Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

The Color of Activism

It’s early. I mean really early—like bird-chirping early.

At this hour, toddling on the cusp of night and day, the downtown streets are empty and the sun is just starting to peek its shine over the stoic buildings. There is not much activity—a couple joggers, an obvious bike-of-shame peddler, and then there is a small group of women sitting, kneeling, and bending over a short stretch of sidewalk with fat, dusty pieces of chalk in their hands. Big flowers take shape, as does a coterie of colorful butterflies. Stars, a sliver of moon, and a giant pretzel bedazzle the concrete. 

“Remember to keep it neutral—animals, food—don’t do anything human, no hearts, no faces, nothing that can be turned into something rude by the protestors,” instructs *Amanda.

She’s talking about the abortion protestors that will turn up at this women’s clinic in about two hours. This is the third “Chalk the Walk” event and women have gathered to fill the sidewalk in front of the building with pleasant images to contrast the jarring ones expected by the Saturday morning protest crew.

“The protestors were getting ridiculous with the things they were writing and I started thinking about how we could stop it,” she said. Amanda gets an up-close view of the writings, as well as an ear full of vitriol, as a clinic employee. “They were so offensive and I knew we needed something pre-emptive.” Thus, Chalk the Walk kicked off in late spring. Although the idea evolved organically from discussion amongst the staff, similar kinds of stealth mark-making take place at clinics across the country.

In the past, the group graffiti took place late on Friday nights, until the last time. “An hour after we left, some guy showed up with a broom and bucket of water and washed the steps off,” Amanda said. “We have it on camera … it was really creepy; he had been totally watching us.”

An hour later, cartoon favorites Dorrie and Nemo are splashed across the stairs, their “just keep swimming” mantra chalked in blue, while musical notes dance across the sidewalk, and bubbles float on the driveway. “You are brave, beautiful & strong” is boldly written on the concrete to greet patients as they walk the demonstrator gauntlet towards the monitored door.

“I am not a morning person” is the first thing Monica says as she looks up from her bubble masterpiece. “I am here because I find it offensive that women get harassed trying to get health care,” the 34-year-old said, standing up in her flip-flops.

“Anything that makes it easier for them makes getting up this early worth it.” This kind of hyper-localized activism appeals to Monica because it is making an impact on someone’s life right now.

As she outlines a galaxy of stars, wiping her chalk dusty hands on ripped jeans, 21-year-old Kat notes that this is, in fact, her first act of activism. “I’ve been trying to find a happy approach and this is such a positive thing,” she said, “ We’re trying to spread some kindness to women who are already dealing with enough … they don’t need all that negativity [from the protestors].” Elise, Kat’s partner in chalk talk, commented that it’s important for her to give the women something else to focus on besides the protestors. “It drives me nuts, the idea of this judgmental yelling. I like to think of [the women] looking down and seeing a velociraptor or a cat, or Dorrie.”

Watching everyone create, it’s amazing how quiet and thoughtful the group becomes: one woman smudges an outline to create a certain affect, while another stands up and checks out her work from every angle, cocking her head to the right, then left, before returning to her picture. Everyone has coffee. Planes drone by overhead and the neighborhood slowly starts moving into the day. “People from around here let me know that they appreciate what we’re doing,” said Amanda. “A lot of people stop to thank us because they are not fans of the protestors either—it disturbs their community. The pictures have gotten so graphic and dishonest. Some of the neighbors just walk in and donate.”

It is important that the chalkers and the protestors do not engage with each other, so as the clinic’s opening hour nears, empty chalk boxes are picked up and the women pack up to go home. These days, according to Amanda, the protestors wear cameras around their necks, just looking for some reason to create a viral video or to call the police. “They are the kinds of people that will press charges if you dent one of their signs,” she sighed.

With the sun finally full in the sky, the artists take their leave of the colorful sidewalk landscape, hoping that this small act of activism makes a sweet dent in someone’s hard day.

Last names are omitted to protect the identity of the participants. Chalk the Walk is strictly a word-of-mouth action.