[ Contents of this issue | Other online articles ]

the Body Politic
Vol. 04, No. 05 - May 1994, Page @@
Copyright © 1994, 1995 by the Body Politic Inc.

A "Passion" in Alabama

The following report was submitted by a Body Politic roving reporter on the scene in Birmingham.

Operation Rescue staged its "Week of Passion" protest in Birmingham, Alabama, during the week of April 26-May 2, 1994. The week's activities were originally described by OR officials in various press appearances as a time of prayer, workshops, and seminars for those who would stand for the rights of "the preborn". As things developed, however, it became clear that the primary intention of Operation Rescue was to stage protests and perhaps attempt to block access to clinics. This was Operation Rescue's first large-scale national activity since last year's IMPACT training in Florida, and its first under the leadership of Flip Benham, who replaced Keith Tucci as national director of Operation Rescue.

Passion Builds

Prominent members of Operation Rescue and associated organizations began appearing in Alabama as early as mid-February in attempts to organize local residents to become involved in the week-long activity. Pro-choice advocates identified Johnny Hunter of Buffalo and Wendy Wright, OR spokesperson, at early organizing meetings.

The first organizing meeting was held on Sunday, April 26, in Fairfield, a Birmingham suburb. Estimated attendance at the meeting was 400. Attendees were asked to sign a "non-violence" pledge card if they intended to participate in protests.

Protests at Birmingham's four clinics began on Monday morning and continued through the following Saturday. The Monday protests were for the most part peaceful. Six protesters were arrested on Monday for attempting to block a clinic driveway. Birmingham police were present in sufficient numbers to deter any blockade actions that Operation Rescue organizers may have been contemplating.

Passion Erupts

The first large group arrests occurred at Dr. Thomas Tucker's clinic on Tuesday. Reverend Jim Pinto, who is considered a leader of anti-abortion activists in Birmingham, was the first of 60 protesters arrested that day. Johnny Hunter was also arrested. Fifty-eight of the protesters were arrested for demonstrating without a permit. (Operation Rescue had applied for demonstration permits several weeks in advance, but then refused the city's permits and declared its intention to defy the city's ordinances.) Two others were arrested for crossing a police line.

An interesting trend developed on Tuesday, one that persisted through the week of protests. According to a list of arrested protesters published by the Birmingham News, only two of the 66 people arrested on Monday and Tuesday were from Alabama. Many of those arrested could be grouped by place of residence. These groups originated from Fort Wayne, Indiana; Rochester, NY; Dallas and Houston, Texas; and various cities in Florida. Others came from as far away as Seattle. This trend toward very low local support for the organization's planned lawbreaking activities was maintained at a comparable level through the week.

According to clinic defense organizers, Wednesday and Thursday were rather light days. There were no arrests on Wednesday, but 47 protesters were arrested on Thursday at Dr. Tucker's clinic.

The Heat of Passion

As had been anticipated by clinic defense organizers, the largest and most vocal protests took place on Good Friday, April 1st. Eighty-seven protesters were arrested on Friday, including at least 30 children between the ages of 10 and 16. This prompted shouts from clinic defenders of "Child Arrest is Child Abuse!", intended as a criticism of Operation Rescue's willingness to use such tactics. The Birmingham News & Post-Herald quoted an estimate of 1,800 protesters at clinics on Friday. Several clinic defense organizers were of the opinion that the number of protesters was somewhat lower.

The Thursday and Friday arrests were for violation of Birmingham's demonstration ordinance, which limits the number of demonstrators allowed on the sidewalk in front of a building. The ordinance also prohibits standing, sitting, or kneeling (the demonstrators must keep walking).

One of the teenagers arrested, Heidi Huffman, appeared in Huntsville, Alabama one week later for a fundraising banquet for Choose Life, an anti-abortion front that advertises free pregnancy testing, medical services, and assistance with continuing a pregnancy. Like many other such organizations, Choose Life is blatantly anti-choice and has been observed distributing anti-abortion literature at various functions. Does the fact that Choose Life used a young woman who 25 years ago might have been deemed a juvenile delinquent as a fund-raising draw show how desperate is the state of their cause?

