Foreword: Mia Raven and the P.O.W.E.R House

“People will sometimes ask me what they need to do to prepare to do this kind of work. My answer: read the Art of War. Seriously. This is a war and it’s all mental. You’ve gotta be prepared.”

 

Mia Raven took a sip of her drink. She and Melissa, her partner-in-crime, had just finished hanging camouflaged sheets on the clinic fence to prepare for the next morning when patients would be showing up for their scheduled abortions. It was late in the evening on the front porch of the P.O.W.E.R. House, and Mia and Melissa knew they had an early wake-up call the next morning. Patients would start showing up as early as 5:30 a.m. for their procedures. That was the first lesson I learned that night. Fighting for reproductive rights rarely includes a normal bedtime or an adequate night’s sleep.

Mia laughed, “It sounds dramatic, I know. But it’s dangerous work, and you can’t be surprised by that. You’ve got to be willing to put it all on the line to do it. People have died doing what I do. That’s a thought in my mind every day.”

Mia invited me to live a day in her life for this interview. It was a nerve-wracking, yet powerful and necessary experience. In order to truly understand the landscape of reproductive rights in Alabama, I had to watch her methodology. I had to study her strategy. I had to witness what the frontlines really looked like. And I had to truly understand the full-force opposition working against abortion access each day.

I watched her as she prepared for the clinic day: hanging the camouflage on the front fence to hide the patients from the street as they arrived, staking signs in the ground to make it harder for protesters to trespass, and assembling clinic escorts to ensure there would be enough people on the frontlines in the morning. See, the next day was Good Friday and the clinic schedule was full. She knew that the clinic would need to be adequately protected so that patients could receive their reproductive health care as safely as possible.

I first met Mia at the Alabama State House about 3 years ago as the legislature discussed--and later passed--a bill that would extend the waiting period for getting an abortion from the then 24-hour period to the now 48-hour period. It was my first experience watching real government up close, and it was my first experience meeting an advocate like Mia in the flesh. She may not have remembered me from that encounter, but I definitely remembered her. She was welcoming, funny, incredibly informed, and tenacious. Her pink hair was hard to miss, too.

The pink hair has become her identifier now. Folks from pro-choice advocates, state legislators, college students, and anti-choicers know her as the pink-haired, pro-choice woman. And while that is part of her identity, there’s so much more to it. She’s also a soldier and a strategist. Her battle? Protecting reproductive rights in the heart of Alabama. Montgomery’s own Reproductive Rights Warrior.

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Mia went to college to study computer science. “I definitely didn’t think I’d be fighting for abortion rights in my 40’s. That was so far from my mind. But when I realized that jobs I could use with my degree were really boring and dominated by men, I knew I had to do something different.” She initially planned to stay away from Montgomery, Alabama, where she was born and raised. “I also didn’t think I’d be back here either. But, here I am.” When I asked her how she ended up back in Montgomery, she explained that she found this city to be her true home--even when there wasn’t much entertainment around. “It’s complicated! Montgomery is… it’s the home of Civil Rights, you know? It’s just home to me. I grew up so close to the capital. So close to downtown. I have a love-hate relationship with Montgomery. It’s too small, and there’s nothing to do… but, the people for the most part are really cool.” This is a sentiment most Montgomerians feel, myself included.

It may seem as though Mia has strayed far off the course she set for herself when she was younger, but she’s actually settled right into the place she was supposed to be. Mia was made for this fight, and she was made to do it right here in Alabama’s state capital.

Her journey in battling for reproductive rights started about 7 years ago as a clinic escort for Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery, AL--the same clinic that was featured in the documentary Trapped. This experience changed her path forever. “I started escorting and I would hear what the protestors would say to the women and it… it was so terrible and creepy. I had to do more.” So she began escorting more, becoming politically engaged in the Alabama Legislature and organizing folks in Montgomery to do the same. Little did Mia know, she was preparing herself to suit-up for a lifetime of war with extremist groups and anti-choice legislators alike.

“That’s the state of abortion care in America… even when you have to get [the procedure] done in heartbreaking situations, you can’t do it without getting harassed by--and no offense--a bunch of men who will never be pregnant. They will never know what it feels like.”

