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Tennessee judge issues restraining order against anti-abortion group after armed activist arrest

·6 min read

Demonstrators played the sounds of a baby crying so loud doctors at a Mt. Juliet clinic couldn’t hear their patients on Thursday morning. The demonstrators lied about coming into the clinic for an appointment they didn’t need. They blocked doors outside and in, while a woman hid in fear around a corner.

When denied entrance, one stated on video, “Now either they gonna let us in or we take this whole building down. It’s up to them.”

She then narrated for the camera: “We are trying to see if they let us into the office, into carafem. But if not, we are just going to terrorize this whole building.”

Then they told police they planned to escalate.

Three of them — one armed — were arrested outside a different abortion clinic later that day.

A Tennessee federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order against anti-abortion activist group Operation Save America amid attempts to block access to two reproductive health clinics in Nashville and Mt. Juliet last week.

Details of the escalating demonstrations that began last Tuesday were pulled from court documents filed in federal court by nonprofit reproductive health clinic carafem in support of the order.

Tennessee abortion ban: Tennessee's abortion ban to take effect Aug. 25

We answered: What questions do you have about abortion access in Tennessee following the reversal of Roe?

Armed protest in Nashville

Nashville police on July 28 arrested Rickey Williams, who refused to leave the Nashville Planned Parenthood property with a group gathered at the entrance "saying they are murdering children inside," according to Williams' arrest affidavit.

The facility stopped providing abortions in June.

Williams told police the group had previously been escorted off the carafem clinic property in Mt. Juliet. Williams was armed at the time of his Nashville arrest, though his wife, who was also in the group, told police the pistol was hers.

Police also arrested Bevelyn Williams and Edmee Chavannes. All three had been granted bond and were not in Davidson County custody on Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw on Friday issued the order blockingOperation Save America from the Mt. Juliet carafem clinic property, finding the group had "engaged in and plan to continue to engage in physically obstructing the entrance ... and threatening facility staff and patients."

A hearing is set for Aug. 5 to determine if further court action is needed.

Days of demonstrations

On July 26, approximately 150 demonstrators gathered outside the clinic building, holding signs with "graphic images" and using megaphones, as well as "accosting" vehicles entering the parking, carafem alleges in court documents.

At the time, Mt. Juliet police downplayed the incident, saying protest groups were not violent and activity “remained lawful.”

“No one blocked the building, and no one attempted to unlawfully enter the building,” MJPD Captain Tyler Chandler told The Tennessean that day.

But in court filings, carafem says they were forced to go into lockdown for half an hour that day as two Operation Save America leaders, Jason Storms and Chester Gallagher, refused to move from the front door for several minutes until police eventually convinced the men to leave the property.

Demonstrators told a high-ranking Mt. Juliet police officer they intended to return all week and to ‘escalate’ activities on Friday, July 29, 2022, according to the motion for the restraining order.

"Mt. Juliet Deputy Police Chief (Michael Mullins) reported to carafem staff...(OSA) planned to ‘fill the hallways’ of the clinic ‘sometime soon’ and that they ‘have men out here who are willing to do what needs to be done,'" the motion said.

The threat was not made more specific in court documents.

A smaller demonstration of around 30-35 people was reported on the following day, July 27, ithe same day a rally was held outside Nashville's city hall, where Storms was a speaker.

On July 28, approximately 60 people, including Rickey Williams, Bevelyn Williams, and Chavannes, gathered again outside carafem, according to the order.

Demonstrators played the sounds of a baby crying audio through large speakers aimed at the facilities, disrupting health care.

The three later entered the building and made their way to the second floor where the clinic has offices, the filing indicates.

There, they filmed their attempts to enter the clinic, misrepresenting their need for medical care and blocking the entrance in the process, the filing alleges.

Bevelyn Williams recorded herself "threatening" the clinic on video, carafem alleges.

The clinic again went on lockdown, not letting any patients or staff in or out, they said. After the three had been moved on by police, carafem said a patient reporting hiding around the corner out of fear of being accosted by demonstrators and others said they felt “scared to come back."

OSA could not immediately be reached for comment.

Access to abortion clinic federally protected

"While anti-abortion activists, like those espousing any cause, are protected by the First Amendment when they demonstrate, protesters may not physically obstruct others from exercising their rights," Stella Yarbrough, ACLU of Tennessee legal director, said in a statement last week after a protest incident at the Mt. Juliet clinic.

Carafem argued the demonstrators violated the 1994 federal FACE act which prohibits interference with reproductive health care services, even temporarily.

Operation Save America calls itself an evangelical group and has promoted a national conference gathering at Nashville-area churches in recent days. The fundamentalist Christian group also held a rally at the Tennessee Capitol on Saturday.

In promotional materials, the group misstated that a near-total abortion ban was in effect in Tennessee, calling the timing of their event "God's providence."

Although a 30-day countdown to the ban's implementation began last week, abortion remains legal in Tennessee until a so-called fetal heartbeat can be detected, around 6 weeks of gestation.

Group members have previously faced legal actions for their tactics outside of reproductive health clinics. A previous iteration of the group was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice.

New York state Attorney General Letitia James in 2021 sued Bevelyn Beatty, now Williams, and Chavannes, alleging the two repeatedly barred patients from entering a Planned Parenthood clinic and threated violence against patients and staff, according to the Associated Press.

The lawsuit was later settled, with Beatty and Chavannes agreeing to respect a buffer zone around the clinic entrance. Both were included in the Tennessee restraining order.

In May, 11 people were arrested in protests led by the anti-abortion group Operation Save America after they blocked the entrance to a Louisville clinic in the same city where, in 2017, another buffer zone was created.

The order names 10 OSA members specifically, including Chavannes and both Williamses. Also included are OSA national director Jason Storms, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and other members:

  • Chester Gallagher, of Nevada,

  • Matthew Brock, of South Carolina,

  • Coleman Boyd, of Mississippi,

  • Frank “Bo” Linam, of Tennessee, who carafem reports travels to the clinic several times a week,

  • Brent Buckley, of Murfreesboro, and

  • AJ Hurley, of California.

All were reportedly staying at a Murfreesboro hotel.

As of Tuesday morning, no lawyers were listed for the defendants in the federal court system and it was not clear if they had been served.

Carafem v Operation Save America temporary restraining order by USA TODAY Network on Scribd

Reach Melissa Brown at mabrown@tennessean.com. Reach Mariah Timms at mtimms@tennessean.com.

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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Anti-abortion group Operation Save America under restraining order