A weekend trip to North Carolina was unexpectedly delayed when economics and philosophy major Ben Braver was notified of a gathering of anti-abortion figures displaying harmful imagery to students.
“I was tired. I had to drive to North Carolina and I was going to get there at 5 a.m. when I should have gotten there at midnight,” he said.
“I really didn’t want to do it, but they’re attacking my community, and I don’t want to let that slide. So I have a box full of contraceptives and all my resources. And then I grab my guitar at home, put it in my car and drive over there.”
From singing songs like “Riptide” with his guitar or reading pages from “Harry Potter” loudly, Braver said he attends every anti-abortion gathering he can in order to drown out the words being spoken from the other side.
“Whenever these anti-abortion people come on campus, they always have this really harmful imagery that triggers people’s real and valid abortion trauma, and it makes the community here feel like nobody supports them,” he said.
“I come out and try to make sure that they know that people do support them. I also come out to just spread actual information. They have these images that are straight up lies. You can find these on websites, they’ve been debunked. They simply are not what abortions look like and so I have actual information on that stuff.”
Braver’s first foray into counter-protesting on campus was when gun rights activist Kaitlin Bennett visited USF in 2020.
When Bennett arrived, he said his involvement was sudden and unplanned. However, the unexpected nature of his participation wasn’t a problem due to his confidence and knowledge surrounding political issues.
“I led the counter-protest against that and that’s just really where my taste for this started,” he said. “I was just kind of swept into it. But I have a pretty loud voice. And I’ve been studying this stuff so I know what I’m talking about. [The protest] was just before the election, so I was giving them information on who to vote for and I was talking about why Kaitlin Bennett is so terrible.”
Counter-protesting with his guitar and books isn’t only meant to cover up hateful rhetoric, Braver said. It is mainly an outlet for him to offer students resources and spread supportive messages surrounding abortion.
Braver said he provides contraceptives and displays QR codes that give students the opportunity to donate to organizations such as the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund. The codes also allow attendees to sign up to volunteer with clubs on campus such as College Democrats and Planned Parenthood Generation Action.
For this reason, junior Teriana Fowler, a friend of Braver, feels the counter-protests Braver leads are progressive and incite real change.
“The counter-protests by Ben are making a difference by not only shutting out negative voices, but by also uplifting the message of safe, legal and accessible reproductive care,” she said. “He is spreading awareness about the importance of education and access specifically within reproductive rights.
“I have stood in the crowd and supported Ben through these protests. When he first started doing them, I would chant with him or clap him on, but I was never up on stage or wherever with him. It is always a rush when the protesters come to campus, and when Ben is working a crowd it can be invigorating.”
While Braver said he stands firm in his beliefs, he does not counter-protest those who have different opinions than him if they are respectfully protesting.
Braver’s outreach isn’t limited to campus protests. He said he is involved with other organizations that align with his views, such as the Tampa Woman’s Health Center and Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society.
His attempts to counter protesters spreading misinformation sometimes sparks a debate from students and anti-abortion protesters.
“A lot of the time, at the abortion clinic specifically, they’ll ask me to talk to me,” he said. “I say, ‘After you put away the signs that are lies, and are hurting people, I’ll have a conversation with you.’ And with every person that says that I say the same thing.”
The political divide occurring in the country over human rights issues has raised some concerns for Braver’s mother, Yvonne Braver.
Her son’s decision to counter-protest in the current political climate has caused her to worry at times for his safety. However, she said she supports her son’s choices, and she trusts him to make the right decisions and lead the community with respect and care.
“It is hard not to worry because of all the anger and decisiveness in politics. I worry about people influenced by violent rhetoric,” she said. “I encourage Ben to lead by engaging in respectful conversations and problem solving. I have no choice but to let him find his way.”
Identifying as a cisgender straight white male, Braver said he recognizes the privilege he has to be able to speak up in the way he does.
Some have told him that he should give his platforms to others in marginalized communities given his identity, to which he agrees. However, he still feels he has a purpose to speak out for others that may not have the opportunity to do so.
“I’m not so brave by doing this. I’m not a marginalized person,” he said. “When they’re yelling at me, the worst thing they yell at me is ‘Go to Hell’ or ‘You’re evil.’ They’re not using slurs against me, because they don’t hate me. It’s much easier for me to do this than somebody who they do hate, somebody who they are actually attacking.”
Braver said the most encouraging aspect of what he does is the way it gets students and people in the community involved.
Watching students make their own signs, join him in his songs or chants or write “nice and lovely” messages on the sidewalk using chalk he provides makes the experience welcoming and accepting. By refusing to let the anti-abortion protesters be the loudest in the area, Braver said he feels overjoyed to be able to provide students with a positive platform to express their beliefs.
While making a splash in the community has given Braver a voice and a platform to speak out on these issues, he said he hopes students convert the energy they show at these counter-protests into actual action.
“Ever since Roe v. Wade got overturned, … one-third of all women in the U.S. lost access to abortion,” he said. “In Florida, if you’re pregnant after 15 weeks, you have to go to North Carolina to get an abortion. I think that’s unacceptable.
“Of course I want the community to get engaged. And what I want is for people to not just say ‘Vote pro-choice,’ but to actually vote pro-choice and volunteer and donate.”
Yvonne, Braver’s mother, said the change her son inspires in the community should set an example for how young people can make their voices heard. With all of Braver’s efforts, she said she hopes the community continues to find positive ways to take action.
“I’m supportive of Ben and proud of him for putting himself out there. I am proud of him for working so hard to support the causes he believes in,” she said. “It is more important than ever that young people take a stand and participate in our democracy.”