Abortion rights protesters rally

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Lynn Billingham, age 65, being arrested and lifted from the ground by Knoxville police officers. Photo by Hard Knox Wire.

Hundreds of abortion rights activists gathered Saturday in downtown Knoxville to protest the possibility of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade

The protest in Knoxville was part of a National Day of Action named “Bans Off Our Bodies” coordinated by Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups. Organizers said there were more than 380 protest events in cities across the country including Washington D.C., New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. 

The Knoxville demonstration kicked off with speakers exhorting the crowd gathered in Krutch Park. 

Dr. Megan Haselschwert, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee’s Department of Child and Family studies, addressed the protesters while cradling her newborn child in her arms. 

Haselschwert explained that she is a supporter of abortion rights for both personal and professional reasons. 

“One of my earliest memories was playing doctor with my mom. She was in bed resting and recovering from an abortion. I remember bringing my brown Fisher Price medical briefcase into her bedroom, taking her pulse and checking her throat,” Haselschwert recalled.

Protesters listen to speakers at Bans Off Knoxville event.

“Earlier that day, my mom underwent an abortion when she was 24 weeks pregnant, terminating a very much wanted and planned pregnancy,” she continued. “Upon learning that the baby was incompatible with life and had the potential to cause harm to my mom’s body —both physically and mentally —they made the right decision for my mom, my dad, for me, and for our whole family. I am forever grateful of the decision she made. My little sister would arrive a few years later, but maybe she would not have had my mother been forced to carry the prior pregnancy to term.”  

She then cited a report from the Guttmacher Institute that said 60% of women seeking an abortion are already mothers. 

“Mothers know about the joys and the burdens of motherhood. Mothers living in poverty know this the best. They know the financial burdens. The educational burdens. The health burdens. And the burdens of being forced to raise a child connected with a violent or abusive spouse,” she said. 

According to Haselschwert, “It is a special kind of hell to be dangling off a cliff, waiting for this SCOTUS ruling during a nationwide formula shortage. A shortage that means parents, especially mothers, are stressed and scared beyond belief. A shortage that means babies will starve. In 2022. In the United States of America. But this is not terribly surprising if you know that we have one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, and the highest among democratic nations.” 

Officers from Knox Elite Security escort a counter-protester to the outskirts of the event.

A handful of counter-protesters attempted to harass the protesters during the speeches, citing Bible verses that they claim support the idea that abortion should be made illegal. They were quickly escorted to the outskirts of the demonstration by private security personnel from Knox Elite Security. 

After the speeches had concluded the protesters marched through downtown Knoxville, their numbers great enough to span several blocks at a time, chanting slogans such as “Not Church, not State, Women will decide their fate!” and “Hey, hey! Hey ho! Abortion bans have got to go!”  

They drew numerous cheers of support from the crowds who had gathered to enjoy the pleasant spring weather and popular downtown events such as the Farmer’s Market. 

When the marchers returned to Krutch Park, State Rep. Gloria Johnson (D – Knoxville) took the megaphone briefly to tell the crowd that opposing leaders who claim to be exemplifying Christian values are doing nothing of the kind. “They are not caring for the most vulnerable,” Johnson said. 

Johnson also encouraged protesters to find a candidate that supports abortion rights in their district and stressed the importance of turning out the vote in the November election. 

As the protest drew formally to a close, approximately 50 of the activists decided to block Gay Street in both directions while chanting “Who’s Streets? Our Streets!” 

Knoxville Police Officers monitoring the protest, however, clearly had a different idea about who the streets belonged to. 

KPD Sgt. Nathanael Skellenger and approximately seven other officers ordered the protesters to clear the roadway.  Many of the protesters complied, but a few began arguing with the police and refused to move out of the street.  

Protesters march downtown during Saturday’s demonstration in support of Roe v. Wade.

One protester, Lynn Billingham, age 65, of Maryville, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing a roadway.

Sgt. Skellenger, who filed the misdemeanor charges against Billingham, wrote the following account of her arrest in the warrants filed in Knox County General Sessions Court:

“I placed my hands on the arrestee’s arms and began to slowly walk her backwards still asking her to exit the roadway, but she resisted and would not walk with me. After several seconds of this, the arrestee went limp and sat backwards onto the ground acting as if she was pushed to the ground. At this point myself and Officer Chandler put our hands underneath her arms and asked her to stand up so we could get her out of the roadway, she refused and stayed seated on the ground. I then told her she needed to stand up with us or she would be arrested, but the arrestee continued to refuse to comply with my lawful commands. At this point she was handcuffed and had to be carried out of the roadway because she still refused to walk under her own power.” 

After handcuffing Billingham, officers had her sit handcuffed on the ground in front of the Tennessee Theater for several minutes before loading her into an unmarked Chevrolet SUV. Several protesters pointed out the police vehicle was bearing tags that had expired in 2020. 

In a phone interview with Hard Knox Wire, Billingham said that she was held for 19-and-a-half hours in the county jail, where she was told by officers that they could hold her there as long as they wanted. She was released on her own recognizance Sunday morning.  

While she was in jail, Billingham was at first reluctant to discuss what she was in for with other inmates. 

“Many of the girls there were stuck in the system because they were going through problems,” she said. “They were homeless or caught up with drugs and needing help. But when I told those girls what I was in for, I was treated with so much respect. One said that she only wished that she was here for the same reasons that I was in for.” 

Billingham explained that she took to the street with the other protesters spontaneously because “just walking around in a large circle holding our little signs and then knowing that we would just walk away at the end was not enough. Civil disobedience is needed to get momentum.” 

She explained that she and others had “roped this goat” 50 years ago and that, because of her life experience and career as a Registered Nurse, she realizes that it’s an important privilege for a woman to be able to get the medical care that she needs.  

“I’m watching the rights that we fought so hard for back in the 60’s be taken away. This is an erosion of rights that will not stop at abortion rights. White supremacy and misogyny are gaining momentum again.” Billingham said. 

She explained that she doesn’t want her granddaughter to suffer the kind of ordeal that her mother — who was abducted at the age of 15 and raped repeatedly — went through.

“She became pregnant from the rape. Because abortion was not legal then, she had to go underground to get care,” she said.

Billingham is scheduled to appear in court on May 24. 

Protesters block both lanes of Gay Street.

Jennifer Stambaugh can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on May 16, 2022.