Before he stormed Capitol, Republican lawmaker harassed women at abortion clinic

Everywhere he went - the abortion clinic, Black Lives Matter protests, drag brunches - Evans brought along his phone, and his following, doing what he could to shame and agitate the people around him.

Samantha Schmidt,Caroline Kitchener
Saturday 16 January 2021 20:07 GMT
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Derrick Evans walked with his phone out in front of him, camera facing forward, as he advanced on the patient in the abortion clinic parking lot. Surrounding the car, clinic volunteers tried to shield the patient with umbrellas and their own bodies. It was no use: on this February morning in 2019, Evans captured the patient on Facebook live, streaming to tens of thousands of followers.

"You will not do this in secret in West Virginia," Evans said. He wore a "Make America Great Again" hat, as he did every week when he protested outside the Women's Health Centre, the only abortion clinic left in the state.

Evans was a fixture at the clinic for much of 2019, with a reputation for harassment so severe that the clinic erected a 10-foot fence to deter him. A volunteer escort obtained a restraining order against him, accusing him of stalking her. When Evans was around - often accompanied by dozens of supporters - women would cry in the waiting room, said clinic patient Hunter Crites, afraid they'd be identified and screamed at as soon as they stepped outside.

By the time Evans stepped foot in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, he had amassed over 32,000 followers on Facebook - and enough votes in the 2020 election to win him a seat in the West Virginia legislature. Everywhere he went - the abortion clinic, Black Lives Matter protests, drag brunches - Evans brought along his phone, and his following, doing what he could to shame and agitate the people around him.

On Jan. 6, those followers cheered him on as the state lawmaker joined a pro-Trump mob pushing its way into the U.S. Capitol, chanting, "Who's house? Our House!" Wearing a helmet, Evans told the viewers of his live stream that he had been pepper-sprayed in the eye, but was marching forward anyway.

"We're in!" he shouted on his Facebook Live as he walked into the Rotunda of the revered building. "Derrick Evans is in the Capitol! Let's go!"

Days later, Evans resigned from his office in the House of Delegates after he was arrested and charged with two federal misdemeanours of unlawfully entering restricted grounds and violent entry and disorderly conduct. Evans's arrest and resignation, just weeks after he was sworn into office, punctuated a years-long effort to build a brand as a confrontational local activist known for harassing people he deemed as immoral or threatening. Usually, his targets were women or people of colour.

Many of the women who had been the subject of Evans's taunts were not surprised to see him join the group storming the U.S. Capitol. For almost two years, staff and volunteers at the abortion clinic urged police officers and legislators to take Evans's behaviour seriously, said Jamie Miller, the clinic escort who was granted the restraining order. Instead, he was voted into elected office.

"I have been screaming about him for two years, trying to stop it, and nobody listened to me," Miller said. "Nobody."

Evans did not respond to requests for comment, and his family members declined to be interviewed. But John Bryan, a lawyer representing Evans, defended his client as an "independent activist and journalist, who has long exercised his constitutional rights to engage in peaceful protest."

"The people that voted for him, they knew that they were getting a conservative political activist," Bryan said in an interview with The Washington Post. "His constituents knew about that and were supportive of that, or at least a majority were."

Evans's arrest came just days before he was set to begin his first session in the West Virginia House of Delegates, after being elected in his second bid to claim a spot in the legislature. After a failed attempt to run as a Democrat, Evans campaigned as a Republican last year, focused on banning abortion, protecting gun rights and attacking the transgender community.

A married father of three children, with a fourth on the way, Evans previously worked as a teacher with Wayne County schools and as an assistant football coach at Tolsia High School. He was also a real estate investor and property manager, according to local news reports during his campaign. But in the community, he was known by the name associated with his Facebook profile: "Derrick Evans - The Activist."

Before Evans became her colleague in the legislature, state Del. Danielle Walker knew him as the man who would stake out lawmakers at the Capitol and put a camera in their faces, recording videos for his Facebook. Walker, a Black woman and a Democrat, recalled a time when, a day after a gala for the American Civil Liberties Union, Evans "just sat in his car and took pictures and videos of us and posted it online, saying we're a threat to the country." On a different day at the Capitol, "GOP Day" in 2019, Evans went up to Walker and another Black delegate and "yelled the most disgusting things at us," she said.

"He told us we didn't have a place in the state Capitol," Walker said, adding that her oldest son was with her that day at the Capitol. "He told us to go back where we came from."

Walker, a queer woman and the mother of a gay son, has often been the subject of Evans's Facebook posts. He has called her "satanic," she said, and claimed her support of LGBTQ rights amounted to defending paedophilia. For the last several months, in part due to attacks from Evans and others, she has started wearing a bulletproof vest every time she leaves the house - at the Capitol, at Walmart, at the salon. If her son rides in the passenger seat of her car while she's driving, she said, he wears one, too.

At the Women's Health Center, Evans targeted clinic staff and volunteers, calling them "deathscorts" and "baby murderers." He knew everyone's full names, said Katie Quinonez, the executive director of the Women's Health Center - and would repeat them, again and again, on his live stream.

He knew an unsettling number of personal details, Quinonez said. Once, when she was helping a patient into her car, Evans sprinted toward her with his phone. Standing so close that she could feel his spit on her face, she said, he yelled her fiance's name and the name of his business. Then he promised to "eat a cheeseburger" in her honour.

Somehow he knew that she was a vegetarian.

Clinic staff and volunteers worried about their safety, said Stacy Kay, another clinic escort. Many received threatening messages from Evans's followers - or found pictures and memes of themselves floating around his Facebook group. Kay lived only a short drive from the clinic, driving past it every day on her way to work. She often worried that Evans or his followers might follow her home, she said.

Evans's confrontational behaviour at times extended beyond his activism. Reva Sanders-Wallace was the principal of Tolsia High School when Evans worked with the football team, and said Evans frequently yelled in her face.

"He pretty much insisted he didn't have to listen to anything I had to say," Sanders-Wallace said. "I don't know where he developed that sense of trying to demean women, but he did it consistently."

Sanders-Wallace is an avid Trump supporter, but she disagreed with Evans's decision to storm the Capitol. "I have no idea why he pushes every button to the extreme," she said.

In the hours and days after his arrest, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the West Virginia House called for Evans's removal from office. One of them was Del. Ben Queen, a 25-year-old Republican. He sees Evans as representing the influence of President Trump on conservative men, many of whom use social media to seek validation and energize supporters.

"I'm sure that emotion led him into the Capitol," Queen said. "It's just a shame that we have to use force and aggression to get our way."

While Evans is no longer in the state legislature, he remains a prominent figure backed by tens of thousands of supporters.

"People are donating thousands of dollars to him. There are some like-minded people that feel he had every right to do that," said Walker, referring to Evans's decision to storm the Capitol. "What else do they feel that he has a right to do?"

Kay, the clinic escort, has been thinking about the last time Evans faced legal repercussions, in May 2019. The day after the judge granted Miller's restraining order - requiring Evans to stay away from the clinic - a new group of men showed up on the sidewalk.

They carried pistols and rifles, Kay said, wearing hats and T-shirts that read, "Oath Keepers," a designated hate group.

"It was definitely to make a statement," she said.

Miller's restraining order expired on 31 December.

The clinic staff and volunteers aren't sure what to expect, Miller said. Evans could be back outside the clinic any day.

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