Featured photo: Kirstin Cassell has been volunteering as a clinic escort for about five years. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)
Nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia.
Kirstin Cassell is a trained trauma therapist who can quickly identify symptoms of a trauma response in not just her clients, but also in herself. So when she started experiencing these issues back in June, she wasn’t that surprised.
“It was really interesting,” Cassell said. “I’m a therapist who specializes in trauma, so I knew exactly what was happening. And just because you know about it doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you.”
On June 4, Cassell was hit by a car while she volunteering at a Greensboro abortion clinic. She didn’t suffer any major physical injuries, but the emotional and mental toll of the incident lasted for weeks.
“I was having nightmares and flashbacks, and I could hear the music that was playing at the time,” she said. “We usually play music at the clinic because the protesters yell such horrible things. The song that had been playing, I couldn’t get it out of my head.”
The song was “Quiet on Set” by pop singer Remi Wolf.
Cassell has been volunteering as a clinic escort, something she jokingly describes as a “glorified parking attendant,” at A Woman’s Choice, Greensboro’s only abortion clinic, for about five years. And even though it’s just a volunteer thing, it’s not an easy gig, Cassell said.
In 2019, Triad City Beat took an exhaustive look at what accessing an abortion looks like in the Triad, including what patients have to endure when they visit A Woman’s Choice on any given day of the week. Street preachers, dozens of protesters from local religious organizations and more aggressive protesters with signs like “Babies are murdered here,” are commonplace. And since the leak of the draft Supreme Court opinion in May and the subsequent overturning of Roe v. Wade on June 24, protesters have become more emboldened, some abortion rights activists say. But as far as the volunteers and clinic staff had been aware, there hadn’t been any actual violence at the clinic, until that day.
“At the Greensboro clinic, the car situation is one of the worst,” said Amber Gavin, the vice president of advocacy and operations for A Woman’s Choice, Inc.
Now Cassell is using her voice and her experience to shed light on what she sees as a dangerous far-right movement that will put the lives of people they don’t agree with at risk to further their agenda. She’s involved in a criminal court case against her assailant and hopes that the case will show the increased need to support abortion clinics.
“This has invited us to reconsider how dangerous our work is and reconsider putting new safety measures in place,” Cassell said. “Nothing like this has happened in the years that I’ve been there.”
‘I realized he wasn’t going to stop’
Cassell usually goes to A Woman’s Choice on Saturday mornings when the clinic sees the most patients. Her main responsibility is to make sure that patients can find the small brick building that’s tucked away off of Randleman Road, behind a tire shop and next to Midori, a Japanese hibachi place. It’s hard to see the clinic from the main road, so oftentimes patients pull into the wrong parking lot, which was why Cassell had stationed herself right on the edge of the property in the Midori parking lot next door.
“One of the things that the protesters like to do is to get the patients into the Midori parking lot, so I station myself there so cars know where to go,” Cassell explained.
The few yards of asphalt where Cassell was standing on that day have become a hotly contested space where anti-abortion protesters and clinic escorts vie for the attention of incoming patients. Those who seek to divert the cars from the clinic will try to stop them to hand them flyers with messaging that dissuades them from receiving an abortion, while the clinic escorts, outfitted in bright, rainbow vests, do their best tto keep the cars moving into the clinic’s parking lot.
“That spot has sort of been a spot of some stress,” Cassell said. “It’s a tricky spot because we would like the cars to just keep moving to get to their appointment and [the patients] don’t know who’s who so it’s confusing.”
On that June morning, Cassell was training a new escort when she saw protester Danny Bracken pull into the Midori parking lot in his black Toyota Solara. According to Cassell and other clinic volunteers, Bracken had been a known quantity due to degrading comments he had made at escorts in the weeks prior. Cassell believes he’s been coming to protest at the clinic since the spring of 2021.
When Cassell saw Bracken pull into the adjacent lot, she clocked him immediately but didn’t say anything out loud, not wanting to scare the new trainee. Bracken continued to drive around the Midori parking lot, eventually making his way towards the spot where Cassell, the other volunteer and two anti-abortion protesters were standing. In a series of videos taken on body-cameras worn by the clinic escorts, Bracken can be seen driving straight towards Cassell and the new volunteer, not slowing down as he moves forward. His car only stops after hitting Cassell, who was standing at the front of the line.
“By the time I realized he wasn’t going to stop, I couldn’t get out of the way,” Cassell said.
The video footage shows Cassell quickly moving out of the way of Bracken’s car as she braces her hands briefly on the hood, twisting herself to the left as he continues to move forward.
“I realized it was either my hands or my legs, and I put my hands out and pushed myself out of the way,” she said. “He didn’t stop. If I hadn’t twisted out of the way, he would have run me over.”
Cassell said she hurt her lower back and hips from having to quickly move out of the way.
After stopping the car, Bracken exits and can be heard stating on camera, “You don’t have the right of way here ma’am.”
