To pass the time during this quarantine summer, I turned to a lot of TV shows. But my favorite by far was happening inside my phone on TikTok. In July, a video by 20-year-old Mina Varzandeh, a clinic defender with Charlotte For Choice, a North Carolina non-profit working to keep abortion safe, legal, and accessible, landed on my For You page. Her hair was in space buns, she was wearing a skull mask, and she was yelling. 

“Your coronavirus ass, get the fuck back,” she says to a maskless man named Chris holding a “Thou Shall Not Murder” sign. “Doo-doo drawers.” 

In another video, Flip Benham, evangelical Christian minister and former director of Operation Save America, calls her ugly. 

“I know this man with this fit is not calling me ugly,” she squeals, panning over his denim-on-denim ensemble. I must have watched these at least ten times in utter awe, so TikTok started serving me more. It was all women from the same non-profit, each around twenty years old, using TikTok to broadcast themselves running circles around protesters who showed up to harass women obtaining and learning about abortion. 

Twenty-year-old Reiley Baker was one of the sometimes million people who watched Varzandeh’s TikToks. But being from North Carolina herself, she did more than just enjoy them: She joined in, and she wasn’t the only one. What started as a small group of mostly older women defending the clinic with C4C has ballooned into roughly thirty people, Reiley and Nina explain to me over Zoom, and almost everyone their age came because of TikTok.

“Every time we post a video at the clinic, I get Venmoed donations,” Varzandeh says. “Every time we post, someone DMs me and is like, ‘Hey, I signed up to go do this where I live.’ Like, ‘This helped me with my abortion.’” 

All this good attention has come with a learning curve. They had to make a Google Doc that’s linked in many of their TikTok bios answering frequently asked questions, like why they can’t use megaphones or “blast ‘WAP,’” Baker says (Answer: There’s a sound ordinance, but the protesters bought a plot of land by the clinic so they can stand there and be as loud as they want). There are also rules for the defenders-turned-social-media-stars.

“Patients are the first priority and then the yelling is next,” Baker emphasizes. “And you can't get the patients in any videos or their cars or anything.”

Even the protesters have become familiar to fans, with Flip, Chris, and a woman named Vicky appearing most often in videos. Baker and Varzandeh don’t think they really grasp TikTok or understand that thousands of people know them as villains, despite the defenders’ attempts to explain it. Some viewers can get uncomfortable with the intensity of the heckles, and frequently urge the women to instead “open a dialogue,” something Varzandeh says she tried to do when she initially started volunteering. 

“You just reach a place where you know they don't care and that their mind's not going to change and our mind isn't going to change,” she says.

“You learn very quickly that they're not there to have a conversation with you,” Baker adds.

Although school has started again and people like Varzandeh are no longer in town to volunteer, the defenders are still going strong. Baker is still volunteering while attending school at UNC Chapel Hill, and the Charlotte For Choice fanbase is continuing to grow. Fans have shown up to the clinic to give the volunteers snacks, and there’s even talk of merch, but it’s complicated. 

“We're a group of people that care about other social justice issues,” Baker says. “So I don't want to use a company like Red Bubble or something that's bad for the environment. We were like, ‘Oh, maybe we can get stuff from Goodwill and I could embroider it.’ But obviously that's not really feasible.”

Instead, fans have started making merch for them

The dream for Baker and Varzandeh isn’t to grow the organization into some kind of pro-choice Hype House situation—it’s to not have to do it at all.

“I kind of hope the [protestors] stop showing up, but that's probably not likely,” Baker says. 

But in the meantime, Charlotte For Choice (which has its own TikTok now) is happy to have the volunteers—and their TikToks—on board.

“Reiley and Mina and the amazing group of volunteers we have have helped us increase our footprint and our impact,” Nicole Ash, a member of the Charlotte for Choice Board of Directors, says over email. “We have had a wonderful influx of donations and volunteer applications since they joined, and we are so excited to see where we go next.”

“In December when I come back, I cannot wait to go back out and [volunteer] again,” Varzandeh echoes. “So hopefully [volunteers] will stick around because what we're doing is really good."