Vicki Cowart’s Friday started like many of ours: She spent the morning taking advantage of the pre-holiday quiet to clear some work off her to-do list. But for Cowart, the day ended tragically, with three people killed and nine injured in a shooting at one of the health centers she is responsible for.
Cowart is president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, the Planned Parenthood affiliate that covers Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and southern Nevada – and which was the site of the gruesome anti-abortion attack in Colorado Springs last week.
The shooting, which took the lives of police officer Garrett Swasey, Iraq War veteran Ke’arre Stewart and stay-at-home mother Jennifer Markovsky, happened amid an environment of hostility, violence and hateful rhetoric directed at abortion providers throughout the country. Despite this environment, abortion clinics, like the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, have offered compassionate medical care to women who need it, thanks to individuals like Cowart and her staff.
Rolling Stone recently spoke to Cowart about Friday’s shooting and its aftermath.
Where were you when you first found out what happened Friday, and what was your first response?
The story of where I was and how I found out is emblematic of what Planned Parenthood struggles with. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and I had just come in from a nice walk with friends when I decided to check in on a long-standing strategic planning project and try to move it along. There I am thinking I have some clear space to be proactive.
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I called the front desk of my office, and as soon as the receptionist picked up the phone I knew something was terribly wrong. She said with a trembling voice, “There’s a shooter at the Colorado Springs center.” I said, “What?” She said the health center manager has just called her to tell her that she had called 9-1-1 and the staff was mobilizing on their active shooter protocol. So immediately we launched into our own leadership-level incident command work that we had trained for.
It’s just emblematic – you can’t do that proactive long-range work because you receive so many attacks, both physical and otherwise: from legislative bodies, the smear campaigns from the antis and their despicable tactics, and the protesters.
What would a normal Friday at this clinic look like?
Fridays are busy at Planned Parenthood. Out of our 29 health centers, probably 20 were open across our four states. The Fridays after Thanksgiving are particularly busy because our patients have time off, so that’s when they come to us.
One of the first things we did after going into our protocols was gather up the names of all the health center staff and the names of all the patients who we knew had appointments that day. There were 15 health center staff working on-site and 30 individuals scheduled for appointments. It was a busy day.
Are there usually protesters at the Colorado Springs health center?
This health center is a special place on so many levels. We’ve been in the community for so many years, probably around 50 or so. We’ve been actively operating in Colorado for 99 years and are coming up on our 100th anniversary.
We purchased the facility in Colorado Springs about five years ago very intentionally because it’s a beautiful medical facility, but also because it was perfect for us from a security perspective. We’re just like any other health care provider except that when we build or buy a building, the security around that building is a major component for us.
This building is on a medical campus. We are one of half a dozen or so buildings, all of whom are occupied by medical providers. Because it’s on this campus, the people who own the buildings also own the streets, so you can’t go in there unless everyone agrees you can go in. Consequently, our protesters can’t come into this campus setting. They can line up at the entrance to it, but that’s three-quarters of a mile or so away from the front door. There’s a longtime disruptive group of people who do protest there, but they’re way out there. By the time you walk into the health center, though, you can barely see or hear them.
Your affiliate was featured heavily in those horribly deceptive videos from the Center for Medical Progress, so it’s been a tough time for you for several months now. What have the last five months been like for you and your staff?
You’re exactly right. Those attack videos have been damaging and extremely disruptive. Every abortion provider in the country is touched by this, even if they weren’t in the videos. They are feeling beleaguered, attacked.
But despite this harassment, despite the disruptive Congressional “investigations,” despite the horrible false statements made by our antagonists, we have not missed a single day in our health centers. Our staff are dedicated and we have opened our doors every scheduled day since the false videos were released; we have seen every patient who needed us. If anything, the videos made us more resolute. We provide health care, no matter what.
We also have ongoing media efforts to understand the threat level out there that might be associated with the fact that our medical director’s name has been smeared in the news over and over again. We have been on super high alert since the middle of July, largely around her activity and locations. I can’t say more about that because I don’t want to do anything that would exacerbate the threat for any of our doctors. But that’s one good thing – we know how to instantly move into a crisis communications mode. It’s what we do constantly.
