Police Took My Hijab. Here’s Why It’s So Hard to Stop Them From Doing It Again.

In 2016, on the second night of Eid al-Fitr, Philando Castile was shot and killed by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez with his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter in the car. I was involved in almost every protest after his death, including an occupation in front of the Minnesota governor’s mansion. When the occupation was eventually raided, I was among those arrested. I was the only visibly Black Muslim woman detained. I was taken to a Ramsey County facility, where my hijab was repeatedly removed in front of male officers. It’s an experience I share with many others.

Data on incarcerated Black Muslim women is slim, but reported cases of de-veiling date back at least 14 years. In 2005, Jameelah Medina was accused of being a terrorist by a Los Angeles County Sheriff and forced to remove her hijab. In 2017, Kirsty Powell settled a lawsuit with Long Beach for the “humiliation and distress” she suffered when her hijab was forcibly removed by police. Last year, the Council of American Islamic Relations in Michigan filed a civil rights complaint on behalf of Siwatu Salama-Ra, whose religious rights (including access to a hijab, Quran, and pork-free food) were violated while incarcerated.

These are only a scattering of cases, and more surely linger in the shadows. Unfortunately, not every case is reported, because doing so can lead to retaliation or long legal battles. Multiple groups have taken up fights to introduce changes across the country to address these problems, but the issue of violating Black Muslim women’s religious rights is deeper than policy.

There is a legal precedent for allowing Muslim women to wear hijab while incarcerated. Along with the First Amendment guaranteeing religious freedom, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000, which included protecting the religious rights of incarcerated people. However, that precedent has been difficult to apply to incarcerated Muslims due to Islamophobia embedded within the carceral system. As noted by CAIR Michigan staff attorney Amy Doukoure, there is no uniform policy across facilities regarding the right to wear hijab. Instead, Doukoure said, “When it comes to county facilities and state facilities, every county and every city has their own policy. Or a lot of them still have a lack of policy.”

This lack of policy leaves a lot up to discretion, which poses unique issues for Black Muslim women. Although Black Muslims make up a fifth of all Muslims in the United States, we occupy a tumultuous space. Black Muslims experience an anti-Black extension of Islamophobia rooted within the “afterlife of slavery”. Theorized by African-American literature professor Saidiya Hartman, it refers to the continued devaluation and dehumanization of Black lives, accomplished through a “racial calculus and political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago.”

In some cases, the removal of Black Muslim women’s hijab is also linked to public shaming tactics. Educator and activist Angela Davis noted in “Are Prisons Obsolete?” that Black women are subject to regimes of punishment that differ greatly from those experienced by white women. Part of that includes publicly shaming or humiliating Black women, which is seen time and time again throughout the criminal justice system. The very existence of online mugshots and media usage of them is a great example and, for Black Muslim women, poses a unique concern.

In Maine, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office opened an internal investigation in 2016, after at least one Black Muslim woman — who was arrested at a protest — had a mugshot without hijab released to the media. In the opinion of other protesters, the decision to release the mugshots online was intentional.

When working on developing a policy in LA county, Margari Hill, co-founder and executive director of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, noted that law enforcement tried to slip in vague wording to leave things up to their discretion, and advocated for having dual mugshots: one with hijab and one without.

That “dual mugshot” policy also exists in Michigan, where Doukoure said women are often told they can’t wear headscarves for identification purposes, adding, “You’re allowed to wear them in your driver’s licenses and you’re allowed to wear them in your passport photos, so why does the Michigan Department of Corrections need a higher standard than every other state and federal government agency?” Despite the Michigan Department of Corrections having a policy around hijabs in general, there is no rule preventing those photos from going online. If they do, it’s essentially impossible to remove them due to the difficulty of communicating with online search engines and convincing them to take the photos down, and the department itself.

The issue of having a mugshot without hijab going online is one I’m familiar with. According to a Ramsey County Public Information Officer, the county’s official policy since March 2014 has been, “We exchange [their hijab] for one of ours (to avoid any contraband issues). We take two pictures, one with and one without. The one without is confidential and never released.”

