12/08/2015 05:50 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2016

A Colorado Springs Native Reflecting on the Planned Parenthood Shooting


It happened simultaneously. My brother got a text from a friend, and I received a CNN phone update. They both said something along the same lines: "There's been a shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs."

There is something surreal about having your hometown covered by national media. Mine happens to be one of the most conservative cities in the United States. I grew up in a liberal, Jewish home, encompassed by a community of fundamentalist Christian ideals.

For some context, this is not the first time Colorado Springs has made national headlines. Every major news outlet in the country covered the sex-drug scandal of Ted Haggard, former pastor and leader of the evangelical New Life Church. This American Life once covered a story of Christian teens in Colorado Springs, who felt their homosexuality was the result of a demonic possession.

And on Friday, Nov. 25, a man killed three innocent people at the city's Planned Parenthood. This shooting is still being investigated, and there is still much to be discovered.

In reflecting upon this event, I have remembered a childhood trauma.

I was probably nine years old, and I was more than used to anti-abortion billboards and political sentiment in my community. At the time, I was living three blocks away from a Planned Parenthood, the site of regular protests that sometimes extended a full city-block. From a young age, my mother was open with my brother and me about her abortion. I understood the value of choice, and it was never a big deal.

I do not remember where my mom and I were going, but we were clearly in no rush. As the neighborhood Planned Parenthood came into sight, we could both see an especially hateful protest. This protest had it all: a massive poster of an infant's bloodied limbs, signs with sprawling, angry text and chants to match. Despite the gratuitously graphic content, several adult protesters even brought their children.

This demonstration was happening alongside the Planned Parenthood parking lot, so any person choosing to enter the building would have to walk through a crowd of angry extremists first. But just behind the protest, two volunteers in neon orange vests, one older man and one younger woman, were escorting patients in and out of the facilities. Upon seeing them, my mother pulled over the car and asked, "Would you like to come with me to thank those volunteers?" I did.

Leaving the car, we began an inspired, yet cautious approach toward the ushers. As we got closer, protesters began to smile, assuming we were joining their cause. Their attitudes quickly changed as we walked passed the crowd, making minimal eye contact and clearly directing our movement towards the volunteers.

We reached the escorts. My mom shook their hands and said, "Thank you. When I was much younger, I needed to come to Planned Parenthood. Ushers like you helped guide me into the building, allowing me to feel safe and comfortable. Now I have a wonderful family, and I wanted you to know that efforts like yours helped me get to this point." She encouraged me to shake their hands as well. I did.

The protesters' silence faded with their smiles. In an instant, their anger became palpable. What started as religious chants turned into hate and aggression directly towards my mom. They became increasingly targeted. Protesters were actively calling my mom a murderer.

We finally began our return to the car. As we did, a middle-aged, male protester took things a step further. He put his hand on my shoulder, leaned in close, and said, "Ask your mom about the sister she murdered." It seems like a trivial statement now, but that moment profoundly affected me.

In sitting down to write this essay, I spoke to my mom to confirm that my memory was all accurate. In fact, it was not. My initial memory was filled with chanting and shouting. At first, my recollection even included a protester dressed in scrubs holding up fake aborted fetal tissue with tongs. That image is ingrained in my memory as much as an other, but was not part of the probable truth.

My mom remembered thinking it would be a good idea to thank the volunteers. She remembered pulling over the car, walking through the crowd, being harassed. She remembered the signs, the huge bloody poster, the palpable fear. My mom remembered the man who put his hand on my shoulder and asked about my sister.

She remembered it as a candle-lit vigil, that never seemed like it would get violent. She did not remember the scrubs and fake fetal tissue, but she remembered everything else and more. My mom reminded me of how it all ended. She put her hand over my ear and pulled me tight into her side. With her hands muffling the noise and my small, fourth-grade body pressed against her, the scene turned into a hazy nightmare. I saw then how aggressive and violent protests can be when motivated by religious extremism.

Details have begun to emerge regarding the nature of the Planned Parenthood shooting. It is now clear that there was likely a religious, anti-abortion motive. The shooting shocked Colorado Springs; it shocked the entire nation. And yet, many people from my community know the kind of violence that can come from religious extremism. It is a multi-faceted violence.

We know the moments that religious expression can turn into moral superiority can turn into assault. I was a little boy, and the protesters felt a moral superiority that gave them no inhibitions in their assault on me.

"I was so naive; I would never intentionally put you in a traumatic environment," my mom said, reflecting on the experience. "It never occurred to me that those demonstrators would turn so viciously towards us. I had absolutely no idea that would happen."