25 Years After the Salvi Shootings, What Have We Learned?

On a gray day at the beginning of August, 12 people gathered on a corner in Boston and sang “Amazing Grace.” Some had brought lawn chairs. Others stood. In their hands they held rosaries, although not all of them were Catholic. 

Despite the clouds, it was hot. Eighty-five degrees. 

Though many were older, sporting white hair and wrinkles, most of the group had been on the corner for hours, and they didn’t plan to leave anytime soon. 

Their faces were mostly impassive as they murmured their song. And when they finished they took up a new chorus. “Hail Mary, mother of god, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,” the group intoned.

A crowd sings hymns and prays in front of the Greater Boston Planned Parenthood one Saturday in August.

Just then a woman passed by with two friends. “Holy shit, that was so cult-ish,” she whispered to them.

The choir pressed on, unmoved. “Our father, who art in heaven…”

From across the street, a young man shouted, “Play another song!” And then a moment later, “Do you know any Madonna?”

The man’s name was Luke Bergamini. He was leaning against the side of a supermarket while his girlfriend shopped inside. He said he lives nearby and does this all the time.

“I’m exercising my First Amendment right just like they are,” he said, referring to the singers’ purpose for gathering on a street corner to sing and chant for hours on a hot summer day. The reason they held rosaries and surrounded themselves with posters saying, “Pregnant? Free Help” and “When they tell you abortion is just a matter between a woman and her doctor, they’re forgetting someone” over a picture of a fetus.

They were protesting the Greater Boston Planned Parenthood.

Protestors and clinic volunteers share a small corner on the border between Boston and Brookline.

At that moment, two women exited the building in front of the singers, one of whom called out, “We can help you!”

“I don’t need your help, asshole!” came the response. A young woman in a neon pink “VOLUNTEER” vest rushed over to walk the women past the protestors to the edge of the sidewalk, a distance of about ten feet. As she sent the women on their way, the escort smiled and said, “Have a nice day!”

“I think pretty much all convictions of telling other people how to live their life is one of the least American things you can do.” Bergamini said as the women walked away.

In the background, a police car parked with its lights on. The officer declined to comment for the story, but a clinic worker stated that a squad car is posted to the corner every Saturday, when sometimes entire churches will gather to protest the clinic’s involvement in providing abortion care.

The imposing presence of the squad car hinted at the history of violence that bubbled beneath the surface of the corner scene.

This clinic is only minutes away from the former location of the Brookline Planned Parenthood where 25 years ago, John Salvi carried out a mass shooting, injuring four people and killing the receptionist Shannon Lowney before driving down the street to the Preterm Health Services Clinic and opening fire again. 

Salvi, who was 22 at the time of the shootings, was apprehended the following day after carrying out a third attack on an abortion clinic in Norfolk, Va. That clinic had already been the site of an attempted bombing in 1984. 

At the trial, Salvi’s mental fitness was called into question. Several expert witnesses testified that he exhibited symptoms of schizophrenia, and Salvi was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital for observation. He was ultimately declared competent to stand trial and found guilty of two counts of first degree murder and five counts of armed assault with attempt to murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1996. A few months later, Salvi was found dead in his cell in an apparent suicide.

In total, anti-abortion violence has claimed the lives of 11 people since 1993. Most recently, three people were killed at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado by a man who claimed to be a “warrior for the babies” at his trial.

According to the National Abortion Federation, which tracks anti-abortion violence and disruption statistics, there have also been 42 bombings, 188 arsons, 100 attempted bombings or arsons, 654 bomb threats, 4883 incidents of trespassing, and 1860 incidents of vadalism since 1977.

In 2018, the NAF report showed a significant increase in incidents of trespassing and vandalism.

“Anti-choice individuals and groups have been emboldened by the rhetoric of President Trump, Vice President Pence, and other elected officials and we are seeing this play out in more instances of activities meant to intimidate abortion providers and disrupt patient services,” The Very Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, Interim President and CEO of NAF told Common Dreams earlier this year.

A protestor dressed as a priest followed a man around the corner from the clinic.

“We had another save today,” said one of the protestors at the Greater Boston Planned Parenthood named Evelyn, her eyes sparkling behind librarian-like transition lenses. She smiled broadly as she recounted the story.

A young couple had entered the Greater Boston Planned Parenthood clinic. Shortly thereafter, the man left and stood around the corner. A protester dressed as a monk (“he’s on his way to becoming a monk”) followed him down the block. They spoke for a while and came back to the clinic door.

Then, the woman came back out holding a picture of her ultrasound. “I’m having a baby,” she declared.

Evelyn did not say whether the couple had intended to receive an abortion that day. All Planned Parenthood clinics, including the Greater Boston site, offer a range of services beyond abortion care such as STD testing and treatment, cancer screenings, vaccinations, and prenatal care.

“These babies are being destroyed and if you can say something, some little thing, to change their mind, it’s wonderful,” said Evelyn.

She added that she does not believe in abortion under any circumstances except in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus. According to information provided by the Mayo Clinic, “An ectopic pregnancy can’t proceed normally. The fertilized egg can’t survive, and the growing tissue may cause life-threatening bleeding, if left untreated.” 

Evelyn protests outside clinics that provide abortion care at least once per week.

The Brookline Planned Parenthood clinic has been closed for years now and been replaced with a stately brownstone apartment building. While the protestors sang outside the Greater Boston clinic a mile away, an older man who declined to give his name sat on the stoop smoking a cigarette. 

He wore a blue polo and khakis. On his head he wore the same tan baseball hat he’d worn for decades as an organizer with the carpenters’ union. He said he had come outside to watch the construction that was underway on the St. Mary’s Street Station of the MBTA’s Green Line. He thought the project was overdue. 

He was very friendly and spoke affectionately about his grandson, a 24-year-old journalist living in upstate New York. Eventually, the conversation dwindled, and he looked back at the apartment building in silence.

“All I have to say about that,” he said, gesturing at the former clinic, “is death invites death.”

When asked to clarify, he said he didn’t condone violence but that he wasn’t a supporter of abortion either. He said that he thought disagreements on the issue should be settled in court.

Behind him, a plaque memorializing Shannon Lowney glinted in the sun.

A plaque memorializes Shannon Lowney, who was killed while working as a receptionist at the Brookline Planned Parenthood in 1994.