But similar to the Black Muslim women in Maine, I was arrested while protesting the police. While I was detained, I was told by a male officer that I needed to remove my hijab for my mugshot. I complied, because the process of getting booked and released takes hours. I was too tired to argue. Despite Ramsey County’s own policy, it was the only picture taken. That mugshot was later released online.

In some cases, the removal of Black Muslim women’s hijab is also linked to public shaming tactics.

Groups have attempted to address the lack of policy within their own regions, which illuminated other factors at play. For instance, cultural ways of wearing hijab that are dominant in Black communities are not considered markers of one’s Muslim faith in the same way that they are for other communities.

In the 1960s, the repeal of the National Origins Act and Asiatic Barred Zone led to an influx of Muslim immigrants, which led to the American public beginning to explicitly code Muslims as Arab. As a result, Hill shared that she would often have to demonstrate to law enforcement different ways to wear hijab and the various materials it could come in. She noted that if a Black Muslim did not have the proper “markers” to be considered “legitimately” Muslim — such as an Arabic name or a particular phenotype — then the reaction was accusations that “Oh, you’re wearing [a scarf] for fashion” and “You’re not a real Muslim, you’re a Moos-lim.”

This process of facilities taking it upon themselves to determine who is a legitimate Muslim — and excluding Black women from that — was also noted by Doukoure. In 2018, at the same time CAIR Michigan filed a civil complaint against the Michigan Department of Corrections on the behalf of Ra, the organization filed a second on the behalf of Marna A. Muhammad, who was illegally denied clergy status.

“We believe that because she was an African-American woman serving an African American community, they didn’t find her to be what they consider to be a stereotypical Muslim,” Doukoure shared. Muhammad was with Masjid Wali Muhammad, the oldest masjid in Michigan. “And therefore, they refused to recognize that someone like her could be a religious, spiritual leader that could have clergy status.”

Through the dehumanization of Black people — and our subsequent removal from the religious, as outlined by Delice Mugabo — Black Muslims are rendered invisible within mainstream discussions around Islamophobia, but still perceived as an inherent threat. This anxiety is transferred from colonial times, such as Charles V of Spain’s attempts to exclude “slaves suspected of Islamic learnings” after a revolt. Black Muslims as a threat to social order are well documented within the criminal justice system, where Black militant became synonymous with “problem” and then interchangeable with Muslims. The de-veiling — and general maltreatment — of incarcerated or detained Black Muslim women is a symptom of wider issues relating to anti-Black Islamophobia. Black Muslim women are regarded as inherent threats due to both their Blackness and their Islam.

The issue of de-veiling Black Muslim women within detention facilities cannot be read as simply an issue with policy implementation. Even when the right policy exists in writing, experiences like mine reveal that it is not actually implemented as a standard practice. Instead, people must reckon with the deeper, systemic issues leading to the simultaneous delegitimization and criminalization of Black Muslim women.



Disabled Students Are Left Behind In School Shooting Responses

On a below-zero January day in early 2018, Katie Shelley was working on the fourth floor of a building on her college campus in Northwest Ohio when the fire alarm went off. She proceeded to work through the conflict she has faced her whole life: How to get out of the building as a wheelchair user. No plans were in place for her evacuation. Growing up in the aftermath of events like the Columbine shooting and 9/11, she was used to having to worry about whether or not she’d be safe in a school emergency.

This April marked the 20th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. In the weeks following the anniversary, three deaths and numerous injuries were caused by two shootings on school campuses. Despite whatever fervor Columbine may have stirred 20 years ago to address school shootings, they have become a common part of the U.S. news cycle and school shooting drills a regular part of a student’s education. However, no matter how common these events are, safety drills and strategy have not adequately developed inclusive safety measures for students with disabilities.

This is not a trivial problem: 14 percent of students have a disability.

