Alleged assaults at abortion clinic described at forum with new GPD chief
“What will your policy be to either remedy or punish the people who assault us?”
So asked a former volunteer patient escort at A Woman’s Choice on Randleman Road in Greensboro. He was speaking to Brian L. James, who on Feb. 1, will be sworn in as Greensboro’s new police chief. The exchange occurred at a community meeting held last week at the Peeler Recreation Center.
The forum was hosted by Greensboro Neighbors for Safety, Justice and Well-Being, and moderated by Casey Merie and Gene Blackmon. Mayor Nancy Vaughan, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, City Councilmember At-Large Marikay Abuzuaiter, and Assistant City Manager Trey Davis were in the front row. The audience included activists from Democracy Greensboro, the Working Class and Houseless Organizing Alliance, and the Homeless Union of Greensboro—organizations that have been highly critical of the Greensboro Police Department and its departing chief.
Most of the public attending the forum, who according to GPD estimates numbered over 200, were African-American, and most seemed favorably disposed toward James. Several expressed satisfaction at seeing “one of our own” taking over the office from the controversial Wayne Scott. This approval was not just because of James’s ethnicity, but because he is from their neighborhood, having grown up near Phillips Avenue. In his opening remarks, the 49-year-old graduate of Page and A&T spoke of playing basketball and tennis in the same gymnasium where he was speaking.
James’s interaction with the crowd was direct and unfiltered, in a way that several city employees and elected officials described as unprecedented in their experience. One person who asked him some hard questions was Forrest Hinton, who in a Dec. 17, 2019, YES! Weekly article, claimed to have been slammed into a car by an anti-abortion protester while serving as a patient escort at Greensboro’s only remaining abortion clinic.
Hinton referred to this incident in his address to the new chief. “Due to the numerous assaults that I suffered from protesters at the clinic, I had to stop volunteering there.” Hinton also alleged that not only have protesters assaulted him and other escorts but “that what they do in interrupting the flow of traffic at the clinic is illegal,” and those police officers observing the protests routinely ignore such incidents and “and treat us escorts like we’re the criminals.”
Hinton closed by asking James what he intended to do about the situation.
James said, “assault is illegal” and asked for clarification on what Hinton meant when he said the GPD treats abortion clinic escorts like criminals.
“The protestors call the police on us when they assault us,” Hinton said. “I’ve been pinned to cars. I’ve been pushed off of stuff. I’ve been physically hurt by these people, and then they call the police on me because I’m black and they’re white. This police force is extremely supportive of these people. What are you going to do to change that culture?”
As previously reported, many patient escorts have alleged that the protesters are much more aggressive with female volunteers and volunteers of color than they are with white males.
Moderator Gene Blackmon interjected support for what Hinton was alleging.
“Chief James, I also had an opportunity to volunteer, and I have experienced what he is talking about first-hand. I think what we’re asking is, what can we do to make sure the volunteers are not seen as criminals, what can we do to keep patients safe, and what can you do to ensure that we can do that job? The protesters have definitely been very irate and very violent, and like he said, the police look at our volunteers as the problem.”
James asked Hinton if he reported the incident. Hinton said that he had filed “a complaint about the detective who was supposed to be looking over the area,” but that “nothing has changed, and it’s been over a year.”
James suggested that Hinton contact the GPD’s Professional Standard Division. “Or you can contact the Criminal Justice Advisory Commission if you don’t feel comfortable going to the GPD. I’ll have to have another conversation with you because I’m not familiar with the particular complaint.”
At this point, attendee Kiera Hereford, who has also been a clinic escort, spoke up from the audience. “He’s saying this has happened on multiple occasions and that he’s done the things you’ve stated. So, the bases have been covered. Are you saying he needs to be more accountable?”
“What I’m saying,” James responded, “is that I don’t know about his particular situation, and I would have to look into it.”
“This is not a particular situation,” Hereford said. “It’s a culture that needs to change within the Greensboro Police Department. If you want to find out for yourselves, any of you, you can see it in action any Saturday, any day the clinic is open. It’s not that you need more proof, you need to take action. You need to follow up with your officers who are employed to do this work.”
James told Hereford, Hinton and Blackmon that this was the first time he had heard of such allegations.
“Give me a chance to look into it, and we can have a further conversation.”
Byron Gladden, Chair of Minority Affairs of the North Carolina 6th District Democrats, who was selecting and timing the questions from the audience, pointed to the GPD officer standing near the entrance with a logbook. “I’m sure he can follow up with those who’ve made the claim afterward. Will you take their information?”
The officer nodded, and another member of the attending public was selected to ask James a question.
Contacted on Monday, both Hinton and Hereford told YES! Weekly that no representative of the GPD took their information after the forum. Hinton said that, in his case, it was because he had to work that night and left before the forum was over.
“I don’t believe GPD logged my concern that night, and I haven’t had any direct follow-up,” Hereford said. “I do plan to take any and every opportunity to keep this and other issues at the forefront in any room where police are being centered, and community is being considered.”
When asked about the alleged harassment of escorts and patients by protesters at the clinic, Hereford responded that she has experienced or witnessed “racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs every time I’ve volunteered, which has been at least a dozen times.”
She said she was conflicted about how she felt the GPD should address these issues.
“I wish they didn’t have a presence at the clinics at all, because I understand police don’t equal safety, especially for black and brown people,” Hereford said. “It’s already traumatic enough dealing with the protestors who know no boundaries and use a dangerous religious narrative to discredit and dehumanize everyone who doesn’t share their viewpoint. In the event police are called, they should deter protestors away from the boundaries we set to keep everyone safe. They should put their bodies on the line, so escorts don’t have to. I’ve witnessed GPD do this when they’ve been the target of opposition, yet they handle the protestors with care, consideration, and no consequence for causing the verbal and physical harm they consistently do.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.