Armed and Extremist Groups Are Frequenting Abortion Protests

rmed demonstrators and extremist groups have increasingly gathered at abortion-related protests in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. WadeAnalysts are warning of an increasing threat of violence.

Eight abortion-related demonstrations featured armed individuals in the week after the June 24 ruling, bringing the total number of such protests in 2022 to 10—nearly twice as many as in all of 2021, according to a new analysis shared with TIME by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit that tracks political violence and demonstrations.

As of July 1, anti-government militias, extremist groups such as the Proud Boys appeared at 27 events related to abortion., according to ACLED’s data, a 160% spike over the previous year. Far-right groups were present at 1% of abortion-related demonstrations in 2020; this year almost one-fifth of these events featured members from a far right group.

ACLED reports that abortion-rights activists are now bringing weapons to protests against abortion, as far-right and armed groups flood the scene. This includes at rallies in DallasJuly 2nd Analysts have been alarmed at the possibility of both firearms being used and other demonstrators. Counter-protesters have been involved in roughly half the violent and destructive abortion-related protests. “It’s all the makings of a really worrying trend,” says Roudabeh Kishi, the director of research and innovation at ACLED.

People with guns are more likely than others to get into violence in abortion-related protests. So far this year, 33% of them have, according to ACLED’s data, compared to 0.2% of those that don’t involve guns. There have been no shootings in any of the violence. Officials from national security say tensions are growing, which allows domestic extremists to profit from these demonstrations and incite violence among their support.

One of the Proud Boys is standing between an anti-abortion group at a celebration, and a group demanding abortion rights outside the Idaho Statehouse in Boise (Idaho) on June 28, 2022.

Sarah A. Miller—Idaho Statesman/AP

Outside the Idaho state capitol on June 28, fighting broke out between an anti-abortion prayer rally of 200 people—which included a number of Proud Boys armed with assault rifles—and protestors demonstrating against the Supreme Court decision. Just days before the decision was made, a member of Three Percenters, identified as an AR-15-wielding militia, began filming protestors in front of a Eugene crisis pregnancy centre. Police used tear gas to disperse protestors, leading 10 arrests.

Continue reading: The Anti-Abortion Pregnancy Centres are Collecting Large Arrays of Data that Could be Used Against Women

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Department of Homeland Security highlighted domestic extremist violence. Viral posts on online forums warned that the far-left abortion-rights group “Jane’s Revenge,” which DHS calls “a network of loosely affiliated suspected violent extremists” linked to arsons at crisis pregnancy centers, had shared a blog post encouraging a “Night of Rage” after the abortion ruling was issued. In response, far-right extremists called for “attacks against abortion-related targets,” according to a DHS intelligence memo disseminated to federal, state, and local law enforcement officials, first responders and their private sector partners.

Although widespread violence did not occur, dueling militant rallies cries highlighted an increasingly chaotic environment in which real and perceived threats blend with disinformation. This feedback loop can prove to be just as deadly as the actual threats, according to security analysts and analysts.

“People are taking threats from more obscure, fringe groups and spreading them widely online: ‘Oh, look, here’s what they want to do to us,’” says Sivanne Shalev, the head of emerging trends and misinformation at ActiveFence, a technology security company that analyzes disinformation and hate speech. “Amplifying threats and misinformation [causes] a lot of confusion which in itself can be dangerous and can promote real world harm.”

Abortion-rights activists say the uptick in violent threats and attacks they’ve seen in recent years is tied to the larger rise in hate speech and political violence. Melissa Fowler is the chief program officer of the National Abortion Federation.

“For abortion providers, watching January 6 was really very familiar,” says Fowler. “People with militia gear, with weapons, the rhetoric like calling for people to be hung and to be harmed…those are all things that that these extremists do outside of clinics and have been using to torment providers for years.”

Armed militia members guard the route of abortion rights demonstrators’ march in downtown Denton Texas, on June 28, 2022.

Shelby Tauber—Reuters

NAF reported that violence against abortion providers has increased significantly by 2021 according to its last month’s report. NAF has been collecting this information for 45 years. Attacks against abortion-clinic patients and employees grew 128% annually, while stalking rose 600% and bomb threats increased 80%.

Fowler states that after Texas passed its law restricting abortion access, violence escalated in Texas and the surrounding areas. Fowler describes harassment and intimidation as well as forcible entry into abortion clinics and threats of death. The Texas law restricting abortion access led to a surge in violence and intimidation among activists for the right to abort. Dobbs ruling. “A political victory like this can really embolden people who want to harass and terrorize abortion providers,” Fowler says.

Continue reading: Inside the Biden Administration’s Uphill Battle Against Far-Right Extremism.

In the wake of the ruling, extremist internet spaces have glorified violent anti-abortion activist Robert Lewis Dear. Dear was responsible for the shooting massacre at Colorado Planned Parenthood in 2015. He killed three and left nine other people injured. One poster, citing Dear, wrote, “If you’re ‘pro-life’ but aren’t prepared to follow in their footsteps…you’re wasting your time,” according to the internal DHS memo, first reported by Axios.

Federal judges and state legislators could be among the targets, along with abortion clinics and rights protests. Faith-based anti-abortion centres may also be at risk. “Some racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists’ embrace of pro-life narratives may be linked to the perception of wanting to ‘save white children’ and ‘fight white genocide,’” it says. “Violence could occur for weeks… particularly as [domestic extremists] may be mobilized to respond to changes in state laws and ballot measures on abortion stemming from the decision.”

The FBI is also investigating threats to and arson against anti-abortion pregnant centers. This began weeks after the Supreme Court draft opinion was leaked. RoeThis would be overturned. The June 24 DHS memo also cites at least 11 incidents of vandalism “threatening violence targeting religious facilities perceived as being opposed to abortion.”

Anti-abortion groups say they’ve stepped up security amid rising tensions. Students for Life, a national anti-abortion organization, has been adding safety trainings for its staff as well as “more and more paid security,” spokesperson Kristi Hamrick says. Heartbeat International, a national organization that runs more than 2,500 anti-abortion centers, told TIME the week before the ruling that “the primary concern we have from affiliates is regarding their centers’ security and protection given the increase of attacks directed at pro-life organizations.”

With abortion-related protests set to continue in the months leading up to the midterm elections, federal law-enforcement officials acknowledge they’ll have to walk the line between monitoring these often amorphous threats and protecting peaceful protests. As DHS itself notes itself in its memo, “strong rhetoric, or generalized philosophic embrace of violent tactics does not constitute domestic violent extremism or illegal activity and is constitutionally protected.”

Abigail Abrams/Washington reporting

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