City gearing up as thousands expected for anti-abortion prayer walk

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Charlotte city officials and police are preparing to respond Saturday morning on Latrobe Drive as thousands of people are expected for a prayer walk outside A Preferred Women's Health Center.

Administrators at the health center say they're prepared for the expected crowd, but not happy that a permit was granted.

"I don't think a parade should ever be on a side business street less than a mile long for 7,000 people, but the decision was made by the city," said Calla Hales of A Preferred Women's Health Center.

WBTV contacted LoveLife Charlotte, who is organizing the walk, but had not received a response as of Thursday afternoon.

"We do have extra security that day and we will have an extended volunteer group that day to help with directing traffic and making sure it is very clear where the clinic is, and not getting lost in the chaos, and patients understand what's going on, and just so patients feel supported," Hales said. "My plan is to go on as usual. Patients have been told. Our staff understands. We're preparing but CDOT and CMPD have assured us that they will be here to help maintain traffic flow."

WBTV obtained a copy of the parade permit the city granted.

Document: Click here to read the parade permit

Organizers have been told they can only use public streets, cannot go on private property, and no on street markings are permitted.

"We will have more than appropriate staff members, officers out there around the clinic to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to exercise whatever their position is concerning the issue" said Charlotte Mecklenburg Police spokesperson Rob Tufano.

CMPD says the department will have on duty officers at the prayer walk. Police say it's possible they could use officers from other divisions and still meet staffing requirements to respond to emergency calls in other areas of the city.

The permit says "the applicant shall be responsible for hiring and paying off-duty law enforcement officers, or reimbursing the City for the costs of providing on-duty law enforcement officers, to appropriately police street closures."

Police say they're expecting trouble.

"Community members should be assured that people will be out there handling things professionally, making sure everyone has the opportunity to exercise those first amendments and keep the peace out there in what we expect will be a peaceful demonstration" Tufano said.

But Charlotte City Council member Julie Eiselt says she's worried about what could transpire on Latrobe Drive on Saturday.

"Safety. People's safety as it always is," Eiselt said. "It's a big crowd they're expecting, seven to 10,000 protesters. That's a pretty small street. It's a pretty quiet street. There's other businesses on that street and there's a lot of people in the streets trying to disrupt traffic and stop traffic."

Protests outside the health center are a weekly event.

This weekend's prayer walk protest comes on the heels of a federal lawsuit that some protesters filed earlier this month against Charlotte Mayor and City Manager and Code Enforcement.

The lawsuit claims code enforcement workers, who allegedly confiscated signs and placards, violated protesters' right to free speech.

Council member Eiselt says police have been trying to maintain safety on the road.

"In this day and age police try to work with protesters and not against them, so that's the goal here as well," she said. "But that said - you can't deny a woman the right to enter that clinic. That's the law."

Eiselt says she's nervous about this weekend because of the number of people expected. She recalled what it was like when she went to observe a previous protest.

"I've been out there before and the next thing is there's a camera in my face and they've put my license plate on Facebook and on the internet and it's gone viral," Eiselt said. "It can be scary sometimes."

Health center officials say there was a similar parade protest in 2016.

"Last year we had quite a few patients who could not receive care and did not make it to their appointments," Hales said. "Traffic was impeded and they were turned away by protesters. Quite frankly, it's really intimidating to try to come to a medical appointment and have all these people standing in front of you with signs and yelling at you and telling you you're doing the wrong thing."

Workers at the health center are asking people to not counter protest.

"We've had a lot of people in the public reaching out in support saying they would like to help," Hales said. "We really, as a clinic, are asking to people to not come out to counter protest."

Hales said "with 7,000 people on the street it's already chaotic. When you start adding more people who aren't patients and aren't helping the clinic directly, you're really adding to that chaos and so we're strongly urging people to not counter protest on Latrobe Drive."

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