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After Police Protests, Anti-Abortion Rights Group Asks Why They Were Arrested

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
Keisha Surrat (sitting) was part of a recent protest outside a women's health clinic in east Charlotte.

About a week after North Carolina’s stay-at-home began in late March, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police confronted protesters outside an abortion provider in east Charlotte. Saying the group violated the limit on mass gatherings, CMPD arrested eight anti-abortion rights protesters.

Now, as other protests have spread across the U.S., the group says it was unfairly targeted. 

An attorney for those arrested, Kevin Theriot, says his clients were treated unfairly when they were arrested outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center of Charlotte.

“Oh, absolutely I think they were picked on because of their beliefs,” he said. 

Ten days after the abortion clinic arrests, on April 14, the conservative group ReOpen NC held its first protest in Raleigh. One person was arrested, and the Raleigh Police Department tweeted that “protesting is a non-essential activity.”

Under threat of litigation, Gov. Roy Cooper allowed the protests to move forward. 

Then came George Floyd, in which thousands have marched in Charlotte and across the state. Cooper joined one march in Raleigh.

“Whenever the First Amendment is at issue, we’re always on the side of those who are engaging in free speech,” Theriot said. “And whether that’s protesting the COVID-19 restrictions or protesting abortion or providing sidewalk counseling or expressing the views of the George Floyd tragedy, all of that should be protected speech.”

Theriot, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, sued the city and state on First Amendment violations. Since then, CMPD has allowed the protests to continue after Cooper said protests were exempt under his stay-at-home order.

But the attorney says Mecklenburg County should drop the charges against the eight who were arrested. The possible penalties, he says, range from six months in jail to a $500 fine.

There have been arrests during the George Floyd protests, but for things like having a concealed weapon – not for violating the stay-at-home order.

Calla Hales, who manages the clinic on Latrobe Drive, has battled with protesters for years over how close they can get to her patients and over how loud they can be. 

She was asked about Theriot’s comparisons of his clients to other protesters, like those wanting the government to reopen faster or to stop police brutality.

She said it’s not a fair comparison.

“(The anti-abortion rights groups) lean, in my perspective, more towards harassment because there isn’t a peaceful aspect to it,” she said. “There isn’t a open conversation. There isn’t an (attempt) to make a systemic change. It is, they are coming out and telling them they are wrong to exercise their right to private health care.”

Keisha Surrat, who is black, is training to protest outside the clinic. The group Cities4Life from Concord considers Surrat and others to be counselors.

She supports the Floyd protests.

“Like the Bible says, you reap what you sow,” she said. “This is a symptom of what’s been happening, the silencing of my people, the injustice, the looking away when a black man is killed. It takes a black man being killed in front of us to have some sort of emotion and compassion towards them.” 

But she also says that abortion is equally important because, to her, she is trying to save lives. 

“Just as many black babies are being killed as (people) out on the street,” she said. “It’s just not as …broadcast.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina did not take a position on the arrests. It said in a prepared statement: “We do not have a position on the enforcement of the governor's executive order among different groups, so we cannot comment.”

Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor specializing in the First Amendment, said the government should treat all protesters the same, no matter what the message. And that means dropping the charges against the eight.

“Once the government starts saying, 'well these protests are really, really important, and we think the message there is especially worthy,'” he said. “That makes it pretty likely unconstitutional.”

Konur Papageorgio was one of the eight arrested in early April. His court date is in September.

“I don’t think they have any case,” he said. “I think they will either drop it, or it will be very clear that we’ll easily win this. I’m not worried about it.”

The District Attorney’s office says its priority during COVID has been reviewing felony cases. After that, the DA will review misdemeanors like Papageorgio’s. 

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