The current approach regarding active shooter events is the “run, hide, fight” strategy, the response recommended by the Department of Homeland Security, which calls for running away when possible, hiding somewhere safe when you can’t run, and fighting the shooter if running or hiding are not options. For students with disabilities who may not be able to run, employment of the “hide” aspect of the “run, hide, fight” strategy often calls for waiting in areas such as libraries, bathrooms, and classrooms for response personnel to assist them — even if these areas aren’t very accessible or safe. The fight strategy is the last option, one that no parent or teacher wants a student, disabled or otherwise, to have to do, and a strategy that has left two young students dead in the last several weeks. However, if schools have not provided sufficient options for students to respond, they may be left with few other choices than to charge or thrown items at an attacker.

Plus, tools like door barricades and lockdown plans designed to keep children safe often ignore the needs of students with disabilities, who in addition to mobility disabilities may have adverse reactions to alarms that overwhelm senses, difficulty processing instructions, or an inability to remain still or quiet.

Using a classroom as a refuge area was the solution Katie’s school decided to use when she was in fifth grade. “I just (in theory) had to wait in a burning building until someone came to get me. Even at 10 years old, I knew this was a horrible plan and I was not a fan,” she said.

While Katie was raised in Michigan, these issues are national. A settlement in a Newark, New Jersey, high school district was reached in 2017 after it left at least one disabled student in the school when an unplanned alarm went off.  The school “did not have policies for evacuating students with disabilities,” according to federal officials. More than 20 years ago, the City of Alexandria, Virginia, school board was sued twice regarding evacuation and school safety of students. Despite laws and litigation establishing accessibility requirements that go back decades, much has remained the same in evacuation plans for students with disabilities.

When it comes to students with disabilities, organizations such as Safe and Sound Schools and the ALICE Training Institute recommend the use of Independent Emergency and Lockdown Plans, or IELPs. These protocols hook into Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs), a federal requirement for special education students, which are detailed and routinely updated plans to accommodate students with disabilities; or a student’s 504 Plan, which ensures access to certain accommodations, such as extra time on tests.

Students continue to face dangers due to inaccessibility nearly 30 years after the ADA.

While IELPs can be a great way to address a child’s specific needs, learn the problem areas of the school, and connect with disabled students and their parents, it is a dangerous disservice to everyone on a school campus to relegate inclusive solutions to these problems to just one student and their specific IEP or 504 team. It does not seem feasible that a school administration could efficiently respond to the individual IELPs of each student and keep all students safe in the event of a real emergency.

Relying on individual plans also represents a missed opportunity for universal design and inclusion, which could benefit the campus as a whole. Universal design of safety plans would produce plans that are created with the flexibility and intention of being used by the largest number of students possible, based on a recognition of varied needs, rather than amended later for individual students as needed.  Additionally, IEPs and 504 Plans are a federal requirement that does not apply equally to private schools, which do not have a requirement to provide IEPs to students with disabilities.

In 2019, schools should be beyond a “separate but equal” approach to students with disabilities. Disabled students spend on average more than 60 percent of their time in a general classroom. It is dangerous and lazy not to integrate identified safety needs into school response plans, which should be accessible and account for the many needs of all children attending the school. For instance, investments in tools like noise canceling headphones, or cue cards for the classroom, may help students handle loud noises and follow the steps in a lockdown procedure.

The requirement for inclusion in the classroom and in emergency preparedness is not just fanciful suggestion, but the law. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, applies to places open to the public, governments, and schools. A recent ADA-based lawsuit against the New Rochelle, New York, school district, which failed to evacuate two students during a fire and did not include students using mobility aids in drills, ended in a payment of $26 million dollars to a student who uses a wheelchair.

With the innovation that has taken place in the last several decades, people like Katie often wonder why there haven’t been improvements to school emergency plans and why students continue to face dangers due to inaccessibility nearly 30 years after the ADA and hundreds of school shootings later.  While school safety has turned into a billion dollar industry, efforts such as metal detectors or adding police are not creating safer school campuses. Funds could be used for more comprehensive alarm systems, evacuation chairs, additional training and drills, and emergency elevator systems that will allow all students to be less passive in an emergency situation.