Cassell, who also caught the incident on her body camera, walked away as soon as she was hit, keeping in mind the clinic’s no-confrontation policy.
“We’re really, really well-trained as escorts,” she said. “When that happened, I immediately walked away and removed myself from the situation.”
‘We want this law upheld’
On June 5, Danny Bracken was charged with one count of a misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon after Greensboro police officers were called to the scene.
“I find that there is probable cause to believe that… you unlawfully and willfully did assault Kirstin Leslie Cassell with a deadly weapon, a black Toyota Solara,” reads the charging document on file at the Guilford County Courthouse. The next hearing for the case is scheduled for Sept. 23 at the courthouse. But Cassell said that the charge isn’t enough and that she hopes the judge assigned to the case will add another charge because Bracken was impeding access to an abortion clinic.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, otherwise known as the FACE Act in response to an increase in violence towards providers and patients of abortion clinics. The statute creates federal jurisdiction and penalties for a person who “by force or threat of force or by physical obstruction, intentionally injures, intimidates or interferes with or attempts to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person because that person is or has been, or in order to intimidate such person or any other person or any class of persons from, obtaining or providing reproductive health services.” The act also penalizes people who intentionally damage or attempt to damage or destroy property of a reproductive health facility. On the Justice Department’s web page explaining the act, “physical attacks on clinic employees and patient escorts” is noted specifically under “conduct found illegal under FACE.”
In 2010, North Carolina passed its own state statute that mirrors the national law. It similarly prohibits obstructing a person’s access to a health care facility and prohibits injuring or threatening to injure a person who is obtaining health care services, lawfully aiding another to obtain health care services or providing health care services.
As a volunteer of the abortion clinic, Cassell said that she wants an added charge for Bracken under the FACE Act or the state statute.
Penalties for violating the FACE act include a fine and less than a year of prison time for a first offense. The statute also reads that civil remedies could exist for violations but Cassell said that a civil case didn’t work out for her because there aren’t any laws in place protecting people who aren’t in romantic relationships with their assailants. For the NC law, violation is classified as a Class 2 misdemeanor.
“I didn’t qualify for a 50B and a 50C is the only other option,” Cassell explained.
A 50B is a Domestic Violence Protective Order that is designed specifically for victims of domestic violence to give them the protection they need from the abuser. Most often, these occur within romantic relationships. Cassell got a temporary emergency restraining order against Bracken but dropped it earlier this month.
A 50C is a Civil No-Contact Order seeks to protect victims of sexual assault, stalking, and other forms of harassment but Cassell’s attorney told her that that doesn’t really apply to her either. So, now she’s left with just the criminal case.
“We want them to consider this statute,” she said. “I don’t think [Bracken] hit me with the car because it was me. We want him to be banned from the clinic. We want this law to be upheld. There’s a statute that says you can’t do this; put some teeth behind this.”
Who is Danny Bracken?
According to court records, Danny Bracken is a 60-year-old white male who resides in Summerfield. A quick look on the state’s voter registration database shows that Bracken is a registered Republican who votes in every election. A search of Bracken’s name on the state’s business registration database shows that Bracken organized the Marine Corps League National Convention in 2010. Photos of Bracken in Marine Corps attire were also visible on his Facebook account until access was restricted earlier this week. TCB reached out to the Guilford County branch of the Marine Corps but did not hear back about Bracken’s involvement in time for publication.
Cassell also noted that Bracken has been coming out to protest the abortion clinic as a member of Triad Coalition for Life, a nonprofit, Christian, anti-abortion organization based out of Greensboro.
After he hit Cassell with his car, Ten H., a clinic escort who has been volunteering since mid 2021, said that Bracken didn’t leave even when the police showed up. When Bracken went to the clinic on the following Monday, he was told to leave by the founders of Triad Coalition for Life, Bobby Singleton and Tim Rogers.
According to the organization’s website, Singleton and Rogers started the organization in 2020, and raked in $170,273 in total revenue that first year — all from contributions — based on that year’s tax returns. The website shows that members partake in 40 Days for Life, a national anti-abortion event, sidewalk protesting and “healing workshops” with people who have received abortions or are curious about abortion.
Rogers’ LinkedIn shows that prior to founding Triad Coalition for Life, he worked as the expansion director for the Greensboro Pregnancy Care Center located off of Gate City Blvd. in Greensboro near UNCG. The center, as previously reported by TCB, is an example of what is known as a crisis pregnancy center, or an anti-abortion center that dissuades people from seeking abortions by providing false or misleading information about reproductive care. Bobby Singleton’s LinkedIn shows that in addition to working as the executive director for Triad Coalition for Life, he is also a broker and realtor with Keller Williams Realty, a position he’s held since 2016.
When TCB reached out to Triad Coalition for Life to ask about Bracken’s involvement in their organization, Singleton responded by stating that they “train [their] volunteers to use a peaceful and kind approach toward everyone that [they] encounter” and that “Mr. Bracken is no longer a volunteer or associated with [their] organization.”
