Militant anti-abortion activists from around the nation capped six weeks of protests Sunday with a gigantic rally at which speaker after speaker exhorted Wichitans to continue to oppose abortion, even after the out-of-towners leave.
An estimated 25,000 people gathered at Cessna Stadium here for what was to be the culmination of Operation Rescue's so-called "Summer of Mercy" protests, which have polarized this city since mid-July and resulted in 2,600 arrests.
"The lesson of Wichita is that ordinary people can change history," said George Grant, an activist minister and author from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., who addressed the crowd. "The lesson of Wichita is that God is at work here."
Protest organizers renewed their promise to make Wichita "America's first abortion-free city," even as some of them made preparations to move on to Fargo, N.D., and other cities in the Midwest, which Operation Rescue views as fertile ground for its confrontational style of protest.
Spokesmen said that Sunday's rally marked a turning point in the anti-abortion fight in Wichita. Operation Rescue will pull out now, leaving local anti-abortion activists to lead the effort here. Their focus will be on education, legislative action and creation of a "support system" to counsel pregnant women, said spokeswoman Mary Wilkerson.
Their goal, she said, is to make abortion illegal in Wichita through a referendum.
Although the rally--which drew more than twice the number of people expected--was without incident, it was preceded by a protest at an abortion clinic that turned violent. A spokesman for the activists said that the Sunday morning encounter was the most confrontational since the first days of the protests when police rode into the crowd on horses and reportedly used Mace.
Although the spokesman, Bryan Brown, blamed police for the violence, the clinic director reportedly was shoved by two demonstrators as she arrived at a back entrance about 7:30 a.m. Police used Mace on some protesters who blocked the clinic door. Brown also claimed that police officers beat several of the 250 protesters.
He showed a videotape to reporters in which police officers used Mace on men who were locking arms to block the clinic door. A few minutes later, two police officers on the tape appeared to be repeatedly striking some men who had tumbled to the ground while being removed. The men fell behind a parked car and where the blows were striking could not be seen.
Sixty-one protesters were reported arrested.
"I would find that level of violence to be inexcusable, no matter what the reason," Brown said. "These were police-state tactics." Police spokesmen could not be reached, but Associated Press quoted a police lieutenant as saying that Mace was used because the officers were surrounded by demonstrators and felt threatened. The videotape showed officers using Mace on demonstrators who were standing with locked arms in the doorway.
Operation Rescue, the radical group that started the Wichita protests July 15, was little in evidence Sunday.
With most of its leaders jailed or threatened with arrest, the organization has sought a lower profile. The rally Sunday officially was sponsored by the "Hope for the Heartland Committee," a coalition of 25 local organizations formed to take the baton when out-of-state organizers leave town.
Randall Terry, Operation Rescue's founder, did not attend. U.S. District Judge Patrick F. Kelly has threatened to have Terry arrested if he returns to Wichita. He is one of six Operation Rescue leaders named in a contempt-of-court warrant issued by Kelly for defying his injunction against blockading two local clinics. Three of the leaders named in the warrant have been jailed indefinitely by Kelly and have had heavy fines levied against them.
Keith Tucci, another Operation Rescue official, spoke to the rally via telephone hookup, exhorting the audience to "keep the faith, keep up the fight."
Pat Robertson, the Christian broadcaster and former presidential candidate, told the protesters that God is on their side and said those who have been arrested for the anti-abortion cause are heroes.
"Those who stand for life are trying in no way to interfere with a woman's reproductive rights or her sexual behavior," he said. "What we are trying to do is protect the lives of innocent human beings from the money-grubbing forceps of men who masquerade as men of medicine."
He predicted that the U.S. Supreme Court, when it reconvenes in October, will reverse its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortion legal.
Bishop Eugene Gerber of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wichita also condemned abortion, comparing it to the crucifixion of Jesus, but called upon anti-abortion activists to conduct civil disobedience with "dignity and without violence."
The rally took place on the day after national abortion rights leaders conducted their first large-scale demonstration here to counter Operation Rescue. An estimated 5,000 gathered to hear speakers such as Eleanor Smeal, a former president of the National Organization for Women.