Inclusion is planning for everyone from the beginning. The onus for creating an effective response to an active shooter should not reside with the student, teachers, or parents, but with school systems using the knowledge and input of those parties. IELPs are a conversation we need to be having for K-12 students with disabilities, but they are only a beginning step for making our schools truly accessible and as safe as possible for anyone that may be on campus in an emergency. School districts have spent far too long avoiding true integration in school emergency plans, and it puts students’ lives at risk.



Trump’s Plan to Lower Poverty by Redefining It, Explained

Yesterday, the Trump administration proposed changing how the official poverty measure (OPM) is adjusted for inflation. The Office of Management and Budget is describing the policy change as an opportunity to consider “the strengths and weaknesses of different indexes” and “best practices for their use.” However, this seemingly technical distinction would artificially decrease the count of people living in poverty, laying the groundwork for cuts to dozens of programs, such as Head Start, school lunch, energy assistance, and legal services.

To understand how this proposal would work, it’s worth starting with how the Census defines poverty in the first place. The OPM was first created in the 1960s by Mollie Orshansky, an economist working for the Social Security Administration, who proposed poverty thresholds related to the cost of food: Any family earning less than three times the USDA estimate for the subsistence food budget is considered poor. Those thresholds have remained in place over the last half century, virtually unchanged other than by cost-of-living adjustments. Right now, according to the OPM, a family of three (with two adults and one child) counts as poor if their income amounts to less than $20,212 per year.

The current OPM has faced criticism on a number of fronts, including failing to consider geographic variation (cost of living in Missoula is very different than Manhattan), account for any of the costs families face (such as medical costs or transit costs), or provide a full picture of families’ income (criticisms the Census has attempted to address with the creation of its much more robust Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM)). In short, the OPM is too low for most people’s understanding of poverty. It’s hard to reconcile a measurement that says only 12.3 percent of people in the U.S. are poor when more than 4 in 10 adults would struggle to come up with $400 in an emergency and 70 percent of voters have confronted a serious financial hardship in the last year.

The Trump administration’s proposal would drive the OPM even lower.

Right now, the poverty thresholds are adjusted annually by the CPI-U, or Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers, which measures inflation by tracking the change in price for a set group of consumer goods across a range of geographic areas. Trump is proposing switching to a different measure of inflation. The proposal isn’t specific on which measure they would use, but it twice mentions the possibility of using the “chained CPI” (or the C-CPI-U) as an alternative. The chained CPI differs from the CPI-U in that it allows for substitution across similar kinds of items. For example, the chained CPI takes into account the idea that if the price of chicken is high, perhaps you switch to pork, whereas the CPI-U only accounts for substitutions within categories, such as picking a Granny Smith apple over a Red Delicious. By allowing for these additional substitutions, chained CPI shows a slower rate of inflation, but for many families who are already choosing between paying the rent and buying food, they are already living as frugally as possible.

Chained CPI would push poverty thresholds further and further down over time

In addition to being impractical, the chained CPI would push poverty thresholds further and further down over time. The chained CPI has grown more slowly than the CPI-U by about 0.25 percentage points annually. That means that every year, chained CPI will redraw the thresholds lower than the CPI-U would have, in a way that compounds over time. For example, say that inflation under the CPI-U increased by 2.4 percent a year over the next decade. That means that 2018’s $20,212 poverty threshold for two adults and one child of today would be $25,021 in 2027 (in 2018 dollars). If the chained CPI grew 0.25 percentage points less each year the poverty threshold for this family would be about $544 lower at $24,447. By 2037 the difference would grow to $1,439 less.

This change to the OPM matters way beyond just measuring who is poor and who isn’t — changing it would have a ripple effect for millions of people. The poverty thresholds the Census publishes are the basis of the poverty guidelines issued by HHS. And HHS’s poverty guidelines are the basis of eligibility for a whole range of programs that help people meet their basic needs. Making this change would have long-term echo effects, chipping away at eligibility over the years. For example, school kids qualify for free meals and milk if they are at less than 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, and for reduced-price meals and milk if they are at less than 185 percent of the guidelines. Children up to age 5 can are eligible to attend Head Start or Early Head Start if they are poor (as defined by the guidelines). Low-income taxpayers can receive assistance resolving disputes with the IRS if they are at or under 250 percent of the poverty guidelines. As these definitions capture fewer and fewer people due to reduced inflation increases, there will be fewer and fewer people who receive the services they need.

