Last week, attendees of Coalition Life's annual benefit dinner got more than they bargained for when the evening's programming was interrupted by a group of protesters, who took the stage and the mic in a booty-shorted, twerktacular display of pro-choice resistance to the group's anti-abortion agenda.
The benefit dinner and decisively disruptive spectacle each took place in an event space in Terminal 1 at Lambert Airport last Wednesday night and were the result of a considerable amount of planning on both sides.
For the pro-life group, which organizes and helps fund the people who hang out around abortion clinics and bother the women walking inside, there were tables to set up and centerpieces to be made, logistics to consider, and all the usual work that goes into hosting a fundraising event drawing between 600 and 800 people. For the protesters, who operate under the banner of Resist STL, there was a lot of that exact same work — because members of this group had fully infiltrated the other, working as event volunteers before making their actual intentions known loudly and proudly via an onstage dance party during a speech by a former abortion doctor.
The subterfuge had two primary effects. For one, it helped the protesters make their plans, as they were able to see the event space and learn about the evening's programming in the lead-up to the big night. They also found themselves helping to assign seating, which meant, most notably, they were able to position protesters at tables near the stage in order to ensure their plans would go off without a hitch.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly to members of Resist STL, the fact that some of the evening's volunteers were actually protesters was meant to have a destabilizing effect on the anti-abortion group members, who would then not know whom they could trust within their own ranks.
"And that worked really well," says Emily Ehley, one of the protest organizers and a member of Resist STL. "At some point, they just kicked out all of their volunteers because they weren't really sure how to know who was real and who wasn't. So that also helped to destabilize their efforts, because then they just didn't have any of those volunteers to help them [for] the rest of the event or breaking it down or anything like that. So it was really nice."
Two days before the fundraiser, a group of 18 protesters gathered in the backyard of a south-city home to put the finishing touches on their plans. It was a cool summer night, with the rain just barely holding at bay, and one of the attendees brought vegan tacos for the group to enjoy.
After sorting through some of the logistics, the group turned to the role-play portion of the night's proceedings, in which the protesters practiced the disruptions they'd be taking part in at the event. The plan was for there to be multiple protests at staggered intervals, with the onstage dance party being the capstone for the night. In keeping, participants were encouraged to practice the disapproving patter they'd say after others were booted from the building, in order to maintain their cover.
"How are they ever going to get a 401k?" laughed one in a mocking tone. "How uncivilized."
A long-handled dustpan served as a makeshift microphone stand, where one protester stood and played the part of one of the event's speakers. "Blah blah blah, sacred babies," he said to the assembled crowd. "Blah blah blah, something about crosses. Blah blah blah blah, give us money."
Suddenly, the rousing speech was interrupted. There were sirens, whistles, a banner that read "God bless abortion," and balloons to be used as pregnant bellies, which would then be popped to the shock and horror of the attendees. Some protesters disrobed. There were a few different chants at play, and some discussion as to which would be easiest for a crowd to make out. "Pro-life is a lie, you don't care if people die," was one. "Fuck the church, fuck the state, you can't make us procreate," was another. Eventually, the commotion was brought to an end by people role-playing as security. The still-incognito protesters who remained in their seats dutifully cheered for the authorities and booed the troublemakers.
"Can I get another round of applause for the police?" the protester at the dustpan said into his makeshift mic. "As we all know, Jesus was once a cop."
Coalition Life's theme for its benefit dinner this year was airports, in keeping with its location. The programs were made to look like passports, the centerpieces had airplanes on them, and the food was essentially inedible.
"Destination Life," as it was dubbed, featured a few speakers, and tickets ranged from free to $10,000 for two tables — assuredly the most anyone has ever paid for the privilege of eating warmed-over chicken out of a steam tray. For just 10 bucks, you could buy a cape with the words "Pro-life superhero" screenprinted on it.
Seated at a table near the stage were three protesters and five pro-lifers, as well as two reporters. Kay, an older lady wearing a black and white dress with a sweater draped over her shoulders, was there with her husband, Cliff, who had a head full of gray hair and a blue suit jacket pulled on over a striped shirt with a pen in the pocket. Staying with the airport theme, the two discussed how the Lufthansa airline had canceled nearly all of its flights that week due to a strike among its workers.
"It's a different society now," Kay lamented. "I worked two jobs to put my kid through school. It's amazing they don't just go to work."
Following a prayer, Coalition Life Executive Director and Founder Brian Westbrook kicked off the proceedings with a quote from the Good Book.
"'Any idiot can cut costs, but you can't always build sales, and that's what I'm doing.' – Tom Monaghan, Domino's Pizza," Westbrook said to the assembled crowd. "Tom Monaghan, he wrote in his book, Pizza Tiger, he explains how he repeatedly pushed the limits of his company, his team and especially his finances. Tonight, our guarantee is that we will be stretching, much like Tom Monaghan and Domino's Pizza, and instead of just building sales, we will be stretching to save absolutely every life possible, maximizing on every single dollar we can."
