Police Brutality Against Protesters

Posted on September 15, 2020 By

by Sarah Terzo


In the news there have been multiple cases of police brutality against Black men and women and even Black preborn children.

Those who’ve protested these outrages have also been targeted for brutality. See, for example,In one week there were at least 9 instances of police using excessive force caught on camera and “The protesters had to deescalate the police”: Demonstrators are the ones defusing violence at protests.

This follows a long history of police brutality against those who protest violence, such as previous calls for racial justice, or opposing the American war in Vietnam – which escalated to killing four people at Kent State University.

Add to this set: pro-life protesters. That’s received less press coverage, but belongs on the list.  Below are some examples; a fuller account is given here.

The Rescue Movement

The Rescue movement, which occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s, was a massive movement of pro-lifers engaging in civil disobedience. Groups like Operation Rescue gathered thousands of volunteers to block the doors of abortion facilities, preventing abortions from taking place. All pro-life participants signed an agreement to refrain from any type of violence or violent rhetoric. Generally, the group would have a few people designated to speak to the media and to women trying to enter the facility. The rest of the participants were required to be quiet and peaceful, sometimes sitting quietly, sometimes praying, sometimes singing.

These demonstrations were often misrepresented in the media and characterized as being violent. When there was violence, it was nearly always committed by pro-choicers and police against pro-lifers.

Example: Pain Compliance Holds

Pastor and author Randy Alcorn described a rescue he took part in where he both witnessed and experienced excessive force used by police. The police were using something called “pain compliance holds” which consisted of grabbing demonstrators in ways designed to inflict great amounts of pain. The purpose was to force the protesters to cooperate. Protesters planned to go limp and force police to drag or carry them away from the entrances of the abortion facilities. By doing this, and not simply walking away under police orders, they could keep the clinic closed for far longer than they could if they simply obeyed police commands and dispersed when ordered to.

Rather than hauling them off, however, police often used the tactic of inflicting as much pain on the pro-lifers as possible in order to compel them to move away from the clinic entrances. Alcorn says:

It’s now almost 9 o’clock.… The police started dragging us away 30 minutes ago. I remember the look of horror on a college girl from our church, watching from across the street. She’d heard that it can get rough, but couldn’t believe the way bodies were being manhandled, even though no resistance was offered. She covered her eyes and the tears were flowing.1

Rescue veteran John Cavanaugh O’Keefe describes how police used cattle-prod-like devices that inflicted pain through electric shock at one rescue. He describes witnessing one police officer use the device on a pro-life demonstrator’s testicles.2 He also witnessed, and endured, the use of pain compliance holds.

Pro-Lifer James Trott wrote a memoir about his time in the rescue movement. He describes one police officer, who he identifies as Major Burnette.

[M]ajor Burnette’s approach at the clinic was to apply pain compliance methods – to what end we never could figure out. He was not giving us any orders to which to comply. It seems as though he just had been itching to inflict some pain, and now had the opportunity… I still bear some (small) scars of his ineffectual efforts.3

Example: Jailhouse Abuses

An article in the Wall Street Journal by William B Allen on August 18, 1989 describes more horrific abuse inflicted on pro-lifers. The victims were women who were jailed for engaging in peaceful civil disobedience in front of abortion facilities. They were jailed in Pittsburgh and had emotional and physical trauma inflicted on them by Pittsburgh police:

Women – from college age to grandmothers – are dragged by the bottom of their blouses, their breasts exposed to hooting male prisoners… Complaints are filed with an assistant district attorney, who does not process them, allegedly on orders from her superiors.

These female rescuers also testified to being verbally threatened with being stripped and raped.4

A chronically ill rescuer was also abused:

Jailers deliberately blew smoke in the face of one who has serious respiratory problems, in the presence of the nurse who was supposedly there to care for her, to the point that the prisoner could hardly breathe. After 15 minutes of this, the nurse said she couldn’t stand anymore and put an oxygen mask over the rescuer’s face.5

Example: Injuries

Even more horrific abuse took place in Los Angeles. Police chief Robert Vernon armed LA police officers with a weapon consisting of two nightsticks connected with a chain. Officers wrapped these makeshift nunchakus around the arms and legs of demonstrators and twisted them. Police spokespeople claimed that this was done in order to compel pro-lifers to comply with police officers’ orders to leave the facility.

But Trott says:

However, in many cases no orders were being given to the rescuers. Those present reported it looked and felt more like open sadism. Many rescuers were seriously injured. One woman was reported to have miscarried following the treatment, and a film taken at the time captured two officers snapping a man’s arm. Although the cameraman was a considerable distance from the officers and their victim, the “crack” can be heard distinctly in the soundtrack of the film.6

Author Sarah Terzo at protests


This overview of examples shows there was a consistent pattern of brutality in police dealings with pro-life demonstrators during the rescue years. Pro-lifers, who were dedicated to saving lives lost to abortion, virtually never fought back against police brutality. Although some police officers were convicted and punished for brutality against pro-lifers, the vast majority never were.

These are historical examples, because people dedicated to saving lives have discovered that civil disobedience is not as effective in reaching and helping individual women, nor in shutting down the abortion centers. If they maintain legal actions outside the facilities, and pursue their legal rights to be on the sidewalk when challenged, they have a longer presence there. Constant cancelled appointments do more to permanently close a facility than sporadic protest events do. See Sidewalk Advocates for Life for an organization that learns from experience and trains people in effective techniques.

What all this shows is that when it comes to police reform to stop police brutality, the picture is far wider than the important opposition to racial discrimination (which consistent-lifers have always participated in). Nor are current protesters encountering anything new when the brutality is aimed at them. When it comes to ensuring police professionalism when dealing with protesters, no matter what the issue of protest is, all protesters are in this together.

  1. Randy C. Alcorn Is Rescuing Right? (Downers Grove, Illinois, Inter-Varsity Press, 1990)
  2. Dennis J. Kenney, Melissa Reuland, Deborah Lamm Weisel A Conflict of Rights: Public Safety and Abortion Clinic Conflict and Violence (Police Executive Research Forum, 1999), page 191
  3. James H Trott Was That Thunder? A Memoir of Pro-Life Rescue, 1988 – 1997 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Oak and Yew Press, 2015), page 64
  4. Ibid., page 206
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., page 208


There’s a longer version of this post with many more details:

Here are examples of police brutality against pro-lifers.


For more of our posts on police brutality, see:

Voices on Police Brutality in the Aftermath of the Murder of George Floyd

Police Brutality Against the Preborn

Tear Gas and Miscarriages



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