Essay: Buffer Zone

Illustration: Laura Davies

Illustration: Laura Davies

“Bully” is a word I’ve never really used until recently. It felt juvenile, like children are bullies and adults are jerks, assholes, nemeses or perhaps enemies. I’ve always found other words more pointed, but now bully feels relevant.

I have been thinking about bullies a lot since the election. The past months have produced video footage that illustrates the mood in this country–a man standing in the aisle of an airplane, clapping his hands and hollering “we got some Hillary bitches on here… hey baby, Donald Trump is your president, every goddamn one of you, if you don’t like it, too bad.” Another cell phone video shows a white woman in the craft store Michaels in Chicago yelling at the staff that they are discriminating against her and that she voted for Trump. Another man in a Starbucks also claims he is being discriminated against and that he also voted for Trump. On the flip side there is no shortage of people being harassed for being black, for being Muslim, for being queer, for being female, for being.


While it feels like this is a singular moment for un-reason, there has long been plenty of shouting in American culture.
Bullies are nothing new.


This is the new world we live in and now it is time to deal. We cannot keep our heads down and hope to ride it out. There has to be a plan of action. Reason won’t work. “No ma’am, that cashier is not discriminating against you,” you may want to calmly explain. “She is working at the exact pace that her hourly wage dictates.” But this person who picks a fight in a store, or on a plane, or waiting for a dessert masquerading as a coffee drink doesn’t want to work anything out; her only desire it to dominate. Discussion has no place here.

While it feels like this is a singular moment for un-reason, there has long been plenty of shouting in American culture. Bullies are nothing new. Standing up to them isn’t either.

In 1996 I lived in Chicago and trained to become an escort for women’s clinics. The escort’s role is to create a shield between the patients and the picketers while maintaining the legally sanctioned buffer zone intact. (Buffer zones mark a specific distance from the clinic door that protesters may not come within. Their distance varied from state to state, but in 2014 the Supreme Court declared them an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.) Some moments required us to form a human shield around the patient to keep her safe and out of reach.

The best thing to do in escorting a person into a health clinic is to offer focus. To make eye contact and go and meet her if necessary, say, if the sidewalk is flanked by people humming hymns and shouting “murderer.” Focus on me, look at me, I will help you get into these doors because when you woke up this morning you knew you were coming here, but you probably didn’t think this was going to happen. This was the procedure whether women were headed in for an abortion, a Pap smear, or a bag of condoms.


Twenty years later and some of those frigid mornings are still burned in my mind.


The first clinic where I volunteered was downtown, in an area busy during the week and desolate on the weekends. This clinic was the only reason to be on the streets on a Saturday; there was a long sidewalk out front and parking around back. Picketers lined up along either side of the sidewalk, obstructing any possible entrance from the street. They always pushed the buffer zone, infringing on it, getting in people’s faces as much as possible.

It was rumored that an anti-choice group used hot food and coats to attract people from a nearby homeless shelter to join them on the sidewalk. Chicago in the wintertime is a dangerous place to be outside, and this was January. Dozens of people lined the sidewalk outside the clinic Saturday to deter women from going to their doctor’s appointments.

Twenty years later and some of those frigid mornings are still burned in my mind. At times it was hideously cinematic, these picketers were a motley crew. One man never wore a hat, even though it was below freezing all the time and he was bald; he had a skin graft patch on his head. Another man came every Saturday from Indiana and brought his three daughters, thin blonde things who didn’t have coats or proper shoes, but wrapped themselves in blankets and kneeled shivering on the pavement. Another man impersonated a priest. They sang Ave Maria when the mood struck, usually while we accompanied a patient down their long human gauntlet to the clinic’s door.


They had ponytails, a lot of them were blonde, and no one had scars, as far as I could see. I called them the Gap Girls, and they were good.


Then Planned Parenthood opened its first freestanding clinic in the city, allowing them to offer more health services for their patients. The clinic also became an easy target for anti-choice people.

One group hailed from the nearby Moody Bible Institute. They were young, white, preppy students; this area of Chicago was and is full of young, white, preppy people. They had ponytails, a lot of them were blonde, and no one had scars, as far as I could see. I called them the Gap Girls, and they were good.

Crazy-looking and crazy-sounding people are overwhelming, hard to ignore, but easy to dismiss. The Gap Girls, they were dangerous and insidious, they were just pretty young women. One woman liked to show a picture of a black toddler who she said her sister had adopted. “Look, you can give your baby up for adoption, you don’t have to murder her,” she would say. Another woman liked to say “What if you’re killing the next Michael Jordan?” In the 90s in Chicago, Michael Jordan was a god.

And they tried to engage us, the escorts, to talk with them. From congratulating us on our commitment to our beliefs: “I think it’s great, but why don’t you just listen to what I have to say?” to really personal things after awhile. “Millicent you look like you’ve lost some weight, have you lost weight?” or “Your hair is different, I like it.” I didn’t tell them my name; they just picked up on it after time. They were relentless.

The Gap Girls tried to paint Planned Parenthood in a dark, nefarious light, a group hell-bent on abortions and money. Given the chance, a moment of hesitancy from a patient, they took her to another “women’s health clinic.”

Maybe you’ve seen ads for these places and not even known. Some are overtly political, but many are very, very vague. “Pregnant?” “Need Help?” “Not Sure?” They provide the illusion of options, and then lie to women about abortion.


