In Charlotte, NC, a man referred to as Chris has unwittingly become a TikTok celebrity. He doesn’t have an account—that we know of—and it’s unclear if he’s even aware of his popularity, but his own dedicated hashtag, #christok, has more than 174 million views.

Chris isn’t the typical subject of viral internet fame. He looks to be in his late 50s. He shows up to an abortion clinic in Charlotte just about every day dressed in business casual attire with a sign that reads, in bold white letters, “THOU SHALL NOT MURDER.” His voice is low and dull, even when shouting about unborn children seeking vengeance from God.

But Chris has become a sort of canvas onto which the women of Charlotte for Choice can project the realities and follies behind the everyday grind of pro-choice activism. Since summer, the local organization of abortion clinic escorts and defenders has posted countless videos of him and other anti-abortion protestors outside their local clinic, A Preferred Women’s Health Center of Charlotte, in order to show the world exactly what patients are up against.

“Any video with Chris in it, people go crazy for,” said Reiley, a 20-year-old clinic defender and TikToker (@loveurmother) with more than 445,000 followers. In September, she posted a video dissecting Chris’s “4 moods”, which range from “waiting for patients to harass” to “pouting because you can’t harass patients.” There are also videos of him arguing with clinic escorts, stretching out his tired knees, arguing with other anti-abortion protestors, and getting inadvertently roped into a dance off. The women at Charlotte for Choice have made national headlines for their posts, including a viral video of a clinic defender sticking it to a protestor by referring to God as “sky daddy.” It’s all part of a growing trend on the Gen Z-driven platform—one that’s having as much impact offline as it is on.

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“It was actually TikTok that made me become an escort in June,” said Amy, a 20-year-old in suburban Detroit. (Several sources in this article asked to be identified by only their first name or nickname to protect their privacy.) Amy, who goes by the moniker @basicasstrashcan, was the first clinic escort to grace my own TikTok For You page, the app’s algorithmic homepage curated to each user’s tastes and interests. (If a video winds up in the #FYP algorithm, it’s almost guaranteed to get a high viewership.) In the first video I saw from Amy, she rated clinic protestors on a scale of 1-10, docking points for poor dress or shrieking at patients, all set to a mash-up of Super Mario theme songs.

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Amy’s own introduction was through Hannah (a.k.a. @42069horndog), Charlotte for Choice’s first TikToker who started as a clinic defender this summer with her mother, a long-time volunteer with the group. “I just thought she was kind of funny,” Amy said. “But I was also morbidly curious about the protestors. Like, what’s with these people?” She ended up calling a few local clinics in June and has been volunteering pretty much every Saturday since.

“I don’t want you on the sidewalk just yelling at people. I want you to understand the perspective of the greater movement and what it means.”

Now, Charlotte for Choice has a waitlist of people who want to train as volunteers, and the organization says that this influx of interest has taken place just over the past few months—since Hannah, Reiley, and others have been posting about their experiences on TikTok. Currently, the organization offers two volunteer opportunities: clinic escorts, who help patients get from their cars into the building, and clinic defenders, who use counter-protest methods to distract anti-abortion protestors by directly engaging with them from a safe distance. Volunteers must also undergo a training session that covers the basics of anti-racism and reproductive justice. “I don’t want you on the sidewalk just yelling at people,” said the training lead and media strategist for Charlotte for Choice, who asked to remain anonymous, citing privacy concerns. “I want you to understand the perspective of the greater movement and what it means.”

In the United States, most clinics are what are known as “non-engagement clinics,” where volunteers are not allowed to directly engage with protestors. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, for example, recommends non-engagement, though each affiliate is able to decide how to manage the protestors at their own clinic. “The aim of the recommendation is to not feed or escalate protests, conflicts, or activity outside of health centers, in order to lessen the chaos patients may encounter,” a PPFA spokesperson told ELLE.com. “Our recommendation comes from the desire to center patients’ experiences.”

Still, the practice of clinic defense has been around since the 1980s, initially as a response to anti-abortion extremists attempting to block patients from getting their abortions, which eventually resulted in the passage of the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. The law was designed to create a buffer between anti-abortion protestors and clinic patients, but activists say that the FACE Act has been, at best, loosely enforced, especially during the Trump administration. Anti-abortion protestors continue to disrupt patient care and harass visitors with alarming tactics, from shaming patients with bullhorns to carrying assault weapons with their protest signs.

An anti-choice rally outside a Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, Missouri, in June 2019.

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“There is always a place for de-escalation tactics,” said Kim Gibson, a member of the non-profit Pinkhouse Defenders in Jackson, MS, home to the state’s last remaining abortion clinic. “But [anti-abortion protestors] are there to escalate the situation.”

The Pinkhouse Defenders have been engaging with protestors since 2013, and last year, Gibson formed a spin-off group, We Engage, to organize and encourage counter-protests at clinics and government functions. Both groups have been posting their encounters on Facebook since 2018 but then realized TikTok was where the action was happening. In December, they posted their first videos to the platform with guidance from the team at Charlotte for Choice.