We have estimates of how rapidly these changes can increase from the moment earlier this decade when policymakers (including some Democrats) supported changing the cost of living adjustment for Social Security benefits to the chained CPI. Research Joan Entmacher and I did at that time revealed that while the initial impact of this cut might seem small — averaging only about 0.3 percent cut to benefits per year — overtime these cuts would compound to create real harm. For example, if the chained CPI had been substituted for a single woman with a monthly benefit of $1,100, her benefit would be cut by $56 per month at age 80. By the time she reached 95, that cut would be more than $100 a month. If she received a benefit for 30 years, her cumulative losses would be nearly $20,000.

Benefits already fall short all too often. SNAP benefits typically run out before the end of the month, and kids go hungry in the summer without the benefit of school meals. Yet rather than provide families the support they need to meet their basic needs, Trump is proposing to artificially reduce poverty while actually cutting benefits — creating the illusion of a win from his perspective that is actually a heavy loss for low-income families.



As Uber Investors Prepare to Make Billions, Drivers Strike Over Low Pay and Poor Conditions

On May Day, the New York Times’s Farhad Manjoo published an op-ed lambasting the approaching Uber initial public offering as a moral stain on Silicon Valley: “In the years since [its founding], Uber skirted laws and cut corners to trample over regulators and competitors. It accelerated the start-up industry’s misogynistic and reckless hustle culture. And it pushed a frightening new picture of labor — one in which everyone is a contractor, toiling without protection, our hours and our lives ruled by uncaring algorithms in the cloud.”

Uber executives’ plans to take the company public on Friday have only exacerbated the situation, so Uber drivers across the country have pledged to log out for 12 hours beginning at noon on Wednesday. Drivers and their supporters also plan to protest in front of the Uber headquarters in downtown San Francisco.

For months, drivers have pointed to the inequities between what they earn driving, which often calculates to below minimum-wage after taxes and expenses, and the billions that executives are projected to reap once the company goes public. Silicon Valley technology website TechCrunch reported in April that Uber is seeking up to $100 billion in valuation, one of the biggest such valuations in California history.

Among those cashing in on the I.P.O. are Uber’s former CEO and founder Travis Kalanick, who was forced out in 2017 for alleged internal conflicts and poor management. Kalanick could make as much as $9 billion, while venture capitalist Matt Cohler could pocket about $11 billion, and founder Garrett Camp may make $6 billion.

While driver protests have happened before, such as the strike that saw U.K.-based drivers withdraw their labor in October 2018, the Uber strike has expanded to stretch across the world in cities such as Los Angeles; Nairobi, Kenya; and Sydney, Australia, where drivers plan to strike for at least part of the day on Wednesday. City agencies such as Bay Area Rapid Transit are encouraging potential riders to utilize public transit as an alternative, and both the San Francisco Taxi Drivers Alliance and New York Taxi Driver Alliance are joining the protest out of a sense of solidarity with their rideshare counterparts.

Mostafa Maklad, an Uber driver in San Francisco and organizer with Gig Workers Rising, who is originally from Egypt, points out the little-known fact that the Saudi Arabian royal family could stand to gain the most from the Uber I.P.O. through direct investments and holdings. “Most Uber drivers in San Francisco are from Yemen,” says Maklad. Prince Mohammad bin Salman, as Saudi Arabia’s minister for defense, has spent billions on an air campaign targeting Yemeni rebel groups, which has led to civilian casualties. “All of that money will go towards the [Yemeni Civil War], which has killed hundreds of thousands.”

