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Conflict continues over Jacksonville abortion protest

Protest.JPG
A Woman's Choice of Jacksonville
A photo shows protesters stalling traffic near A Woman's Choice of Jacksonville on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022.

A Woman's Choice of Jacksonville continued to object Wednesday to how police handled a large abortion protest this week outside its clinic. But the clinic and police gave conflicting accounts of what happened.

Kelly Flynn, president and CEO of A Woman's Choice, said more than 165 protesters surprised the clinic's staff as they arrived for work Monday morning. Protesters were backing up traffic and blocking entrance to the clinic, Flynn said during an appearance on WJCT's First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross.

Flynn faulted the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office for failing to control the situation or to notify A Woman's Choice about the protest.

"We were caught completely off guard — no knowledge, no warning whatsoever of this large gathering," she said. "Twenty years that I've been there, I've never seen this many people outside the clinic. … The staff and the physicians along with the patients had a really difficult time trying to get into the parking lot."

A Woman's Choice has asked the FBI to investigate what they consider a violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, a 1994 law that makes it a federal crime to obstruct entrance to a clinic or use force. The FBI in Jacksonville would not confirm whether it's investigating

A JSO spokesman described the situation far differently in an email Wednesday to WJCT News.

Assistant Chief Craig Waldrup was at the site for four hours with eight officers and supervisors, the statement said.

“Assistant Chief Waldrup has been working with members of both parties over the last year to ensure they completely understand their rights and responsibilities as it relates to these events, which have been taking place for years at this location,” JSO said.

"The officers on scene assisted throughout the event with traffic direction and control, pedestrian ingress and egress, as well as escorting patients to and from the business to ensure a safe posture was maintained. There were zero incidents observed by the officers on scene, and there were none reported by protesters, business or patients.”

"Chief Waldrup will continue to have conversations with those involved in these routine protests to ensure everyone is afforded their lawful opportunity to do so, without infringing on the rights of others," the statement said.

Flynn disputed JSO's description.

"There were so many people. Cars were backed up, could not gain entrance into the parking lot. And so in terms of JSO escorting anyone, we didn't see any of that," Flynn said. "There were eight cars or eight officers that were outside and they were gathered around, and even when our doctor pulled up, he had to lay on the horn to finally get someone's attention to help him get into the office."

Flynn said JSO knew about the protest in advance and did not notify A Woman's Choice. "How the officers knew of this event and we were never told about it is still in question for us," she said.

JSO says it contacted both the clinic and protesters that morning as police officers arrived.

Reporting by the Center for Investigative reporting shows that police calls for disturbance and violence at Florida abortion clinics have doubled over the past six years. 

A Woman’s Choice says it's also seeing an influx of patients from surrounding states with stricter abortion bans, following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Claire Heddles of Jacksonville Today contributed to this report.

Randy comes to Jacksonville from the South Florida Sun Sentinel, where, as metro editor, he led investigative coverage of the Parkland school shooting that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for public service. He has spent more than 40 years in reporting and editing positions in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and Florida. You can reach Randy at rroguski@wjct.org or on Twitter, @rroguski.