The influx of TikTok content is owed in part to a strategic change in Charlotte for Choice’s approach this summer. Though the Preferred Women’s Health Center has worked with Charlotte for Choice defenders for years, the two groups decided to band together to move toward a more full-fledged counter-protesting model. It was a controversial move—in early December, the New York Times reported that a handful of Charlotte for Choice board members resigned due to the more confrontational tactics, and they’re not alone in their reservations. But pro-engagement activists insist that, so far, nothing else has worked.

According to the Charlotte for Choice’s media strategist, the Preferred Women’s Health Center has seen an estimated 60,000 protestors over the last four years, with no sign of letting up. Most Saturdays, a Charlotte-based group called Love Life draws hordes of protestors in matching blue T-shirts, sometimes in the thousands, on a piece of land directly across from the clinic’s administrative building—something that Charlotte for Choice believes patients shouldn’t have to face alone. Since this summer, they’ve unofficially renamed the land “Pro-Choice Park” and “Christian Coachella.” They play kazoos and loud music and stand on top of cars with signs in counter-protest.

“Engagement is not for every clinic,” the strategist conceded, adding that the goal isn’t to make the protestors go away—that would be naive. “We just want to make it difficult for them to exist in that space comfortably.”

A happy but unexpected side effect of the newfound TikTok frenzy is that now, not only is the brazenness of anti-abortion protestors on full display, the viral videos are also filling a void for some Gen Z activists. On the political stage, reproductive healthcare continues to get left behind, even by those who support it. Democrats didn’t once mention the term “abortion” at the national convention this year, and even though the party platform has become increasingly progressive on the issue—touting LGBTQ+ inclusion and the repeal of the Hyde Amendment—Dems aren’t always connecting with their base. In a recent Times report, Gen Z and millennial activists associated with racial justice movements expressed lukewarm feelings toward “reproductive rights messaging that is focused strictly on legal abortion access.”

Meanwhile, Republicans had no problem going on anti-abortion tirades at their own convention and pushing for anti-abortion policies that have, for decades, chipped away at reproductive healthcare access, making it nearly impossible for many people, especially those who are low-income or from marginalized backgrounds, to access the safe and legal care they need. The party’s political fervor against abortion seems to match that of protestors on the ground.

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The clinic volunteers I spoke with all said they supported abortion rights before they began working at their local clinics, but collectively, it just didn’t seem like that big of a priority. “I thought that it was important and that people should have access to it, but I was never one to fight for it,” said Jaicie, a 20-year-old clinic defender in Charlotte with over 250,000 TikTok followers on her account @jaiciesmall. In a recent video, she attempted to challenge a couple of men dressed in dark clergy uniforms to a staring contest as they chanted Hail Marys outside the clinic; she managed to get one of them to crack a smile.

Exposure to the odd and often menacing behavior of right-wing protestors at abortion clinics seems to be effectively galvanizing for some Gen Z activists—more so than legislative talking points or complicated court cases taking place in various states across the country. “When I could see patients visibly afraid and terrified and then see this huge group of pro-life protestors out there, yelling at them and degrading them and making them feel guilty about this decision that they’re making, that was when it all clicked for me,” said Jaicie, who started defending at the Charlotte clinic after she saw a friend of hers from middle school volunteering on TikTok. Though she’s begun to post videos herself, she acknowledges that the priority is, and has always been, patients’ safety. “Our goal is to make patients feel comfortable and safe going in to get their procedure. That is number one.” Helping patients is one of the best parts of the job, said Reiley. She’s even had people reach out after the fact to thank her and other clinic defenders for making them feel better protected.

“I always felt like I was powerless…But being out here clinic defending, I see first hand how it makes a difference.”

However, the feedback on TikTok isn’t always positive, and volunteers say they’ve experienced death threats and trolling. Jo, a 19-year-old in Yuba City, CA, who posts her counter-protest content under the name @virgobb, said she had her original account taken down for “hate speech” and enlisted the help of her pro-choice community to regain the thousands of followers she once had. People have also faced harsh consequences for their activism offline. Anti-abortion protestors have taken legal action against at least two Charlotte for Choice volunteers, and many reported receiving harassment in public, at home, or their place of work, according to the organization’s strategist.

But despite the trouble, they say their efforts are rewarding. “I always felt like I was powerless, especially because I don’t have a lot of money,” Jo said. “I grew up poor. I’m a minority, and I never felt heard. But being out here clinic defending, I see firsthand how it makes a difference…It just makes me feel like I’m legitimately doing something about it.”

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They’re also proud of the community they’ve built online. “We made it so that you can no longer ignore these issues,” Jaicie said. “We’re putting this right on your screen, in your face, while you’re trying to have fun and watch TikToks. Yes, we are having fun, but we are also posting a really important message—reproductive health is huge, and you have to pay attention to this.”

As for the future of pro-choice activism, the clinic volunteers I spoke with all have different ideas about what could be useful, from bolder messaging to increased awareness about fetal development. Meanwhile, Chris from Charlotte will keep holding his giant sign, shouting Bible verses, and harassing patients. Perhaps the most meaningful response at our disposal, at least for now, is to hold his antics up to the world and tell him to shut the hell up.

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