In the pro-choice camp were the “trackers,” well-trained scouts ready to relay enemy movements via walkie-talkie back to a Los Angeles command center, where sign-toting reinforcements were ready.
On the other side, the anti-abortionists hid marching orders under their shirts and dispatched decoy convoys of protesters, all to keep their opponents confused as long as possible. Spies, everyone assumed, were everywhere, and the same simple goal applied to both sides: Get there first.
And so it was Thursday that the pro-choice activists in Orange County and Los Angeles could claim victory in the first skirmish of what promised to be a strange, 3-day conflict of fervent beliefs and logistical firepower, played out on the streets of Southern California over the issue of abortion.
Guided by dozens of “trackers,” the pro-choice activists were waiting in place at dawn Thursday for the hundreds of anti-abortionists who had driven to the Family Planning Associates Medical Group in Cypress from their base in Anaheim.
The anti-abortionists had come to surround the clinic and shut it down, but the other side got there first and managed--with tactics similar to a firefighting bucket brigade--to escort women with appointments inside.
“We did everything right,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of the California Abortion Rights Action League. “We matched their numbers. We’ve won. The ‘antis’ said no abortions will be performed. Abortions will be performed here today.”
Indeed, Orange County pro-choice activists seemed almost disappointed by Thursday’s activities.
“I thought they would have more people,” said Barbara Martinez of the county’s National Organization for Women, one of the pro-choice organizers.
Today might be different. In this campaign of diversionary tactics, mobilization sites, dirty tricksters and counterintelligence efforts, almost anything can happen. Almost anything is fair.
Both sides have been well-trained. Despite the intense emotions involved in the issue, at times it seems as though the activists are players caught up in a game, a matter of outmaneuvering rather than brute force.
“It’s sort of like basketball; we’re not supposed to attack them,” said Cathy Roche-Zujko, a pro-choice volunteer trained to “defend” abortion clinics from “invasion.”
Suspicions run rampant on both sides and each will accuse the other of planting spies and of launching misinformation campaigns.
At a Wednesday night gathering of the anti-abortion forces, the pro-choice operatives dumped 100 pounds of steer manure at a parking lot entrance. They placed “fact” sheets under their opponents’ windshield wiper blades, leaflets that asserted guards in Los Angeles jails would strip-search everyone arrested, using “the same gloves to inspect whole groups.” Those same arrestees, while in custody, would be brutalized even more--their children would be placed in “non-Christian homes.” Or so said the fact sheets.
More standard tactics were employed Thursday morning as pro-choice activists gathered in the pre-dawn chill at various Orange County locations. In Orange, about 50 volunteers protected the entrances of a family planning clinic by linking arms. They were kept warm by coffee and doughnuts distributed by Shirley Bernard, 65, of Fullerton, a retired schoolteacher.
“I’m old enough to remember the days when there was no choice,” Bernard said.
Many volunteers were redeployed to Cypress when it was learned Operation Rescue had targeted the clinic there.
Martinez, who is also affiliated with Orange County’s Planned Parenthood, said she received about 50 phone calls from people after a news conference Wednesday during which Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry opened a tiny coffin containing a blackened fetus and then stalked out. Martinez said the messages said: “Want to volunteer,” “Want to help,” “Can’t believe it.”
“People were outraged, and that’s when the calls really started flooding in,” Martinez said.
For their part, the Operation Rescue forces, many of them veterans of demonstrations in several cities across the United States, admit to making bogus appointments at targeted clinics so that they can be assured at least one abortion is scheduled on the day they descend. They did that in Cypress on Thursday.
The anti-abortionists also practice “drive-bys,” to determine which clinics are most vulnerable to a demonstration. They conduct exhaustive research on the likeliest targets. The Cypress clinic “hit"--their word--on Thursday had been scrutinized for months. Claiming that late-term abortions were being performed there, the Operation Rescue officials also said they knew which doctors had performed them and in what rooms.
As they had in previous protests in other cities, the Operation Rescue forces enveloped themselves in secrecy on Thursday as they began their assault on the abortion clinics. From all points of the United States, they had come to Los Angeles well-rehearsed in such tactics, many of them veterans of earlier clashes in places like Atlanta and New York state.
Tightly disciplined and organized to the point of securing group rates for their traveling troops on USAir, These Operation Rescue militants are students of the choreography of civil disobedience--from how to “go limp” and collapse when arrested to a maneuver they call “scooching"--burrowing in to fill gaps where arrests have been made. Pragmatic, they are instructed to carry the name of a lawyer with them.
At the rally Wednesday night, they distributed copies of their instruction-filled “basic check list.” They were told, for instance, to bring “the largest vehicle you can and a tank full of gas.” And they were instructed to “ ‘fill the funnel’ (crawl back toward the door) if you are yanked out of place, but not arrested.”
The pro-choice activists, meanwhile, have staged mock defense campaigns for months. They have made themselves familiar with walkie-talkies and gathered a fleet of cars equipped with cellular phones.
They have trained more than 900 “escorts” to accompany clients into clinics under siege, and they have mastered the moves needed to block “invaders” from entering a clinic. The best way, they’ve found, is to form perpendicular lines at the clinic doors. They have collected headphones for clinic-goers that will be tuned to soothing music, better to mask the sounds of chanting anti-abortionists.
sh ‘War Room’ Set Up
And they have established a “war room,” complete with multiple telephone lines, maps and routes to each of the region’s 90 clinics.
It is in this war room at the campaign headquarters in West Los Angeles on Thursday that the counter-demonstration got under way before dawn. Like a scene out of a war movie, the room was filled with tactical maps and people scurrying about, seeking to translate rumors from the field into action.
Because no one knew where the Operation Rescue forces would depart Anaheim, a handful of pro-choice demonstrators had been dispatched to each of the 90 clinics. In Cypress, 35 of them stood poised at the clinic’s back door. The rest of the volunteers waited in a half-dozen “mobilization sites"--clinics determined to be the likeliest targets.
As the caravan carrying the Operation Rescue activists began forming shortly before 6 a.m., the first order came from the pro-choice leaders: Stall them.
About a dozen pro-choice activists quickly whipped their cars across the exit way, trapping the waiting caravan for about 30 minutes. Anaheim police stepped in and the anti-abortionists belatedly resumed their mission.
Inside the pro-choice war room, “trackers” tailing the procession called with every right turn, every twist left. One caller phoned with news for pro-choice leader Katherine Spillar: “They just turned west.” Spillar, in turn, barked the message to a map monitor.
With all of the clinics numbered and marked by a red dot encircled in black, only a few more turns were needed before the guessing game was over. Gleefully almost, volunteers scrambled toward their cars.
It was then that Spillar, one of the few left behind to monitor phones, said what was by now obvious: “This is a war game.”
Staff writer Judy Pasternak also contributed to this story.