In recent months, rideshare drivers with Gig Workers Rising, a project of the grassroots labor organization Working Partnerships USA, have begun pushing back against what they allege are abuses of their “independent contractor” status. This spares the company from having to provide benefits or other labor law protections to drivers.

Maklad said, “Uber has always looked at drivers as just a number or an application on a paper.”

The drivers are also agitating for more transparency around payment models, an increased wage commensurate with the Bay Area’s high cost of living, benefits such as workers’ compensation and paid time off, and a role at the bargaining table in the workplace. Their organizing comes on the heels of a rare victory, when drivers in New York City won a minimum pay rate in December as part of the City Council’s attempt to regulate ridesharing companies under the Taxi and Limousine Commission and offset the gridlock that extra cars on the road cause.

“Wages have actually gone down in years. It’s expensive year-after-year. There’s no increase [for inflation] like other workers, no benefits,” Maklad said. After Uber made changes to its payment structure in October, drivers said their overall take-home pay actually decreased. Uber told a number of media outlets at the time, such as Business Insider, that it did this to keep earnings more consistent.

Other grievances Maklad pointed to include the lengths Uber executives seem to go to assuage their customers at the expense of their drivers. He highlighted one recent case in Los Angeles, in which a passenger stabbed a driver, citing the risks that rideshare drivers take when they pick up customers. Other cases include the oft-made complaint about Uber’s passenger-skewed ratings system, and that until recently drivers could only contact Uber through an email system.

While Maklad and other drivers allege that Uber shirks responsibility for passengers’ behavior, they also allege that Uber itself is less than forthcoming when it comes to dealing with its drivers, despite the critical role drivers play in ensuring the operation runs smoothly.  “We have the right to know much money we’re going to earn before we pick a passenger. We have the right to know who we’re picking up,” said Maklad. “It seems any passenger can commit a crime and get away with it because there’s no way to figure out who a passenger is [if anything goes wrong]. Uber wants to keep everything confidential.”

Uber drivers have been accused of discriminating against passengers, but that doesn’t undermine their very real fears about assault and harassment, highlighting the failures of a platform that benefits neither driver nor rider.

Uber has always looked at drivers as just a number.

In contrast, Maklad said, drivers’ accounts are automatically deactivated after they’ve been in three car accidents, regardless of whether the accidents are the driver’s fault or not. Maklad says the only course of action drivers can take is to email the company. He pointed to an incident in which one driver’s account was deactivated after his third accident — despite his not being at fault — after which drivers tried to deliver a petition to Uber headquarters in support of the driver to demonstrate their frustration with Uber’s policy.

Maklad said, “We were turned away at the door. Uber sent its security guard to tell us that they don’t accept physical deliveries, and that we had to email them.” The San Francisco Examiner reported that a guard tackled one driver/supporter.

“They refused to respond to his message, even though there were 8,000 signatures in support,” he said.

“Their business model is to find a way to avoid being responsible for employees,” said Maklad. “But we’ve never been treated like independent contractors.” A court ruling last year challenged the practice of labeling people who appear to be employees as independent contractors in California. Uber’s quite familiar with this issue: a current case concerning misclassification of drivers in Massachusetts and California is making its way through a San Francisco court, which has already seen Uber pay out $20 million in settlement fees. Another judge ruled that because the plaintiffs drove for Uber BLACK, the limousine side of Uber, and were able to have free rein over how they structured their time and when they took breaks, they couldn’t be considered employees and thus weren’t entitled to protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which doesn’t apply to independent contractors.

Wednesday’s strike looks to have a far-reaching impact beyond that of just gig workers. There is a sense that the circumstances surrounding the strike extend beyond transit, as the exorbitant amounts that executives stand to receive are reflective of the accelerating income inequality gap between workers and bosses. One U.K.-based organizer told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Uber drivers were told they are unskilled, stuck in poverty, and will never stand up. Now, a global network for drivers are working together to fight back!”


First Person

I Helped Patients Get Through Abortion Clinic Parking Lots. What I Saw Was Horrifying.