Still, Cassell said that during the first court hearing in July, both Singleton and Rogers showed up in support of Bracken.
“He volunteered with a specific organization,” Cassell said. “We have to consider if the organization bears any responsibility. When we’re thinking of creating community safety, what role does Triad Coalition for Life play in this?”
A history of ‘contempt’
Although Bracken is facing criminal charges for his actions on June 4, other clinic escorts told TCB that he had exhibited hostile and aggressive behavior prior to that day.
Ten H. told TCB that they had been followed around by Bracken at the clinic in the spring and had been threatened by him in the past.
“I was trying to escort patients out of the clinic and I was standing in the road,” they said. “He kind of stepped forward and said to me, ‘You’re a nice, big target.’ He said it in a demeaning way. I thought that maybe he was saying it in reference to the fact that I’m not a thin person but it made more sense after Kirstin was hit. He meant that I made a good target to hit with his car.”
After they were threatened by Bracken, Ten H. said they took a few weeks off from escorting because they were shaken up. They also said that many escorts took time off after Bracken hit Cassell with his car. The fact that Ten H. is one of the few nonwhite volunteers at the clinic adds to the vulnerability of volunteering, too.
“[The protesters] tell me that I’m a traitor to my face,” they said. “They like to make comments about how I keep my hair and tell me to cover up my body because I have a stomach pouch.”
Michael Usey, another clinic escort, described Bracken’s behavior towards him and his colleagues as contemptuous.
“They continue to be aggressive and ones like Danny and a couple of the other older men, the contemptuousness is really kind of the issue,” said Usey, who has been volunteering for three years. “There are a bunch of protesters that just come out there wanting to profess love for the women using the services of the clinic, but there’s a handful of them that really foment contempt and that contempt radiates off of them in some of the things they say and do and how they behave towards us and the women and that’s been pretty much a constant.”
That attitude of contempt acts as a kind of simmering violence, according to Usey. And it’s not one that’s so far outside of the realm of possibility, given the rise in extremist violence over the last few years.
In the aftermath of being hit by Bracken’s car, Cassell said she couldn’t help but think about Heather Heyer.
“It felt very much connected to what’s been going on around the country and how dangerous these people are,” Cassell said. “This is a person who was willing to cause serious injury to people.”
In 2019, James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old white man, pleaded guilty to 29 of 30 hate crime charges after driving his car into a group of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer.
In 2021, in the aftermath of the protests sparked by the George Floyd murder, dozens of Republican legislators around the country attempted to pass or passed bills that made it legal for people to hit protesters with cars. According to the International Center for Not-for-profit Law, “11 states have introduced 18 new bills since January 2021 that reduce or eliminate the liability of drivers who run into protesters.” Three states — Oklahoma, Iowa, and Florida — signed the bills into law last year. North Carolina Republicans attempted to pass a similar bill in 2020, but it ultimately failed to make it through the Senate.
After the attack, Cassell said she was hypervigilant when she was running errands and would be hyperaware of other people.
“I knew he lived in Summerfield so if I was on the north side of Greensboro and I saw an older white man, my whole body would go into panic,” she said.
Part of the issue, as Usey sees it, is a white supremacist but also hypermasculine ideology that is pervading a lot of right-wing movements, like the anti-abortion movement.
Particularly the most aggressive protesters that come out to the clinic, Usey said, fall within a certain kind of masculinity. He’s witnessed Bracken use hate speech against some of the LGBTQ+ volunteers of the clinic, too.
“It’s this kind of toxic masculinity that’s very predatory,” said Usey, who is a 64-year-old white male. “It’s misogyny and these white, well off people that are yelling at young women, a lot of them are women of color.”
Usey said that when he saw Bracken hit Cassell with his car, he also was reminded of Charlottesville.
“It was a shocking moment that he would just hit her, like, ‘If you’re not getting out of the way, I’m just going to hit you,’” Usey said. “It wasn’t as violent as what took place in Charlottesville, but it’s the same kind of thing. It’s the ultimate expression of their privilege.”
Like Ten H., Usey said that he wants to see Bracken banned from the clinic and be found guilty for his crimes. Cassell, who is an abolitionist, said that she wants him banned from the clinic too, but she doesn’t have faith in the justice system to get Bracken the help he needs to really reflect on his actions.
“I know that whatever he needs to be a person, he’s not going to get from the court,” Cassell said. “But it’s my only available way forward to create some safety for the clinic…. What I would really want for him is whatever kind of healing he needs so he doesn’t create harm again.”
As for her, she hasn’t taken much time off from volunteering even after she got hit.
“I’m going to do what I can,” she said. “And I know that I’m going to continue to do what I’ve been doing so that I can create calm for the patients.”
Calls to a number listed online for Bracken went unreturned for this story.
The next hearing for the case is scheduled for Sept. 23 at the Guilford County Courthouse.
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