Out of necessity The P.O.W.E.R. House (People Organizing for Women’s Empowerment & Rights) was officially born in 2015, a few years after Mia began immersing herself in this world, battling anti-choice legislation, and organizing folks in the area. The House has become a safe space for patients, their families, and supporters of reproductive justice. Patients are able to stay there for free should they need accommodations prior to their procedure. Families and children are able to use the house as a waiting area, equipped with free cable, wifi, and movies for kids. It has also served as a gathering place for the small community of progressive folks in Montgomery. Many a beer and Cards Against Humanity game have been had on this porch.

I asked Mia how the house, conveniently positioned directly beside the clinic, came to be. She and Melissa had a small laugh with each other. “Oh, this is our favorite story,” Mia said. It’s a story that is so pivotal to the fight here that it’s been documented in national publications like Broadly and The Frisky.

“We literally stole this house from OSA,” Melissa told us with a big smile on her face. OSA, or Operation Save America, is a domestic terrorist anti-choice group led by Rusty Thomas. Their main goal is to end abortion and they do so through any means necessary. Each summer, OSA chooses one abortion clinic to, as Broadly put it, “swarm clinic sidewalks, scream at women, wave crucifixes, and obstruct their path to care” with their masses of angry supporters. They terrorize women and communities with their usage of disgusting signs and obnoxious bullhorns with no regard for passing school buses or children walking to school. Convicted clinic bombers and religious fanatics entirely compose this group, making their demonstrations a volatile and frightening experience.

The group visited Montgomery in the summer of 2015, and Mia recalls it as one of the scariest times in her life. “These people are nuts. I didn’t want to mess with them too much while they were here or upset them. [Montgomery Police] came and checked the House and clinic every day to search for bombs or other weapons they may have.” It was a full week of being constantly fearful of violence and harm. As seen in the Trapped documentary, they considered closing the clinic for a week. Mia recalls discussing this issue with the owner of the clinic. It was Dr. Willie Parker--an Alabama native and fearless abortion provider--who encouraged the clinic to stay open. “He basically told us that closing the clinic is what they want. They want to be able to say that no abortions occurred on their watch. We couldn’t let that happen. Women were still needing the procedure and we had to help them. So we stayed open that whole week with a lot of help from MPD.”

Earlier in 2015, Mia and Melissa saw that OSA had planned to buy the house directly next to the Reproductive Health Services clinic. Given the proximity to the clinic--the two literally share a parking lot--and how dangerous the group is, they knew they couldn’t let that happen. If OSA were to own the house, all patients’ confidentiality and protection would be gone. So they sprang into action. They went directly to the owner and asked to rent it. Luckily, the owner of the house was on their side. Mia was able to lease the house in her name, effectively protecting the clinic and its patients from domestic terrorists.

“I didn’t want them to know initially who had it,” Mia explained. Melissa added, “We had to move stuff in little by little at night.” And that’s what they did. It took about a month of stealthy moving, but Mia and Melissa were able to secure the House, furnish it, and set up their office. When the protesters found out that Mia, of all people, had secured the house, their reaction was priceless.

“That was the best part,” Mia laughed. “They lost the house to their worst enemy. It was a big win for us, especially when they lost like this.” This fought-over house now existed to serve the clinic, instead of terrorize it. A big win indeed.

Mia added that her motivation behind buying the house also had other roots. Mia had garnered a very close relationship with June Ayres, the owner of the clinic. She knew that without the clinic, Alabama would suffer. The house just added one more level of protection on the frontlines, and it would only serve the clinic the way June saw fit. “This is June’s clinic. She’s been doing this for years. If she told me to jump, run, bike up and down the sidewalk, do a backflip, I’d do it. That’s what I do, because it’s June’s clinic and she needs the support. [The P.O.W.E.R. House] is here with the blessing of June.”

