By Bryce Haugen
On most Wednesdays, local resident Nick Barth can be found outside the Red River Women’s Clinic, standing on the sidewalk holding an anti-abortion sign and urging patients to reconsider what can be one of the most difficult decisions a woman will ever make.
“People that are standing on the street curb, looking at the road holding their signs or whatever, while it’s creepy behavior outside a healthcare office, call it protesting,” said Gary Lura, a volunteer escort at the clinic that provides a wide range of reproductive services and is the only one in North Dakota to conduct abortions.
“But when those people, including Nick and many others that show up on Wednesdays, turn and direct their attention and their prejudicial remarks directly at someone -- and whoever may be with them -- simply walking down the sidewalk and going to the doctor, I think [it’s] harassing behavior. I think it’s emotionally abusive. They have no idea about the person’s situation, what they are going through, and it’s none of their business…[Patients] should be able to [come to the clinic] without some stranger five feet away barking at them.”
Barth, who yells things such as “Your baby loves you already” and “There’s other options,” often makes women cry, said one long-time Red River Women’s Clinic employee who asked to remain anonymous because she was not authorized to speak with the media.
“He’s really tall and he can loom over you and he’s very loud and doesn’t sound like he’s being friendly,” the employee said. “At least one girl a week comes in in tears because she got yelled at by that creep.”
So when the Fargo Police Department announced on Facebook this fall that Barth had received the North Dakota Peace Officers Association’s (NDPOA) Citizen Appreciation Award and honorary membership in the organization, it caused an uproar on social media among abortion rights advocates, along with disbelief and disappointment among clinic volunteers and employees.
U.S. Marshal Dallas Carlson spearheaded the nomination effort, joined by Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski, West Fargo Police Chief Denis Otterness and Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner.
In an email, Carlson said that Barth deserved the recognition for holding a supportive painted sign outside law enforcement agency headquarters in all sorts of North Dakota weather over the past three years. Barth, Carlson said, has also attended law enforcement funerals with the same sign and walked from Fargo to Grand Forks (Last spring, he raised more than $1,800 for the 2nd Annual Moszer-Holte Memorial Walk; dollars went to the Badges of Unity, a Fargo police youth outreach program, and the Northern Valley Law Enforcement Memorial).
“I was very appreciative of someone doing this in their community while there were many anti-law enforcement actions across the country. This award is simply a Certificate of Appreciation…,” Carlson wrote. “What you should know is that law enforcement appreciates any citizen taking time to support them in a very dangerous and unfriendly environment. Mr. Barth used his First Amendment privileges to show this support.”
The High Plains Reader asked Barth to comment on a recent Wednesday as he stood by the curb outside the Red River Women’s Clinic. “While I appreciate your interest, I respectfully decline to be interviewed,” he said.
In September 2020, speaking to WDAY’s Kevin Wallevand, Barth said, “(It) almost brings me to tears, the support I have gotten from the community and the police department. It is just absolutely incredible.”
The women’s clinic employee said such an award for someone who participates in “harassment” at the facility makes her question whether law enforcement can be unbiased when it comes to Barth’s activities. “It seems pretty out of touch to award somebody like this who is so well known in the community for being so aggressive,” she said. “He’s out there holding a sign that says Blue Lives Matter when he’s not working or bothering women at the clinic. I think that’s kind of a low bar. [These awards] used to be something they gave to people who are actually heroic.”
Carlson took offense at the assertion that the award amounts to a tacit endorsement of Barth’s behavior at the clinic. “I have no personal knowledge of any actions or comments Mr. Barth may have been part of at the [clinic]…,” he said. “I take this question very personal and I would hope you know law enforcement does not participate in tactics such as the one you are suggesting.”
Jahner, the Cass County sheriff, said it is unfair to draw any link between the award and the activities at the clinic. “The award does not have anything to do with the clinic, nor was anything involving the clinic ever mentioned during the nomination or presentation of the award,” Jahner said. “I was not aware of any of the accusations regarding Nick prior to presenting him with the award. In addition, I would not condone any activity that would be illegal or demeaning to anyone. The NDPOA Award Nick was presented with, for me, only represented his support of law enforcement.”
Jahner asked for specifics on the accusations against Barth “so I can gauge our future contact with [him].”
Otterness, the West Fargo police chief, said in a statement that his department “cannot speak to this individual’s actions outside of our direct interactions with him, which has been support of law enforcement.”
Although the Fargo Police Department was the agency that posted about the award on social media, spokesman Lt. Mike Bernier declined to comment, noting that although there are Fargo police officers that are members of NDPOA, “neither Nick Barth nor NDPOA is affiliated with the Fargo PD and I wouldn’t be comfortable speaking on either of their behalf.”
The Fargo PD Facebook post prompted an intense flurry of more than 600 comments both praising and criticising Barth.
“Just say you don’t care about women’s well-being -- that man harasses those accessing health services and you reward that? And people wonder why survivors don’t report -- not only does the police department not care, they reward the perpetrators,” wrote one woman.
Another woman wrote: “Thanks Nick! Good work. Don’t listen to the haters.”
And one commenter wrote that, “Nick's thoughtfulness and love for our law enforcement is really special. It's super awesome to celebrate his kindness and encouragement.”
Another wrote, “This man harasses women regularly…I'm the widow of a former police officer. But this was an *extremely* poor choice.”
The Red River Women’s Clinic opened 23 years ago; the nearest clinics of its kind are in Sioux Falls (open only one day a month), Minneapolis, Duluth and Billings, MT.
Tammi Kromenaker, clinic director, said it’s against policy to comment specifically on any one person, unless they break the law, but the facility is regularly the target of anti-abortion protestors whose goal is to stop patients from entering the building. “Although their bullying tactics are intimidating to our patients, it’s rare for any protester to break the law,” she said. If we find behavior problematic, we call the local police department, who responds professionally and appropriately.”
Lura, the volunteer escort, emphasized the good working relationship with the Fargo Police Department. “I know nobody wants to tarnish that, because it’s true…” Lura said. “I hope the feedback [the Fargo Police] received through social media about [the award] post is something they can learn from and take more care in who they praise.”
With the Supreme Court considering whether to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade precedent that granted the constitutional right to an abortion, the issue has dominated headlines and the minds of both abortion rights advocates and opponents.
The anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee’s mission statement is to “protect and defend the most fundamental right of humankind, the right to life of every innocent human being from the beginning of life to natural death. “America’s first document as a new nation, The Declaration of Independence, states that we are all ‘created equal’ and endowed by our Creator ‘with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life…’ Our Founding Fathers emphasized the preeminence of the right to ‘Life’ by citing it first among the unalienable rights this nation was established to secure.”
But Kromenaker believes that freedom of choice when it comes to abortion is a fundamental human right. “The right to decide if or when to have a child is essential to a person’s ability to make highly personal decisions about their bodies and their futures,” Kromenaker said. “It is essential for social, economic and racial equality in this country.”
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