Ms. Huffman, 15, lives in South Carolina with her mother, and claims to be the "survivor of a botched abortion." According to an account published in the Huntsville Times, the "botched" abortion was only the first of three that Heidi's mother sought before becoming an anti-abortion spokesperson. Like many others in the anti-abortion movement, it appears that Ms. Huffman's mother wants to be sure that she has freedom of choice to do as she pleases, but that no one else has the freedom to make their own choices.

Passionate Observations

I traveled to Birmingham on Saturday, April 2, to experience the protests at first hand. The only protests Saturday were occurring at the Summit Women's Medical Center. Approximately 50-70 protesters were gathered across the street from each of two main driveway entrances (for a total of 100-140 protesters at the clinic). Approximately 60 Birmingham police officers were present, divided between the two main entrances. There were about 30-40 clinic defenders at each driveway entrance, and another 40-50 assigned to building entrances and doorways.

As I observed the Operation Rescue protesters, I noticed a profound difference between the protesters in Birmingham, some of whom had been in town for a full week, and those I saw in Jackson the year before (during the "Cities of Refuge" campaign). The Birmingham protestors were very quiet, still, and reserved compared to those in Jackson. It was apparent that the experiences of the week had been somewhat demoralizing. They responded only occasionally to the exhortations of their leaders, who preached constantly over a portable PA system that somehow did not violate any city noise ordinances.

The most prominent speakers were Flip Benham, Johnny Hunter, and Demetrios Rascoe. The prevalence of male speakers led defenders to shout "4, 6, 8, 10, why are all your leaders men?" The defenders often succeeded in drowning out the PA box with chants such as "4, 3, 2, 1, we remember Dr. Gunn!"

Protesting stopped about 11 a.m. Saturday morning, with plans to re-assemble at nearby Brother Bryan Park at 12 noon. The noon rally was attended by approximately 150-200 people, more than had been present at the clinic earlier in the day. Most of the people present were wearing T-shirts with various anti-abortion slogans, including one toddler who was wearing a shirt that said "I survived the American Holocaust."

Passionate Ending

After songs and prayer, Flip Benham and Johnny Hunter introduced Rev. Mickey Kirkland, who is a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor of Alabama, and John Giles, a candidate for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. Kirkland and Giles each spoke briefly about the need to stop abortions. These speeches were followed by a prolonged prayer huddle by the Revrends Benham, Hunter, Kirkland, and Mr.Giles. Rev. Benham then wowed the crowd with an announcement that the morning's protest had been an absolute success, because no babies had been murdered that morning. Since abortion is not the murder of babies, one could consider his statement to be true, after a fashion. However, the good revrend was obviously trying to claim that no abortions had been performed at the clinic that morning, a statement that was strangely at odds with the fact that many patients entered and left the building that day. Rev. Benham then described plans for a march back around the nearby clinics to wrap up the week's events, and the crowd formed up and marched away.

Dispassionate Review

Considering that Operation Rescue's stated goal was to stand up for and defend preborn babies, one must wonder how anyone could consider the week's efforts successful. Over 200 protesters were arrested (and just as quickly released, some to be arrested more than once during the week), but the arrests were so prompt that there was no opportunity for massive blockades or assaults of the nature of those seen in earlier years in Wichita and Buffalo. (see the Network p.36) It was also clear that the protesters had attracted some negative attention, since many drivers shouted insults at the protesters as they drove by.

It's early to tell whether Operation Rescue is suffering from malaise, lack of public support, or disorientation over the change of leadership earlier this year. In any event, it is clear that the organization can no longer attract the number of dedicated protesters willing to blockade that it managed to draw to the Wichita and Buffalo sieges.

[ Top of article | Contents of this issue | Other online articles ]