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the Body Politic
Vol. 02, No. 05 - May 1992, Page 21
Copyright © 1999 by the Body Politic Inc.

Marilyn Buckham: Hooray for Contempt

Interview by Anne Bower

For years, Marilyn Buckham has been clinic administrator for GYN Womanservices at 1241 Main St. Buffalo. Ms. Buckham has weathered every storm including blockades, harassment, and bomb threats. At the FPA conference in January this year, Ms. Buckham said under no conditions would she shut her clinic during OR's Spring of Life antics. She did not have to. Clinic defenders, a determined pro-choice community, and a judicially furious federal judge came to her aid.

The morning after Judge Arcara arraigned three OR leaders for criminal contempt, Ms. Buckham gave a joyous interview at the home of Isabel Marcus, one of the lawyers who has worked so long for judicial relief. Ms. Buckham, who had been sleeping in her clinic for 11 days, was exhausted, but elated over the previous nights court activity.


Q: Marilyn, what do things look like at your clinic this morning?

A: It's a much different picture from what we've seen over the last 11 mornings. Since the "Spring Fling" as I call it, began, I think their prom date has burst. Operation "Fizzle" is another great term for the second coming of Wichita. It's been the second coming of nothing.

The anticipation leading up to the "Spring Fling" was much worse than the real event. The planning stages were well thought out and the anticipation was worse than going through it. It's been tiring. I'm exhausted. My staff is exhausted. But I guess I feel like now that we're almost through it, now I can see an end to it. The last gasp is here, but that makes me anxious because the last gasp can be so desperate.

Q: I heard a report that you got bomb threats last week. Is that true?

A: Yes. We had one last Saturday (April 25). In the throes of the blockade while we were running around trying to get our patients in, the Good Christians phoned in a bomb threat. They had also been jamming our lines for two days. The phone rang every minute - all four lines.

Q: Was it a male voice that delivered the bomb threat?

A: Yes. It was a female voice that was jamming the lines.

Q: What did the "bomber" say?

A: That a bomb was going off in ten minutes and then ten after that another would go off. I called it in and the police arrived 15 minutes after I called.

Q: Did you evacuate the clinic?

A: No. We had been there all night. We had done "clinic sleep-ins" for 10 days. It was easier than getting up and coming in at 4 AM. I felt that we got better sleep if we came in and did a pajama party.

What's important is, I knew they hadn't been inside at night and I looked at the entrance ways and there was nothing there. Our building is very secure.

Q: Well, they could blow up both you and the post office next door.

A: Yes, they certainly could, but then you start getting into major problems. Even the federal government, with George Bush at he head might not look too favorably on that.

Q: What's the scene this morning?

A: Well, after the "riot" that happened at Erie Medical Center yesterday where there was absolute street fighting going on, we anticipated a riot here. I didn't witness this, but reports said the police seemed to have a hands off policy. We expected our worst day so we made different arrangements for our patients. Today, our patient slots are filled.

We were open every day last week, even though OR said they closed us. That's completely wrong. We were never closed. On Saturday we did 12 patients. On Friday we did 8. But we had tried to schedule as many before and after the first week as possible. Today, there was no way we could hold off patients any longer. I encouraged the patients to wait until today because I felt it would die down. From day one, I could see that OR didn't have the numbers. They couldn't even pull numbers on a weekend. If they can't get them then, it's a real bust.

My feeling was, by now it would be basically over so I scheduled all these patients today. I even had second trimester patients returning with laminaria. That's always a very gut wrenching problem. On Friday last, I had inserted laminaria and the police assured me that the patients could get down the driveway using Northhampton St. on Saturday. Therefore, I had told the patients to enter using the driveway.

When OR blockaded, I sent out scouts to places like McDonald's and Burger King where there were some pretty ugly scenes. There were two phonies on the patient list, so they found out what we were doing. Forty right-to-lifers met the real patient and my one staffer. That's where Nancy Walker was grabbing at the patient and my staff member. We stopped using McDonald's. A few hours later they picketed McDonald's and Burger King saying, "you hide abortion patients here".

This week, Rabbi Arronson let us use his temple, so we told the patients to call for instructions one hour before arriving. Since there was no blockade today, patients were told to come straight to the clinic. They're there now.

Q: Why do you think there's no blockade today?

A: I really believe that yesterday in court OR was on their absolute last breath, and this really took a lot of wind out of their sails. From the moment they came to Buffalo and saw the pro-choice majority there, they realized there would be street fighting. We would not capitulate to them. We've always been the reasonable and rational crowd, but now, we were not going to lay down and let them walk over us.

Q: So you think that the clinic defense strategy worked?

A: I really do. Because Wichita had a very bad experience with clinic defense, I told the Feminist Majority and BUC that I would reassess the strategy day by day. I was keeping an open mind. If the police were doing the same thing they have done in the past, saying they were taking care of the situation but not, I would change my strategy immediately.

From day one, you could see that the Right-to-Lifers were stunned. Our people had taken this side of the street and they couldn't even chant or hold up a sign. They just stood across the street looking bewildered. It took them four or five days to get with it. The only thing they could do was have a minister lay down and have a few women beat up on him - he claimed - all for the national press. That's all they could get. Then of course there was the run around with the fetus which just disgusted everyone. The "Fetus Fibbers".

Q: What impact did Judge Arcara have?

A: He sealed, kissed and delivered the final death blow. I think they couldn't believe we'd go at them again and again and not give up. I feel more encouraged than I ever have before. We've had an outpouring of support from the local community and all around the country. Letters, cards, flowers, gift baskets, calls, and money to help feed and clothe the people who were coming to Buffalo to help us. "I can't be there so please use this money for those who can." Each day an 81 year old woman baked something and sent it to us saying, "I can't physically be there, but let me give you some food."

Q: Have you put on any weight?

A: We've all been eating like crazy. I've put on 15 pounds since this was announced. I couldn't concentrate on any thing that wasn't important. After this is finally over, I'll get back to taking care of myself. I haven't had a workout in 6 months and I've eaten incessantly. I was so worried about my staff and patients.

The patients who made the decision to come were so brave. There were TV cameras in my waiting room. Nightline and reporters galore. The patients couldn't wait to get their face on camera. I have two women in the stirrups going full face on camera with Life magazine for an article coming out this summer, telling Life that if there had been 1,000 people out there, they still would have come in. No one was going to tell them what to do.

Q: Is this what helps keep you going?

A: It's very encouraging when you see patients weather the storm, and staff who will come in with you night after night. I also believe in my heart that we are offering a service that few are able to any more. We're like a dying species. Other clinics are folding. If we fold, the Erie clinic would be so vulnerable. I was here before Roe and I plan on being here after Roe is gutted to offer services. Then perhaps I'll pass the baton on to a younger person.

Q: What effect do you think a ruling in Bray would have?

A: Our injunction will be attacked, but I think it will stand because it is based on New York State civil rights law. But it could be big trouble for clinics with other injunctions.

The impact of what the pro-choice community in Buffalo has done should be felt around the country. We made a stand here and showed that a small community in a very Catholic area with an incredibly hostile anti-choice mayor who invited these hooligans here, can make a difference - no matter what the odds.


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