Jennifer Emerson feared what might happen when a couple eating lunch on the patio at Walker’s Drive-In in Jackson on a spring day grew fed up with anti-abortion protesters loudly disrupting the peace.
“The protesters got into a confrontation with the whole patio to the point where we thought one couple was going to get into a physical altercation,” recalled Emerson, managing partner for Walker’s Drive-In, a longtime popular restaurant in Fondren, about the April 1 incident.
Located within walking distance of Walker’s Drive-In is Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The clinic draws peaceful protesters, who gather outside the clinic, as well as protesters, who aggressively target outdoor spaces on North State Street such as Walker’s, The Bean coffee shop, and restaurants and retailers at Fondren Corner and move throughout Fondren’s business district.
The protesters, who are said-to-be paid, show for two or three days every few weeks and typically wear body cameras so they can put videos on social media of their encounters.
The Jackson Police Department was called the day of the near-altercation and showed up but did nothing, Emerson aid. “They’re basically bystanders and just watch,” she said.
Emerson and other business owners, one of whom declined to speak about the protesters for concern of being targeted even more, complain: Why can’t something be done to prevent the protesters from harassing them and their customers?
“Outside of suing the protesters for interruption of business and harassment, why is there not a resolution with the city?” Emerson said, speculating that the city does nothing for fear of getting sued over First Amendment violations.
Walker’s, with a lawyer on retainer, is gathering information about the protesters and, if the harassment continues, plans to file a civil lawsuit against protesters for business interruption and loss of business, she said.
“It’s the same three or four guys who are doing it,” said Emerson, who is also managing partner for Parlor Market in Jackson and Local 463 and Caet in Ridgeland. “We can sue those guys.”
The city of Jackson had an ordinance that was meant to help but repealed it in November 2020 after U.S. Judge Henry Wingate issued an oral decision that threw it out. The ordinance sought to restrict noise levels outside the abortion clinic by limiting amplified sound and banning protesters from approaching patients without their permission.
The city still waits for a final and written ruling from Wingate in response to the lawsuit filed against the city by Mississippi Justice Institute, a group that pushes for limiting government regulations.
The institute sued the city on behalf of Sidewalk Advocates for Life, whose members pray outside the abortion clinic. The lawsuit said the ordinance unconstitutionally limited speech rights as people tried to persuade women not to end pregnancies.
Jackson city council member Virgi Lindsay of Ward 7 receives emails and complaints from individuals and business owners about the protesters almost daily.
“We’re waiting on Judge Wingate,” she said. “Legally, we have our hands tied.”
Rebecca Garrison, executive director of the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, said business owners are concerned about the “handful” of people, who show up regularly and disturb the peace, disrupt business and harass innocent bystanders, and not peaceful protesters.
“They yell inappropriate things at specific people. They display signs with altered photos that you wouldn’t want your children to see,” she said. “They intentionally disobey city laws. They block the street. They gather in large groups without a permit.
“Even during the early days of the pandemic, they refused to wear masks. They bring children who roam the streets and have damaged private property. Several claim to be preachers but seem to have skipped over the verses about being kind, tenderhearted and forgiving. They certainly aren’t converting anyone with their mean-spirited tactics.”
As disturbing as the protesters are, the city’s response when asked for help is equally frustrating, Garrison said.
“We have reached out to the mayor, police chief and city attorney, and no one will stand up for our businesses,” Garrison said. “We don’t want the city to take action against peaceful protesters, but when the bullying at noise levels so high that a person can’t even have a phone conversation targets people who are sitting at The Bean having a cup of coffee or having lunch at Walker’s or even buying groceries at Corner Market, we would expect the city to step in and restore peace for our businesses and the people who visit Fondren.
“The targets of their bullying have nothing to do with the women’s clinic and for no valid reason, they have become targets.”
Garrison considers Fondren a bright spot for the city for Jackson.
“Right now, we have more than $100 million of private development planned for the business district, including renovations on The Strip, which are currently underway,” she said. “A portion of that private development is now in jeopardy because the city will not stand up for Fondren and enforce the law. It’s just wrong and good people are being hurt and harassed.
When a business pays taxes and goes out of its way to support and defend its city, it feels like the city turns its back and panders to the out-of-town bullies who clearly intend nothing positive for Fondren or Jackson, Garrison said.
Ron Chane, who owns Studio Chane and Swell-O-Phonic in Fondren, has dealt with anti-abortion protesters since 2008 and watched them grow more hostile during the last five years.
Protesters pass out pamphlets that show the logos of businesses in Fondren and blame them for the existence of the clinic and “say we support the killing of babies,” Chane said.
“The issue we have is that we are being held responsible for that clinic’s existence,” he said.
Chane, who once organized Fondren’s First Thursday neighborhood celebration, said he stepped back from that partly because he feared activists would provoke individuals and fights would ensue.
About four years ago, Chane hit an anti-abortion activist who spit on him.
“I got into a physical altercation with someone from Project Nineveh,” said Chane, who was charged with simple assault.
A Hinds County Municipal Court judge dismissed the charge, he said, after the individual who pressed charges showed up in court badly beaten and Chane produced photos taken after the altercation that showed how he appeared at the time.
Chane refers to the protesters, who show up outside of his businesses, as “social terrorists” and notes that they’ve oddly enough appeared outside the Nissan manufacturing plant in Canton, Mississippi College in Clinton and at a Jackson State University athletic event.
Two of his staff members quit their jobs because of the protesters, said Chane, who knows some businesses have considered moving from Fondren to areas where protesters aren’t a problem. “All of us have looked at other places to go,” he said.
Nathan Glenn, owner of Rooster’s and Basil’s restaurants in Fondren Corner, said he and other business owners try to ignore the loud protesters and to accept that they do most likely drive away some customers, who can’t handle the stress of it. “It’s been 20 years that we’ve been co-existing,” he said.
Jeff Seabold, a Jackson architect who moved his office to downtown Jackson about five years ago after the building where it was located was demolished to make way for Homewood Suites, still recalls the difficulties.
“It was out of hand years ago when my office was there across the street,” he said. “It was almost a daily interruption. I was screamed at and my clients were screamed at. We had a standard policy to ignore as much as we could.
“Some days that made it harder to do work. Nobody cared about us. Now the antics and actions are louder and more aggressive, more disrupting to everything.”
Dealing with protesters on top of the city’s water woes is disheartening, Emerson said. “You feel like there’s no one in the city watching out for businesses.”