How has the community response been in Colorado Springs to what happened?
It has been loving. I would say writ large the community across the country has reached out to Colorado Springs through the Planned Parenthood channels, so I’m getting notes from all over the country, from people I haven’t heard from in years and years. It’s not really to me, but rather to us.
There was a vigil on Saturday that we went to at the Unitarian church. It was full, standing room only. The community there was just overwhelming. I kind of had a little hug receiving line – I stood there and got hug after hug after hug from people. But they weren’t hugging me; they were hugging Planned Parenthood.
Has anything surprised you in particular in the aftermath of what happened?
This sounds maybe cold and silly but the communication overload is a piece that I’ve never dealt with before. My phone is sitting on the table vibrating all the time. It’s just nonstop. Again, most of those are outpourings of support. I can’t respond to all of them, but thank you, thank you.
Figuring out a way to keep the communications flow open for what I need to know for tactical leadership purposes has been the huge challenge, especially on a holiday weekend when we weren’t fully staffed. The senior team and even the junior folks, everyone worked the entire weekend all day and into the night. It’s just been phenomenal.
There is one thing I really want to make sure that gets out there: We followed the protocol for the classic shooter-in-the-office scenario – building techniques that are not unique to Planned Parenthood. But boy, I’m a believer in that training now. My team did everything textbook, perfect, and they saved lives – their own, our patients’, and the people around them. Unfortunately, if you live in America with our gun laws, you should know what to do.
I read that the rest of your facilities remained open after the shooting, and will remain open. How do you do that after what happened?
That’s hard, but again, I think there are two things that are special to Planned Parenthood that make it possible. The first is that the wellbeing of our patients and staff comes first for us. We live that. We say that and think about that all the time. The people first. That means we already have systems in place to support people.
The second thing is that we are committed to our mission, and everybody who works for us, down to the accountants, is connected with that mission. So the reason we are here is so that everyone has access to our health care. We don’t give up easy. We don’t shut down in the face of things like this. We are resilient and battle-hardened. Everybody insisted that we stay open.
I was particularly struck by one of our regional directors who posted on Facebook Friday night, “I will be at our health center at 7 in the morning and the doors will be open,” said with such pride and conviction. That’s the way our people are. They just have that commitment to bring the service no matter what the government says, no matter what the protesters say, no matter what.
I know you have a science background and this was a career change for you. Why do you do this work, when you could be in a different field without tragedies like Friday? Why do you continue to do this?
In my very core, I believe that the autonomy of women is fundamental to the wellbeing of society. I believe that there’s almost nothing more basic than individuals having the ability to make these kinds of decisions for themselves – when [to have children], and how many and if, all these questions around childbearing totally belong to the woman in my view. Therefore delivering this message of Planned Parenthood writ large, which includes the birth control and the abortion services, is a critical component of creating an environment where women have full autonomy.
I don’t want to make that sound like “just women,” because along with that comes autonomy for men and transgender folks, and people of all races. It’s almost like women’s autonomy is the canary in the coalmine. It’s a fundamental ethic that I have. It pushes me out of bed at godawful hours no matter how late I went to bed the night before.
What message do you have for your patients about what happened?
Above all, we take care of them. That means we’re there with the highest quality health care. We’re there providing what they need, whether it’s information or access to birth control or other services. The advocacy we do is for them. We are resolute on that.
That includes their safety. What happened at Colorado Springs was terrifying, but we got all our patients and staff out safely. I so applaud the first responders and our people who saved the lives of the patients in the building by doing what they had been trained to do, and that’s because of our intense commitment to creating a safe environment.
Like everyone after every damn shooting we have in this country, we assess and we fine-tune our security processes, but at the end of the day our commitment to our patients’ health and safety is so first-order that people can come to us and know that we will do what we need to do to take care of them.
There are so many people who want to support you, and Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountain, and Planned Parenthood generally, and abortion clinics generally in the wake of what happened. What do you recommend?
The Planned Parenthood website allows people to designate gifts – generally, or to your local Planned Parenthood, or to Planned Parenthood Colorado Springs if you want to be part of the rebuild.
And I should close this by saying we will rebuild, no matter what.