Independent journalist Alissa Azar was one of the only reporters on the scene, which went uncovered by the local and regional press, and she recorded much of the day’s events in a live thread on Twitter. As she noted, the first to arrive at the clinic was a group of counterprotesters who were there to support health care freedom, carrying a banner reading: “Hate Has No Home Here.”
Proud Boys—including Tusitala “Tiny Toese,” who had just participated in street violence while leading a group of the far-right street brawlers in Portland a couple of days before—began assembling on a grass berm across from the clinic a little while later. The counterprotesters included a small number of “Black Bloc” activists, but largely comprised unaffiliated community members present to stand up against hate. As CenterSquare reporter Tim Gruver documented, these included Salem area “clergy witnesses” wearing blue vests designating them.
These TCAPP protests—organized monthly in Salem by a far-right Dominionist group based in eastern Washington—have drawn Proud Boys “security” at previous events, notably a July 14 gathering outside the clinic at which there was a heavy police presence mostly keeping them separated from counterprotesters. According to Its Going Down News, when a group of Proud Boys attempted a flanking maneuver to attack them, police stopped them and arrested two of their members. Shawn Christopher Davidson, 30, of Salem was arrested on suspicion of second-degree disorderly conduct, while Ricky Dale Clark, 64, of Beaverton was arrested on suspicion of third-degree assault, second-degree disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest.
The anti-abortion TCAPP events are the brainchild of Ken Peters, the founding pastor of Spokane’s Covenant Church, the reins of which Peters handed to far-right former Washington Republican legislator Matt Shea in 2019 after Shea left the state House under the cloud of a report connecting him to domestic terrorist factions. (Their partnership recently crumbled for unexplained reasons, with Shea departing to form his own church.)
Peters is a rabidly pro-Trump pastor who has appeared onstage in recent months with Mike Lindell, the “My Pillow” conspiracy theorist who claims Donald Trump was the victim of election fraud. Peters also spoke to the crowd gathered in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5 at a pre-rally for the next day’s “Stop the Steal” protest that devolved into the Capitol insurrection.
As Frederick Clarkson and Cloee Cooper explained in a recent overview in Religion Dispatches of the Dominionist scheme to seize political power in the interior Northwest, the purpose of the monthly protests—which they insist are not protests but “church gatherings” outside the clinics—is to spark conflict as a way of imposing their political beliefs:
Peters pioneered the tactic of staging events they call TCAPP, which takes the form of worship services in front of the Planned Parenthood centers that are obviously intended to interfere with clinic patients and staff. The Patriot Churches have continued to organize these disruptive actions and have made their intentions clear. “As we grow,” they declared, “the number of services around the state and nation will continue to grow.”
The website for Peters’ organization declares:
The Church at Planned Parenthood is NOT a protest. It’s a worship service at the gates of Hell. The Church at Planned Parenthood is a gathering of Christians for the worship of God and the corporate prayer for repentance for this nation, repentance for the apathetic church and repentance of our blood guiltiness in this abortion holocaust.
Its appeals to potential recruits promise that “The Worship is Non-Confrontational Spiritual Warfare,” but also tout the virility of the enterprise: “Creates a Toughness. Gets us out of the Soft Pews and Into the Elements.”
Peters kicked off the TCAPP strategy in late 2018, reportedly inspired by a sermon from anti-abortion protest movement leader Rusty Thomas. He told an interviewer that Thomas had talked about the “importance of fighting for the unborn,” which led Peters to wonder, “What would I be doing if they were killing 5-year-olds, if families were driving up clinics with their 5-year-old in the booster seat, coming out, walking into a clinic, and then leaving while Planned Parenthood disposed of their 5-year-old? How would I be acting as a pastor?”
He continued: “I thought, why not plant my church right there at the gates of hell?”
The gatherings in Spokane were deliberately noisy and disruptive. Bands and musical acts performed loudly, and the preachers who showed up to denounce abortion and Planned Parenthood were just as loud. Planned Parenthood reported that the amplified sermons and condemnations from TCAPP would leak through their clinic walls and that, according to their attorney, “patients and caregivers cannot hear each other speak even when sitting right across from each other.”
Peters acknowledged that this was the plan. “We want to get as close to Planned Parenthood as we can, because the closer we are, the bigger the statement that it makes,” Peters said. “It makes a statement that we disagree with what they’re doing.”
Paul Dillon, vice president of public affairs with Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, told Northwest Public Broadcasting that the noise was harmful to the health of clients. Patients and staff, he said, were able to hear the songs and sermons even inside exam rooms, leading staff to shuffle patients to different rooms just to be able to provide care.
“It’s really, really frustrating and should not be allowed to happen, when the laws are very clear in Washington state and the city of Spokane about interference with health care facilities,” Dillon said. “It’s extremely unnerving for the patients at Planned Parenthood.”
The initial TCAPP gathering in Spokane in October 2018 attracted only about 150 people. However, over the ensuing months, it grew to over 400 by Planned Parenthood’s count. (TCAPP claimed there were over 700.)
So Planned Parenthood sued, noting that Spokane had a noise ordinance prohibiting such loud activity in the vicinity of a medical facility—one that Spokane police had declined to enforce, regardless of how loud and disruptive the services became.
“In fact, it is the impression of both the staff at Planned Parenthood and the church itself that the police are on the side of the church,” Kim Clark, an attorney with Legal Voice, the firm that represented Planned Parenthood, told Northwest Public Broadcasting.
The organization won. A local judge ordered TCAPP to stop holding protests at Planned Parenthood during its operating hours. Peters called it a violation of his First Amendment rights.