Since starting her activism, Mia has found herself an expert on all things anti-choice. On the legislative side, she’s found supporters in the Alabama State House who helped her learn the ropes. Now, Mia hosts “Learn the Ledge” sessions to teach other activists about Alabama politics, particularly concerning reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights. The handbooks she’s created can be seen on any given day in the State House, carried by an activist that she taught. On the clinic protection side, with her strong, supportive network of other abortion providers and her cunning mind, Mia has gotten to know her enemy well and uses their own strategies against them. She knows to expect more protests on days like Good Friday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. She knows they get to the clinic around 5 a.m. to attempt to get pictures of the doctors as they enter the clinic. She knows the days of the week they’re more likely to attend. She knows that they’re nicer to patients on days that aren’t ‘clinic days’--or, days that the procedure isn’t performed. She can recite the things they say verbatim just from memory. She knows what upsets them. She knows what makes them tick. “I know David like the back of my hand now. I can almost predict what he’s going to do,” she laughed. David is a paid protester who stands at the clinic daily to yell at women and clinic escorts while holding heinous signs. (Yeah, you read that right. David gets paid to protest this clinic.)

“David once told a woman who had fetal demise that she was still going to hell for getting an abortion. His answer to medical tragedies is that the woman should die as the ultimate sacrifice to God. And it doesn’t matter if she’s sick, she has cancer, the baby is dead… It doesn’t matter. He wants them to die. Abortion is not an option for him.” You could see the pain and concern go across Mia’s face as she told this story. The reason she does this work runs deep for her. People deserve to obtain healthcare respectfully, privately, and without this type of treatment by strangers. It’s traumatizing for patients and it’s hard to watch as an onlooker. I was suddenly struck with the grave importance of her work. This job is literally life and death for some.

She laughed it off slightly, explaining how she operates around David. “Granted, he’s not very bright. He’s really ignorant and he’s got the maturity of a kid. So I know what he will say before he says it. I can anticipate his whole groups’ moves when they come. And I have a strategy for each one.” Mia has assembled an army of clinic escorts to support the fight and she’s prepared them to handle the frightening  and at times emotionally damaging things the protestors do and say. “The best thing to do is to just laugh at them. They hate it. If they come to close to the driveway or property line, film them and call the cops. If they are really bothering you, use your umbrella to shut them out. They have a legal right to be there, but we can make it harder for them.”

Her favorite strategy is to use the clinic’s remote-controlled sprinkler system to soak them and push them away from the building. “People who have seen Trapped always ask if it’s real. It is! And we use it!”

 

The clinic escorts come from all walks of life to support the fight, and each and every one of them have the utmost admiration  and respect for Mia. Ranging in age from 17 to 84, they show up every clinic day, put on their bright orange vests, grab an umbrella, and start their shift protecting women from the protestors. Of course, it’s hard to feel like you’re protecting the patients, armed with just an umbrella against screaming lunatics but nevertheless, the job is invaluable. “The patients need to know there’s someone there on their side. They have a right to healthcare. They have a right to this. A friendly person can help that experience even just a little.”

 

Plus, if there weren’t escorts keeping tabs on the protestors, they would do more harm. Mia has strict rules against trespassing on both the P.O.W.E.R. House property and the clinic property. She also has a strong relationship with Montgomery Police Department to uphold those rules. The escorts play a major role in keeping the protestors at bay--and off of the private property, ensuring patient safety. “We don’t play. We do not give them one inch. You can’t. They’ll take advantage of it. One inch over the property line of the clinic... One inch too close to this house....That’s it. We call the police.”

Though Mia is an expert on their strategies, she still finds their opposition to be perplexing and sometimes downright chilling. “[The protesters] are so delusional about abortion. They have to be. They have to be so sure in their beliefs surrounding abortion in order to literally kill and bomb people. You know they have a skewed view of the development of fetuses. They basically think we’re aborting [fully-developed] fetuses. The truth is… when we do abortions, it’s just tissue--and it’s hard to even recognize unless you know what you’re looking for! There aren’t body parts, the fetuses aren’t crying, they aren’t kicking… Some of the things they think we do is… crazy. They have no real understanding of the actual procedure we do here. And their response to it all is creepy--no other word for it. They’re just creepy.”

