Dani Cook opened a colorful umbrella to shield a toddler and his grandmother from the cameras of Right to Life protesters as the two sat in a car behind Bristol Women’s Health in Virginia, just across the Tennessee border.
But Cook, as a volunteer with Stateline Abortion Access Partners, could do nothing to protect the child from what one of the protesters shouted on the sunny morning of Sept. 9.
“Little child, if you can hear me, please know that they have brought you to this evil and evil place where they kill little babies,” was recorded on a video taken at 9:17 a.m. “Today there’s a baby in your momma’s belly and today they’re going to poison your little brother or sister.”
The protester made a statement that Cook had heard repeatedly during her five months as a volunteer chaperone at the facility, located half a mile away in Tennessee, until that state passed a near-total ban.
“God’s law says it’s wrong.”
Virginia continued to allow abortions, and at its location in Virginia, the clinic became a major hub for far-right extremists. The demonstrators wrote down the license plates of the cars parked outside. They also wore body cameras. And before the owner of a neighboring home across the street allowed them to install there, a protester erected an 11-foot-tall ladder.
“She climbed the ladder with a camera with a superzoom lens and took photos of patients and doctors entering and leaving the clinic,” Cook told The Daily Beast. “And she doxxes the doctors.”
Cook has always been an advocate for women’s rights, but she had her own way of approaching the protesters.
“I don’t have to convince people about bodily autonomy or that a heartbeat is a heartbeat,” she told The Daily Beast. “People will always argue about it. So I’m just going to challenge you on what you think got you here. Let’s really talk about God.”
She asked the protesters: “If God told you to be here, then really?” So God said, ‘Strap on some body cameras and put cameras on the house next door?’ That’s God?”
Cook is a 50-year-old, disabled Army veteran who was born and raised in Bristol, with a black father and white mother, biracial in a two-state city. Her parents met in the military and settled in Bristol on the recommendation of a soldier who fought with her father during his combat tours in Vietnam. The father died of lung cancer at the age of 32. The mother raised Cook and her two brothers alone. Cook has two daughters and three grandchildren. Their own faith has less to do with the pounding of the Bible and more to do with the beating of their hearts.
“The core of my belief is that no matter what you call God, God is love and love is God,” she told The Daily Beast on Friday.
She would tell the protesters that what they were doing had nothing to do with love.
“And they told me, ‘Well, God is also wrath and justice,'” she remembers.
One of the demonstrators addressed her by name.
“She said, ‘Dani, what about black lives? They say black lives matter. What’s with all the black babies?'”
Cook asked whether the protester had asked white escorts the same question.
“Are you just talking to me about race?” Cook asked her. “Maybe you should say a little prayer about that, because it seems to me that all you saw when you saw me was race.”
Cook herself was a very different kind of protester from 1999 to 2000 against the successful attempt to consolidate the region’s hospitals into a single monopoly. She was among the protesters who camped outside a medical facility for 257 days.
Now she’s one of the volunteers at Bristol Women’s Health who provide maximum protection with umbrellas. She also welcomes opportunities to challenge the right to life orally, speaking calmly with the common accent of someone born and raised in Bristol but of a very different background and faith.
“My favorite thing to do is when one of them has the courage to say, ‘Hey, do you want to talk to me?'” she says. “My thing is. ‘Absolutely, I’ll talk to you.'”
She recounted a typical exchange.
Cook: “Let me just ask you something because you say you’re here for God, right?”
Chef: “Great. Me too. So let’s make sure we’re talking about the same God. Do you believe that God is, um, the Creator and Giver of life? The source of life? “
Koch: “Perfect. Me too. Do you believe that God is omniscient? Does he know what we’re going to do from start to finish before we do it?”
Cook: “Me too. Do you believe that God is present everywhere?”
Cook: “Do you believe God is all-powerful?”
Cook: “I do too. So explain this to me; This would mean that at the time God gives a woman what would be called life, he knows whether or not she will have an abortion. He’s present at the clinic when she does it, and he doesn’t use his power to stop it. So could you tell me why you think you know better than God?”
The demonstrator just stammers.
Cook: “You don’t have an answer, do you? Right. Because you really aren’t here for God.”
Then she asks, “What do you think your yelling with a megaphone is doing?” Do you think it helps? Probably not. I mean, like no one has ever walked out of the clinic and said, ‘Oh my God, that made so much sense.'” I’m so glad you were here.'”
Protesters often try to counter with a question: “By what standards are you out here?”
They ask them to cite a justification from Scripture. Cook told The Daily Beast, “If it’s a standard that’s not in the Bible, then it’s not something they believe in.”
Cook quickly provides one.
“It’s very simple,” she recently told a protester. “The standard is that the Bible says to love your neighbor as yourself and to act toward others as you would have others do to you. That’s why I would hope that in one of the worst moments of my life, when I’m making the hardest decision, someone would show me kindness and compassion, not pass judgment and just be there to support me in any way they need. That is my claim.”
Some of the protesters use a megaphone to read scripture aloud in front of the clinic. Cook was inspired to call out an appropriate voice and begin when the protester did. She spoke in what a friend called a “preacher’s rhythm.”
She recorded an example on video on Thursday.
“There are many people who claim to know God…” the protester said with a megaphone.
Cook began with the same words and continued with her own personal standard.
“…and they stand in the judgment and condemnation of other people, and they read scriptures that are not on their hearts, but only in their minds and out of their mouths,” she said. “They have no idea that Jesus actually means empathy, compassionate love and kindness.”
She spoke of Christ in accordance with the actual teachings of Christ.
“They don’t understand that God’s law is something that has been replaced by the grace of Jesus, and they don’t understand that God forgives, that God loves, that God is good, that he just wants us to make our choices and then become we have our conversations with them,” she continued. “I just want you to know that there are people who believe they know God so well that they stand on a hill and shout scriptures through a megaphone.”
As in other encounters with the demonstrators, she found that they disregarded the commandment of charity. She asked how they would like it if someone came to their house, took down license plates and took photos of everyone coming and going, and followed them to their doctor’s appointments.
“Should we yell at you about your diabetes, your heart disease, your obesity?” Cook asked. “Should we do this for the way you treat your divine vessel?”
On Friday, Karolina Ogorek, administrative director of Bristol Women’s Health, praised Cook and her efforts to make patients feel protected in the face of anger.
“Extraordinary,” said Ogorek.