With the crowd fully warmed up, the night's speakers took the stage. There was a woman named Lauren Kammerer who spoke about the years that she's worked as a "sidewalk counselor," the group's term for the people who hang around outside of Planned Parenthood and bother people. There was video of a woman who had been bothered into not having an abortion by one of those folks, in which she talked about how glad she was to have had her baby. Next up was keynote speaker Dr. Anthony Levatino, a former abortion doctor, who brought some clamps as a prop and spoke in graphic detail about the abortions he performed 40 years ago, before he changed his ways.
But meanwhile, elsewhere in the building, the protesters had begun their disruptions. Two erstwhile volunteers stepped into a bathroom and changed into crop tops — out of place at the church-formal event — and re-emerged with literature about reproductive justice, which they began passing out to people in attendance along with condoms and lube. Security soon caught on, and they were escorted out.
Following that, Coalition Life staffers asked all of the volunteers to leave, since they couldn't be sure who was a plant.
"After that happened, the staff really started to crack down," Ehley explains. "They were walking around, eyeing everyone. They were really, really nervous about potentially having been infiltrated."
They surely had been, but sending their volunteers packing didn't solve the problem. Midway through Levatino's speech, a group of protesters rushed the stage in various states of undress, some twerking in booty shorts, some holding a banner that read "Abortion is holy," all of them shouting the chants they'd practiced. One wore a shirt with the slogan "Faggots Against Fascism" emblazoned across it, and all of them openly identified as queer. Since the police were still distracted with the first group of disrupters, it took a good while for any type of official security to get to the commotion, so when one protester grabbed the mic and started reciting the "pro-life is a lie" chant, it was regular staffers that started grabbing and pushing them off the stage. One attendee saw fit to throw a fruit cup at the group.
Two of the protesters on the stage came from the table Kay and Cliff were sitting at, and a third stood up and filmed the action without breaking cover. Her video shows the cops escorting the group out and ultimately putting some protesters in handcuffs before a middle-aged woman in a red flower dress approached and told the officers that Coalition Life didn't want to press charges or see anybody get arrested. With that, the officers took down some names and sent everybody on their way.
The kicker? The woman in the red flower dress was also with the protesters, deep undercover.
The mood at the table was tense after the disruption, with Kay seemingly in disbelief at what she saw.
"I think that was part of the programming," she mused, "to show what we're up against." Meanwhile, police and staff hovered nearby for the rest of the night, suspicious of everyone in the area where the troublemakers had been seated.
At the end of the event, Westbrook again took the stage to shake everyone down for money — it was the whole reason people were there, after all. He helpfully explained that if you donated $71,500 you could get a $50,000 tax credit before asking everyone to pray to God for a dollar amount they should give. That money would be used to bring Coalition Life's mission to as many blue states, where abortion is likely to remain legal, as possible —– in addition to St. Louis, Coalition Life operates in Fairview Heights, Illinois, and a suburb outside Chicago.
Westbrook then gravely implied that giving generously was the only sure way to avoid bloodshed in the streets.
"We cannot do this work without you," he intoned. "This is critically important. And we are at a crossroads in our country like never before. I do not want to solve this abortion issue, like slavery, with bitter civil war."
The talk of armed conflict is not idle chatter. Keith Rose, one of the protesters, says he's heard it mentioned repeatedly from those in the anti-abortion movement in recent weeks. Moreover, it's a possibility that some on his side of the issue are preparing for as well.
"I was having a deep conversation with someone like two weeks ago who was passing through town," Rose says. "And he was like, 'Yeah, I'm just kind of going from area to area teaching people survival skills. We're going to need these hard skills, because we're looking at like an eight-year trajectory for, you know, collapse.' Basically, he was like, 'I think there's gonna be some kind of urban-versus-suburban or urban-versus-rural civil war skirmishes within about eight years from now.' I don't feel that way, but that's a whole damn thing."
In the meantime, though, it's going to be up to activists and organizers to take up the fight. For this group, the efforts at Coalition Life's event are just the continuation of a long and ongoing battle.
"We cannot fight them in the courts anymore," Rose says. "They've made that impossible. We can't really fight them in the legislature, at least here in Missouri, anymore — they've made that impossible, even though we are a majority of the national population. So we're going to be fighting them in a more guerilla style. That's what they've done. They've forced us to have to use asymmetrical tactics like infiltration, because they're not willing to play fair."
After the members of Resist STL left the airport, their mission completed, they met up for a group photo that they intend to make into a postcard to send to the people in charge of Coalition Life. As one of them put it, their mom had taught them to always send people a thank-you note after an event. After all, just because it's a fight doesn't mean it can't be fun.
In fact, for Ehley, a key element of the protest was its joyful, dance-party vibe.
"We spent quite a bit of time planning this," she says. "It was really important to us to create an atmosphere of joy and celebration, and to show them: You don't control us, you don't control our bodies. You don't get to say how we live, how we should be. And we are going to be our full selves here in this space, and we are going to try to stop you from consolidating power, consolidating money and doing the work that you're doing."
Ehley hopes that some in the crowd who might have been on the fence or in some way were coerced into attendance saw the freedom and happiness inherent in the disruption and that there's another way to live.
"It's OK to be yourself," she says. "It's OK to be loud and queer and take up space and make your own decisions for your body. These people don't have to speak for you."