Creepy is an understatement when you consider what radical anti-choice groups like Operation Save America have done in order to “end abortion.” A quick Google search will bring up hundreds of articles explaining the violence abortion clinics and providers have seen in America. As this New York Times article chronicles, abortion providers like Dr. David Gunn, Dr. Paul Hill, Dr. George Tiller,  Dr. Barnett Slepian have been shot and killed in the last 30 years for providing abortions. In January of 1998, Eric Rudolph bombed a clinic in Birmingham, AL, killing a police officer and permanently blinding an employee. In November of 2015, Robert Dear shot and killed three in a Planned Parenthood mass shooting in Colorado Springs. And these are just the plots that have been successful.

Mia takes her job, and the threat it creates for her life, very seriously. “I am always, always on guard. I get nervous about mail that I don’t recognize. I have to assume things are a bomb or something that can hurt someone. I mean, Rudolph bombed Birmingham with a houseplant…. So I have to be careful. I don’t let people leave things on our property. When OSA was here, there was literally a convicted bomber standing a few feet outside of the clinic. It’s not a joke.” She’s also incredibly private about her personal life and family, never posting about them on her social media and never mentioning them when she’s in the presence of protesters. And her caution doesn’t just extend to her own life. “I want to be safe, I want my patients to be safe. I want people in the [P.O.W.E.R.] House to be safe.” Fighting to maintain safety is truly the reason the P.O.W.E.R. House exists today. It’s been called a safe haven, a sanctuary, and a gathering space by all who know it. Mia, Melissa, and the many supporters and escorts have made it that way.

After talking for hours about her tumultuous job, I asked Mia what made this work all worth it. Her answer was simple.

“It’s a way I can help people. When I answer the phone at the clinic this is what I hear: ‘Is this the abortion clinic?’ and when I say yes, they just say ‘Oh thank god!’ Someone needs to be here to help women who need it. I just happen to be able to do it this way.”

 

Mia went on to explain the context of many of the patient’s lives. “50% of the patients here are under the federal poverty level, and most already have children. It’s the cycle of poverty… that’s what unfortunately happens here [in Alabama]. You know, we don’t have real sex-ed, we don’t have good insurance that supports family planning, and there’s a lot of stigma. Quite frankly, it’s all about stigma here.” She’s right. Alabama still only offers abstinence-only sex education. The state also has a staggering 27% child poverty level, meaning that over 300,000 Alabama children live in a household making less than $25,000 a year according to the 2015 Kids Count Data Book.

Additionally, there are countless crisis pregnancy centers (CPC) in Alabama that trick pregnant women into going to their “clinics” in hopes of discouraging abortion. They operate under the guise of providing free STI testing, free pregnancy tests, and life-saving healthcare. These centers rarely have real doctors or trained medical professionals. Their true purpose isn’t to provide these services. They exist with the sole goal of coercing women into choosing to remain pregnant. In the Greater Montgomery area alone, there are 9 CPCs. To put that in perspective, there are only 5 abortion clinics in the entire state of Alabama.

In a place where lack of education mixes with an unfortunate combination of lack of access to healthcare and strong--particularly religious--stigma against discussing or obtaining sexual health, there is no doubt that the work of heroes like Mia, clinic owner June, abortion doctors, and clinic escorts is invaluable. Their work literally saves lives--sometimes even at the cost of their own.

“My motto is that there’s never a dull day. There is never a dull day in this work. You never know what is going to happen.”

 I watched Mia walk into the clinic the next morning as David and a few other protesters yelled at her, and I was amazed. A group of clinic supporters had already gathered outside of the house and another clinic day was about to begin. It was a new day, but it was the same fight. And I knew that Mia and the dedicated group of activists were not going to lose it.

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 As of today, Mia and her supporters are trying to obtain a not-for-profit 501c3 status for the P.O.W.E.R. House. Each month, they continue to survive by donations to keep the rent paid, the lights on, and the refrigerator stocked with water for volunteers.

 If you would like to donate to their hard work or become an escort yourself, please visit their website or like them on Facebook.

 This is a day in the life of protecting abortion rights in Alabama. This is a story about Mia Raven.

 

- M. S.