Kansas Protesters Defy Court, Block Abortion Clinic
Anti-abortion demonstrators, defying a federal court injunction, threw themselves in front of cars and blocked the gates of an abortion clinic Friday in a continuation of protests that have polarized this city for nearly a month.
Almost 100 protesters were arrested Friday on charges that included criminal trespassing, battery and violation of an injunction issued Monday by U.S. District Judge Patrick F. Kelly that ordered the protesters to halt their blockades.
More than 2,000 arrests have been made here since July 15, the date Operation Rescue, a national anti-abortion organization that has until now focused on the East and West coasts, brought its confrontational style of protest to the Midwest.
The organization’s leaders have been emboldened by the recent filing of court papers by the Justice Department backing the position of Operation Rescue and by moral support they have received from both Wichita Mayor Bob Knight and Kansas Gov. Joan Finney, who became the first governor ever to speak at an Operation Rescue rally when she addressed a crowd of 1,500 last week.
In rallies Thursday and Friday, protest leaders vowed to make Wichita “America’s first abortion-free city.”
The concentration of Operation Rescue forces and the energies of other national anti-abortion leaders on Wichita represents a fundamental switch in the organization’s strategy, said Pat Mahoney, an Operation Rescue leader, in an interview. “This is the first time that we’ve come to the heartland of America,” he said.
The controversial Binghamton, N.Y.-based organization now will target smaller cities where family and church values are strong, seeking to put a “grass-roots infrastructure” in place, he said. Operation Rescue expects the Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the decision that made abortions legal, Mahoney said, and once that happens the local organizations will seek to enact local anti-abortion laws.
Operation Rescue expects to leave Wichita on Aug. 25, the date it plans to hold its last and largest rally. By then, Mahoney said, there should be a strong anti-abortion organization in place to carry on the fight.
Until the demonstrations began here last month, Operation Rescue had been discounted by many abortion rights leaders who thought the organization had been so weakened by a series of successful lawsuits and prosecutions over its tactics that it no longer was a force.
Mahoney acknowledged that 1990, a year that also saw the jailing of the organization’s founder, Randall Terry, for six months, was difficult. He said the organization was kept alive, however, because it had grass-roots followers in 120 cities across the country.
Katherine Spillar of Los Angeles, national coordinator of the Feminist Majority, said her organization and other abortion-rights groups will combat Operation Rescue’s new strategy by mobilizing masses of abortion-rights activists to challenge them in whatever city they select next.
The group challenged Operation Rescue during its protests in Los Angeles and in other cities, and Mahoney on Thursday expressed concern that the Feminist Majority and its protest arm, the Clinic Defense Alliance, might come to Wichita, thereby sparking violent confrontation.
Kelly also alluded earlier this week to abortion rights demonstrators coming here. The judge, interviewed on ABC’s “Nightline,” said he feared bloodshed could erupt in Wichita unless his injunction remained in effect to keep the abortion clinics open.
“We’re not on the plane headed that way,” said Spillar, who added that local abortion-rights groups chose not to accept outside help. But, she said, her organization would challenge Operation Rescue’s efforts in other cities.
Some Wichita abortion-rights advocates believe the local anti-abortion movement will lose its momentum once Operation Rescue, with its infusion of out-of-state people and funds, leaves town. But, even after the outsiders leave, many people here question whether this homey south-central Kansas city of 310,000 people will ever be the same.
Passions have been so inflamed that earlier this week Kelly was given around-the-clock protection by federal marshals because of death threats he has received since issuing his injunction. On Monday, he and his wife were confronted by a protester outside their home.
Mayor Knight said he has received threatening and harassing phone calls from abortion rights activists angered by what they call police coddling of demonstrators.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the tensions that have gripped this town that Knight praises for its strong sense of community and neighborliness was this: When the operator of the abortion clinic that has been the main focus of the protests arrived to work Friday amid the jeers and chants of Operation Rescue, he wore a bullet-proof vest.
Although the protests have gone on almost daily for nearly a month, the greatest controversy was stirred Tuesday, when the Justice Department filed friend-of-the-court briefs in which it argued Kelly had overstepped his authority in ordering federal marshals to keep two clinics open.
Kelly, in an unusual move for a federal judge, went on national television to discuss the case, branding the Justice Department’s action as “political.”
Facing accusations that it was siding with the anti-abortionists, a White House spokesman responded that the Justice Department had merely taken a routine position on a matter of local versus federal jurisdiction. The White House had not been consulted prior to the action, nor should it have been, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
Terry, the flamboyant founder of Operation Rescue, accused Kelly of abusing his judicial power and compared him to Nazi judges in Germany.
Kelly, in interviews this week, said he felt the injunction was necessary because the abortion clinics were operating legally and had a right to remain open.
Abortion rights activists have criticized the Wichita police for coddling the protesters, while Mahoney praised the gentleness of the officers, calling the treatment “unique,” especially, he said, compared to the way protesters were handled in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Pittsburgh. Wichita police have been carrying protesters to waiting vans and buses.
Knight defended directives he and City Council members had given to the police to refrain from using excessive force.
“I will not see the police of this city threatened without defending itself, but, on the other hand, I will not support police actions that are excessive for what the task is,” he said. “That just happens to be the civil way you treat human beings.”
Acknowledging that some police officers are frustrated by the directive, Knight said the large numbers of arrests that have been made are evidence that the law is being enforced here.
“I’m mystified and I’m baffled when I see reports that the city of Wichita is not enforcing the law,” he said.
Wednesday and Thursday were relatively quiet, and Terry and two other Operation Rescue leaders left town. But Friday was the first day protesters blocked the entrances since Kelly’s injunction. Twelve of the 98 protesters arrested Friday face federal charges of violating the injunction.
In addressing the crowd of protesters before the scuffling and arrests began Friday morning, Pam Schuffert, an activist who said she came from North Carolina, where she had been imprisoned for anti-abortion activities, said: “We’re obeying a higher judge, a higher law. The word of God says that (Judge Kelly) stands in contempt of a higher law,” she said.
Nearly all the 400 protesters Friday heeded pleas from their leadership that they remain calm and peaceful, although the first man arrested, a Catholic priest, was charged with battery after he charged headlong into a U.S. marshal, who tackled him.
Linda Barber, a spokeswoman for ProChoice Action League, said that whether Operation Rescue succeeds in Wichita will be a barometer of how successful it can be in other cities. “They’ve gotten more support here than anywhere else. If they can’t do it here, it’ll take a lot of the steam out” of their efforts, she said.
Knight talked of Wichita as a microcosm of America. Lamenting the deep divisions that have erupted in the city, he said they threaten his ability to govern because he has become linked in so many minds with the anti-abortion movement. “I’m praying that our deeper and most profound community impulses will be to recognize that we’re neighbors. . . . We have to find our way through this,” he said.
In Washington, more than 50 pro-choice demonstrators marched outside the Justice Department Friday to oppose attempts to lift Kelly’s injunction.
“In so doing, the Justice Department has given the green light to all who would take the law into their own hands,” said Patricia Ireland, vice president of the National Organization for Women.
In addition, 43 members of Congress--all but one of them Democrats--wrote Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh to express “outrage” at the Justice Department move.
“We believe your action sends a most troublesome message about the Administration’s commitment to the rights of women,” the lawmakers told Thornburgh, who resigned Friday to run for the Senate from Pennsylvania.
“We urge you to reconsider your position . . . and withdraw your support for those who break the law and deny women their rights as granted by the Constitution,” the letter said.