirement that each person remains at least six feet apart to protect the public.”
Upon arriving at the clinic the following Saturday, April 11, I immediately observed a crowd of anti-abortion demonstrators that exceeded 10 individuals, at times climbing to twice that amount. I saw Kornberg speaking to Mecklenburg County Commissioner Susan Harden, who asked why the stay-at-home order was not being enforced.
Kornberg agreed that the situation was dangerous, and told Harden on more than one occasion that it was juvenile that officers were forced to count the number of protesters and attempt to ensure there were no more than 10 at any given time, while also denying he could be sure the number was being exceeded.
He told Harden they would drive around to do a headcount, including those in and around an RV owned by one of the groups in which ultrasounds are administered to try to convince women not to seek abortions. If officers did carry out such a headcount, they did it subtly.
When asked to speak on the record, Kornberg said to contact CMPD’s Public Information Department, which did not answer a request for comment. “You are free to report whatever you observe,” he said.
Minutes later, Kornberg engaged demonstrators, asking, “Just taking a walk, right?” and “Just getting some exercise, right?” referring to exceptions in the stay-at-home order that allow for exercise.
While he was not keen to speak on record to the press, Kornberg did carry on a lengthy conversation with Flip Benham — a conversation that proved mildly contentious at times but had an overall friendly tone.
Kornberg argued that Benham should not be proud of his grandson for being arrested and stressed that he hoped someday Bailey would “become the Benham” who decides to “go into law” and challenge issues through the courts instead of in the streets. Benham told him the courts couldn’t be relied upon, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, as “getting us into this mess.”
“Look it, your heart breaks for my grandson, my heart is leaping for joy at my grandson!” Flip yelled at Kornberg, Bible in hand. “I got the father, I got the son, I got the grandson: Three generations that are going to stand for Jesus and be a voice for these little baby boys and girls, this is awesome! It doesn’t get any better than this!”
Kornberg then told Benham that his son David wanted Bailey to go home instead of getting arrested. “I did not know that at that time,” Benham said.
“He did, he did,” the captain told him.
“Well, how did you know that?” Benham then asked. “You never looked at my son. Why didn’t you look at him when you were talking to him?”
“I did look at him,” Kornberg answered, while looking at the ground.
“But you did not. Like you’re doing right now, you’re not even looking at me,” Benham replied, prompting Kornberg to make dramatic eye contact, at which Benham laughed and told him to stop.
Benham then told Kornberg he was planning on getting his mugshot, his son’s mugshot, and his grandson’s mugshot framed next to each other, alongside Psalm 127:4-5, which reads: “Like arrows in the hands of a warrior/ are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man/ whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame/ when they contend with their opponents in court.”
Benham then argued that his son and grandson had not broken the law by remaining at the clinic after being asked to leave, telling Kornberg he would “find that out very shortly” when the case goes to court.
Fellow anti-abortion demonstrator Daniel Parks, founder of the Concord-based Cities4Life organization, spent much of the day speaking over a loudspeaker alongside a man who identified himself as a preacher out of Statesville.
Parks said officers had told him that if there were “over 10 pro-life people out here that they’re going to ask any over 10 to leave,” and those who failed to comply would be cited or arrested. He said he was then told that the following week the rules would be slightly different, with officers citing or arresting not those who arrive after the initial 10, but rather those who were first to arrive once new people arrive, should they refuse to leave.
Parks was later overheard saying that since the stay-at-home order was put in place, he’s seen more women enter the RV and get ultrasounds than he had seen in months. This could owe in part to the fact that clinic escorts and defenders, who help patients to the clinic and inform confused drivers that the RV is not involved with the clinic, are following the stay-at-home order more deliberately.
APWHC owner Calla Hales told Queen City Nerve that Charlotte for Choice, the organization that supplies defenders and escorts, has temporarily suspended its volunteer program to prioritize the safety of those volunteers, as well as patients and staff.
“While we absolutely agree with this decision and support our volunteers, their absence is strongly felt with the continued presence of protesters,” Hales said.
I spoke with Harden over the phone in the days following April 11, and said she had left messages with the county attorney inquiring about “people who travel in from out of the county,” as almost none of the protesters still gathering outside of APWHC regularly are Mecklenburg County residents. She said she inquired if the police officers at the scene are included in the count of no more than 10 people, but said she has not heard back.
Harden stressed that she understood the police had a difficult job, and said she was concerned for their health and safety as well. She also said she “believes in the right to protest” and that we can go back to the rules as they were once the “pandemic is behind us.”
Harden also said that before going to APWHC on Saturday she had stopped by Family Reproductive Health, a clinic about 10 miles away where she had friends who were acting as clinic defenders.
She was there to ask that they go home.
“It’s not like I feel this way about one side of the issue,” she explained. “I feel like they ought to go home too, because right now is not the time to be contesting these issues … and there’ll be plenty of time to fight these issues out going forward, but right now we need to stay at home and get past this pandemic and then move on, you know?”
According Hales, since the April 4 arrests the Love Life crowd has stopped coming to the clinic, opting for “virtual protests,” though she’s concerned with the newly formed Reopen Meck group, which aims to defy the stay-at-home order and is led by conservative activists like those sympathetic with the anti-abortion movement.
“The Reopen Meck/Reopen NC movements are very troubling,” she said, “because preemptively lifting executive orders before it’s safe for the community will only harm our community further.”