In the first three months of 2019, more than 300 restrictive abortion bills were introduced, proposing everything from making abortion a felony to increasing restrictions on clinics. Recently, the Georgia state legislature moved to join three other states in enacting “heartbeat” bans that will prohibit abortion after fetal pole cardiac activity can be detected — as early as six weeks, before many people know they’re pregnant — essentially outlawing the procedure in those states.

Abortion barriers are not new. In order to receive an abortion, the average person will pay anywhere from $400-$1,000 for the procedure, travel up to 168 miles, and wait up to 72 hours. Low-income people and people of color face additional barriers, such as trouble getting time off, difficulty securing travel funds, and bans on insurance coverage. Even after jumping all of these bureaucratic hurdles, people still face physical obstruction and harassment at the clinics themselves from anti-abortion protestors.

I would know. For two years in college, I spent my weekends as a volunteer clinic escort, protecting patients and getting yelled at by strangers.

One Saturday morning, I drove into the parking lot at a Planned Parenthood in Tampa, Florida, and was surrounded by around 200 anti-abortion protestors. Even as an escort who knew what to expect, it was an intimidating experience. They had created a tunnel of people I had to navigate through. As I searched for a gap in the crowd of protestors to enter the clinic driveway, I had to pass through the thickest group of people who surrounded my car.

I had never felt so outnumbered before. The only clear path was between two police officers and their cars, denoting the start of the clinic’s property. As I stepped out of my car, dozens of protestors waved signs that falsely claimed abortions lead to breast cancer and “post-abortion syndrome,” and shouted that I was a “baby murderer.” It was the first time I remember being scared to enter a reproductive health care clinic.

These experiences were worse for the patients I escorted. Protestors were particularly offensive in the way they spoke to people of color, often using racist comparisons between slavery or “black genocide” and a person’s choice over their own body. Some of the patients I escorted were in an emotionally vulnerable state, and the heinous comments and personal attacks made the experience traumatizing.

Unfortunately, most of this harassment is legal under current law. Patients attempting to access reproductive health care of any sort at clinics across the country face anti-abortion protestors who have free rein to shout anything they want. However, there are limits to what protestors can do. After attacks on abortion clinics in the 1980s and ‘90s — when clinics were burned, bombed, and blockaded, and several abortion providers and clinic staff members were murdered — the federal government passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act. This law makes it illegal to intentionally damage reproductive health facilities and bars the “use of or threat of force, or physical obstruction to prevent individuals from obtaining or providing reproductive healthcare services.”

While the law is important, it can be unevenly enforced and does not do enough to protect patients and those who accompany them in accessing health care — especially not in an environment where misinformation about abortion is being spread at the highest levels of government.

Since the FACE act was passed in 1994, only 15 violations have been prosecuted.

Since the FACE act was passed in 1994, only 15 violations have been prosecuted.

I personally called the police to report protesters who walked in front of cars to block the entrance to the clinic parking lot and took up valuable parking spots in the clinic’s lot, and fellow volunteers had to report assaults from protestors. Yet, I found local police officers were not always understanding or helpful in protecting the safety of patients. Male police officers, in particular, did not understand the threats these protestors posed to our patients, brushing off their actions and implying that we were wasting their time. In one instance, the police officers ignored the complaint against the protestors and instead focused on the music I had playing out of my car to block out the loudspeakers of the protestors, giving me a citation instead of scolding protestors for breaking the law.

Fortunately, some states have expanded and improved upon the FACE Act. Colorado passed a law, which survived a Supreme Court challenge, to prevent anti-abortion protestors from coming within eight feet of someone entering the clinic without their consent. Other states prohibit actions aimed at abortion providers, including threatening and intimidating staff.

Access to abortion has been the law of the land since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973, but with increasing legal restrictions and hostility against abortion, lawmakers need to do a better job protecting people’s constitutional right to access the health care they want and need. People already face too many legal barriers in accessing abortion health care, and every day it seems as though there is another attempt to take away personal autonomy for people seeking abortions. At a time when dangerous lies are being spread about abortion by President Trump, and anti-choice protestors are getting bolder, it’s more important than ever.