“The injunction is totally unconstitutional. We completely disagree with it,” he said. “But it’s Washington state. Washington state is run by leftists.”
TCAPP turned up the next month at its regular protest time in a show of defiance against the ruling. However, its members did not begin making any protest noise until after the clinic had closed for the day. Planned Parenthood filed a request with the court this summer to make the injunction against TCAPP permanent.
Frustrated in Spokane, Peters’ attention in 2020 turned to making TCAPP a national phenomenon and organization, particularly since he had also become the pastor of the Patriot Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He formed an alliance with another Dominionist pastor in Tennessee, Greg Locke, which rapidly took on an openly political bent.
Peters also began holding TCAPP services in Knoxville, the first of which was on Dec. 29, 2020. Less than a month later, on Jan. 22, someone blasted apart the glass front door of the clinic’s offices with a shotgun, prompting an FBI investigation. No suspect has been arrested or identified, and a Knoxville police spokesman told CNN there has been no indication of any connection between the shooter and the TCAPP service.
Peters denounced media reports linking his service to the attack: “I am the most nonviolent person on the planet,” he said. But others weren’t so sure.
“There have been protesters before, though they had always been small and peaceful,” Aimee Lewis, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, told CNN. “But Peters, with his rhetoric of ‘warfare’ and ‘battlefields,’ is really setting an example and encouraging extremism among his followers. It’s virulent in a way we haven’t seen before.”
Both Peters and Locke are rabidly pro-Trump pastors, and over the course of 2020 engaged in a range of hyperbolic attacks on Joe Biden and defenses of Trump. After Trump lost, they immediately swung to promulgating the gamut of conspiracy theories claiming fraud in the election. In late December, Peters told his flock:
In the recent election, we know something crooked went on. There’s actual evidence. We’ve seen the evidence, there’s video. We’ve seen them run ballots through over and over. We’ve seen them pull ballots out of, out of—from underneath tables. Everything shut down. I went to bed. I thought, “Trump’s got it easy.” Went to bed, woke up in the morning, found out Biden won. In the middle of the night, like a thief in the night.
Both men urged their followers to go to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. Locke was especially incendiary in doing so, waxing prophetic about what was going to happen that day:
They think they got this whole thing wrapped up. I don’t care what happens on the 6th, and I don’t care what happens on the 20th. I’ll tell you something: God Almighty is about to dethrone Nancy Pelosi. It’s about to happen. (Audience rises and cheers)
He’s about to dethrone that baby butchering mongrel! About to dethrone that woman. God’s gonna bring the whole thing down. It’s all going to come toppling down. We about to see some exposure of these bunch of pedophile sex-trafficking rings. Been popping up in Hollywood! Been popping up in the White House! Been popping up overseas! God’s about to expose all of it, I tell you right now: He’s going to expose every bit of that mess.
Peters flew out to D.C. on Lindell’s private jet and boasted about it on social media. The next day, Peters’ speech was typically incendiary, and fit well with the mood of incipient violence among the gathering crowd:
But I see a bunch of people here that will say, “No, no.” We are not going to allow the enemy to destroy this beautiful and great land that our forefathers gave to us. We will rise up in this time and say like Paul Revere, “The leftists are coming! The leftists are coming! The leftists are coming!”
The insurrection also may have been the moment when the evangelicals first linked arms with the Proud Boys. During his speech at the rally, Locke offered a prayer on their behalf:
And we do pray for Enrique (Tarrio), and we pray for his organization. And Lord they may get a bum rap on the news media but we just thank God that we can lock shields, and we can come shoulder-to-shoulder with people that still stand up for this nation, and still love the rights and the freedoms that we have. Because Lord, we’ve got to recognize the fact: If we don’t have convictions worth dying for, we don’t even know what living really is.
The alliance with the Proud Boys has become explicit since then. The Salem protests, along with last weekend’s Portland violence revolving around evangelical Christians’ anti-masking protests, follow both the TCAPP recipe for creating confrontations and the Proud Boys’ strategy of aligning themselves locally with other right-wing activists, particularly of the “Patriot” stripe.
Peters welcomed the Proud Boys on Facebook after their first appearance at a TCAPP event in Salem in July. “We are not affiliated with them, and we did not invite them, but they literally saved our lives,” he wrote in an approving Facebook post. “Thank God they were there. They put up a wall of protection between us and the Antifa/leftist mob while we worshipped. They met the mob head on and kept them away from us. I thanked them profusely after we were done.”
On the ground, it makes for a jarring combination. Despite the supposedly Christian nature of the gathering, the Proud Boys shouted obscene and lewd threats at protesters and observers. One Proud Boy jeered at Azar about his admiration for her ass, and joked with a buddy about raping her. Another told her to “go back to Syria.”
As Azar’s coverage showed, Tuesday’s event began to break up when one woman affiliated with the Proud Boys was shoved aside by a couple of members when she apparently began trying to instigate a fight. Eventually, one of them sprayed her with mace—which then sparked a rush of Proud Boys charging with their own cans of mace and spraying the counterprotesters. Some counterprotesters were able to retaliate with their own pepper spray, but the crowds quickly broke apart at that point, and people began to leave.
As they were departing, one car full of Proud Boys shot paint balls at counterprotesters from their car doors. Rubber projectiles were reportedly also launched.
They left in a mostly leisurely fashion, unharried by police. They knew they would be back for more in a few weeks, or days, or however long it takes for someone to concoct a right-wing cause for them to “support.”