Bullies are hard because they take you off guard. They have scripts, and they stick to them.


They manipulate information to tell people that legal abortion is dangerous, or a woman can be too old to have the procedure, or that it causes breast cancer. Their success is measured by a waiting game, when a woman doesn’t pursue another appointment soon enough elsewhere because doctors are supposed to tell the truth. This agenda just needs time to do its work. Medicine is supposed to be based in fact, not politics. But then, facts are supposed to based in fact, not in feelings and bias confirmations. Sound familiar?

Bullies are hard because they take you off guard. They have scripts, and they stick to them. They’re not looking to have a discourse with you; they want to derail you. They live life on the offensive. Few patients knew they would have someone confronting them on the sidewalk about her personal health. That kind of thing throws you off, makes you hesitate. Not because a valid point has been raised, but because a stranger talking to you about your personal health, your body, on a public street is startling and unsettling.

The litany of things the people at Planned Parenthood hear and see is incredible. A woman came in with her two daughters, ages 12 and 14 one Saturday. They lived in Cabrini Green, a housing project in Chicago built in an area used to be a wasteland but was quickly becoming prime real estate. The 12-year-old girl was pregnant; a family member raped both her and her sister, and this pregnancy revealed the abuse.

I just remember the severity and the devastation surrounding this woman and her daughters. The look on the mother’s face, and how I couldn’t see the sisters’ faces at all, they just stared at the ground.

Planned Parenthood actively protects women and offer a safe space to discuss sex, sexuality, the body, the slippery land of consent and abuse. They offer sliding scale medical services, and a place free from judgment, not just for the termination of a pregnancy, but also just for being female. They actively try to protect women from the violence they meet in their daily lives, most of it unreported. Planned Parenthood offers a respite from this world in which simple mistakes, like a broken condom, as well as outright abuse and assault, have grave consequences for women, even when those women are actually children.


I had a boss who told me to treat every day like I was going to get slapped in the face. To prepare myself.


I had a boss who told me to treat every day like I was going to get slapped in the face. To prepare myself. It feels necessary to think that way now. My experience as a clinic escort will inform the way I deal with any bullies I encounter. I need to be willing to confront bullies, while focusing on the goal of the confrontation, never losing sight of the clinic door. If I witness someone yelling and intimidating the people around me, I want to diffuse, not escalate, the situation.

My working plan is to go up to the person and ask them, “Why are you yelling? Why are you cursing at us?”  To tell that person, “We can hear you just fine, please don’t use profanity.” To maybe dip into the language of elementary school with a, “We are inside, please use an inside voice.” Something along those lines, perhaps with a light condescending arm on the shoulder, like maybe the person needs to be hospitalized.

I’m going to keep my head up and look people in the eye, especially when it is someone I don’t want to see. This election has green-lit bullies of all kinds; they feel like this behavior is fine. I am here to tell them it is not. And so are you. Let the popular vote speak.

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3 Comment

  • As I write this I am in Chicago, where it -14 degrees, and the last time I visited, I passed by the Planned Parenthood center. It looked like a fortress and now I understand (even more) why. i was surprised to read that you were talking about Chicago, and not a small town. I applaud your willingness to protect another woman from the bullies. No one should be subject to intimidation for a choice that is theirs to make. I am also going to find out if this is going on in places near NYC where I live, and find out if I can get that training.

  • I commend the author on not only the not so popular at the time stand taken to protect women going through quite an ordeal to begin with, but for calling out bullies everywhere. Possibly people who feel the need to bully others do not care how those targeted are affected. Or, possibly they are just so wrapped up in their own feelings or opinions they have no ability to comprehend other positions just might exist. In any case it is terribly sad to see humans behaving in such a manner.
    I will call the author on one point however. It seems that only those who voted for the current President Elect are called out here. And not that any bully shouldn’t be. However wouldn’t it make a more balanced story if a mention of the mother upset as her young child’s birthday party went unattended because the parents refused to allow their children to attend at a home where Trump supporters lived? Possibly the video of a boy being beaten up by a group of other boys because he voiced his happiness at the election results might have showed bullies are not all Republicans. And there was video that went viral of an old man being repeatedly struck, and always from the back, by a mob because he admitted he had just voted for Donald Trump. This old man was left lying in the street injured while his car was stolen. Millicent, these people were bullies. Is a bully not a bully regardless of their politics?

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment John F. Part of my reaction to your comment is “We are only as wise as our algorithms allow”, something I have been thinking about since the election. I know nothing of the stories you tell, and perhaps you know nothing of the ones I refer. It’s so important for me to know where my news comes from, but The Internet just keeps giving me more and more salacious tales of wrongdoing, by liberals, by conservatives, you name it. I am actively trying to be smarter and less reactionary, to be more balanced and consistent in my information. My next task after replying to your comment is to delete my Facebook account. I don’t trust it, and I feel like we are being manipulated as a population.

      Misery is not a pissing contest and bullies are not only Republican. I wager that for every story I can tell you can counter another one, to a certain extent. But there is a difference in people who have the systems of oppressive policies on their side and their aggressive actions and the people who are fighting for their rights to vote, live and love in freedom. It sucks that an old man got beat up and his car stolen, for voicing a political position. The difference is he expressed an opinion, while the other people who are being bullied are just being.