Nearly 1,000 anti-abortionists got their marching orders Wednesday night on the eve of the three-day “Holy Week of Rescue” that threatens to produce tense confrontations with police and pro-choice advocates at Southern California clinics.
Fervent supporters of the campaign to shut the clinics and reverse the legalization of abortions sang hymns, prayed and gave a standing ovation to Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry as he told them at an Anaheim rally: “This is not a joke. This is not a game. This is war!”
Across the street from Melodyland, a large church in the round, a small group of pro-choice pickets carried signs reading, “Down With Terror” and “My Body, My Choice.”
Crusaders on both sides of the abortion issue were to begin fanning out before dawn today to family planning clinics. Locations in many cases were kept secret until the last minute to stymie police--and the other side.
Members of the New York-based Operation Rescue, moving a national campaign to the Los Angeles area, said they will stage sit-ins and put up pickets at three to five clinics each day to prevent women from obtaining abortions.
“Operation Rescue is going to have to obey the law,” Mayor Tom Bradley said Wednesday in pledging that police will arrest demonstrators who interfere with patients. “The public needs to know that we’re not going to permit someone to come into this town, violate the law, disrupt this community and think they’re going to get away with it.”
The Los Angeles Police Department, stung by charges that it has been too lenient on Operation Rescue members in the past, promised to keep clinic doors clear of rallying demonstrators who illegally try to block them.
Police opened an emergency operations center downtown to coordinate security efforts and planned to set up command posts--complete with field jail units--wherever protests spring up. Extra officers will be on patrol or on standby in Los Angeles and in other suburban cities and will be deployed as needed, police spokesmen said.
The Los Angeles Municipal Court took the unusual step of preparing to hold Saturday arraignments. Larry P. Fidler, presiding judge, said all three arraignment courts will be open and “will be staffed as they normaly would be” with prosecutors, deputy public defenders, private attorneys and interpreters.”
Four City Council members announced that they will attend demonstrations to guarantee that police safeguard the clinics. “Operation Rescue is kind of like the Ayatollah Khomeini approach to public policy,” Councilman Richard Alatorre said.
The Police Department came under fire last month when Operation Rescue staged protests that forced two clinics to close, yet no arrests were made. Members of the City Council two weeks ago demanded--and finally received--assurances that police will enforce trespassing and other laws to keep anti-abortion demonstrators at bay. A federal court on March 2 ordered demonstrators to remain 15 feet from clinic entrances.
Several clinic operators and pro-choice organizations, in meetings leading up to this week’s events, questioned whether some police leaders were sympathetic with the anti-abortion forces, especially since several top commanders, including the department’s second in command, Assistant Chief Robert L. Vernon, are fundamentalist Christians.
Vernon, who is in charge of security operations during the days of protest, said anti-abortion activists will not be allowed to break the law. “I’m going to uphold the laws of this city,” Vernon said in an interview.
Operation Rescue has stood out among anti-abortion groups because of its militant, ‘60s-style tactics. On Wednesday, the Right to Life League of Southern California, one of largest such groups in the nation, said it understood Operation Rescue’s frustration and the “sense of urgency to end this American holocaust” but said it could not support its methods.
Los Angeles Catholic Archbishop Roger Mahony on Wednesday reiterated his stand by saying, “I understand and respect the goals of Operation Rescue, appreciate the manifestation by its participants of the value of human life, and the need to take active steps to safeguard each human life from the moment of conception.”
He said he offered his “prayers for those who choose to participate.” He said later he would not participate, however, and added, “When it becomes a real confrontation between two screaming groups, I wonder how effective it is.”
In another attempt to place a last-minute obstacle in the path of the anti-abortion forces, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed civil contempt charges against Operation Rescue in federal court on Wednesday. The ACLU contends that Operation Rescue has defied the court order.
Demonstrators have disrupted health care services at various clinics in Fresno, Chico, San Diego and Oakland and have “terrorized health-care clinic clients and flagrantly disregarded the law,” Carol Sobel, ACLU attorney, charged during a press conference.
A hearing in U.S. District Court is set for April 24, and the suit will be amended to include the names of those arrested during this week’s demonstrations, she added. The suit names Operation Rescue and its Southern California organizers, Jeff White, Joseph Foreman and Randy Adler, and 100 other unnamed people.
“We believe they need more than a $25 fine and a slap on the wrist,” Sobel said. “If they face losing their homes and jobs they will think twice about what they are doing.”
But Operation Rescue has ignored thousands of dollars in fines as a result of similar incidents throughout the country.
Operation Rescue leaders, meanwhile, held what they billed as a press conference in a hotel in Orange, near their headquarters. Rather than answer questions, however, Operation Rescue founder Terry displayed what he said was a 19-week-old fetus that had been aborted.
“Ask the dead baby your questions,” the 29-year-old former car salesman told startled reporters before he and his entourage rushed out.
Although some within the movement privately admitted to unhappiness about his presentation of the fetus at the press conference, Terry told the Wednesday night rally:
“Today was not a media stunt. What have we become when a murdered baby girl is not news?”
The applause was almost deafening when he said, “I am not the story. Operation Rescue is not the story. The story is 25 million dead kids and almost as many exploited women.”
At the rally, anti-abortionists were given copies of a “Rescuer’s Basic Check List,” instructing them on the proper attitudes and tactics “at the rescue.”
The material told them how to “scooch to form a skullcap shape around the door” and to “always scooch to fill voids by moving towards the door and/or towards the gap where arrests are being made.”
They were also given booklets containing hymns and prayers for the sit-ins and were handed cards to fill out for attorneys in case of arrest. Nevertheless, they were cautioned, “Please be prepared to deal with your legal needs privately.”
The organization is predicting that about 3,500 of its members--many flown in from other parts of the country--will join the demonstrations, designed to coincide with Holy Week.
The organization, made up mainly of religious fundamentalists, has justified its sometimes illegal tactics by contending that it is “saving lives and will only obey higher laws.”
On the eve of the planned protests, tension was high at the approximately 90 clinics in Southern California. Many clinic directors reported that their clients have been frightened away from scheduled appointments out of fear of confronting Operation Rescue picketers.
At the nine clinics run by Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles, the staff has been calling all clients with scheduled appointments to let them know of the possible confrontations, and to give them the option of rescheduling.
“A few have rescheduled but the majority (have) not,” said Janice Sinclaire, Planned Parenthood spokeswoman. “More often than not, the women have gotten very angry because their right to privacy and health care is at stake, and they say they will not be stopped.”
Pro-choice forces promise to be out in numbers to escort women trying to enter clinics and discourage Operation Rescue operatives.
“It’s siege mentality. Isn’t it sick?” said Patricia O’Neil, associate director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center in the mid-Wilshire area. “How would the public react if this were happening in a cancer clinic? The public would not tolerate it.”
In scores of sit-ins around the country during the last year, including Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia and Sunnyvale, Calif., Operation Rescue claims 20,000 arrests of its members, straining courts and jails in each targeted city.
Los Angeles county and city officials are bracing for what a flood of arrests will do to already-overburdened facilities.
In Los Angeles, arrested demonstrators will be booked at field jail units, temporary processing posts that are not designed to actually hold people. Some will be released and others, including those who refuse to give their real names, will be jailed.
“We’ll find room at the inn,” said James Callas, commander of the jails.
Times staff writers Carol McGraw, Jack Jones, William Overend, Judy Pasternak and Terry Pristin contributed to this article.