From the Frontlines

Standing Up in Dayton

Women's Choice, Women's Liberation

Revolutionary Worker #917, July 27, 1997

The enemies of women invaded Dayton, Ohio on July 13. The reactionary anti-abortion group Operation Rescue launched a week-long campaign to threaten and harass abortion providers and spread their anti-women poison. With the help of the police, they tried to close down clinics. But everywhere the antis went this week, they were opposed by pro-choice forces.

Refuse & Resist! put out a call for people to come to Dayton. And for an intense week, R&R! activists worked closely with students from Antioch College, Anti-Racist Action, individual NOW activists and others to discuss, strategize, plan and carry out a determined counteroffensive against Operation Rescue. The following report, from the frontlines in Dayton, is based on reports from Refuse & Resist! and an interview with Mary Lou Greenberg, a member of the Reproductive Rights Task force of R&R! and spokesperson for the New York Branch of the RCP.

Operation Rescue's ugly campaign began on July 13 when 500 anti-abortion forces rallied at the Christ Life Sanctuary in Kettering, on the Dayton border. About 70 pro-choice people stood on both sides of the church driveway to meet this invasion with angry chants of, "Right to Life, your name's a lie, you don't care if women die!" and "Pray by day, bomb by night, that's the motto of Right to Life." This defiant demonstration expressed people's determination to oppose the antis wherever they went and to get out a message of strong support for abortion providers in Dayton.

Mary Lou Greenberg told the RW: "When the antis announced they were coming, it presented a challenge and an opportunity--a challenge to the movement to defeat their efforts to attack women and clinics and an opportunity to go on the political and practical offensive against them. R&R! set out to mobilize people around both these things. And those who did take up the challenge got a lot of rich and valuable experience in the course of this battle. People have learned more about the enemy and how, as R&R! says, `it's all one attack.' People have also deepened their understanding of the need to build a strong movement of resistance against the anti-abortionists as a key part of taking on their whole reactionary agenda. And people saw new possibilities for taking them on and a sense of strength and power in fighting collectively and with a purpose and plan."

R&R! and others had worked to build concrete expressions of support and appreciation for the clinics. Messages were solicited from around the country and people at the recent national NOW conference signed big placards to the clinics which said, "We salute your courage and perseverance in helping women." There were also many in the Dayton area who supported and appreciated the pro-choice forces who stood up to the antis. One white working class woman in her 20s told the RW: "It's all about recognition of human beings. I am worthwhile whether I'm having a baby or not. My life means something. My life has a purpose and a point and it has nothing to do with my reproductive abilities or choices.... I've been to three different clinics in this town. I've been chased by people in grim-reaper costumes, I've been chased by people with signs, I've left clinics after getting a pap smear and had somebody holding up a sign saying, `You are now the mother of a dead baby.' I mean it's ridiculous. Women can not even get good gynecological care under these circumstances."

Students from nearby Antioch College mobilized in a big way and made up a large part of the pro-choice forces who came to Dayton. During the summer there are only about 125 students on campus and about 50 of them participated at one time or another in the pro-choice actions during the week. One woman from Antioch found herself getting more and more involved as the week went on. She said she had been feeling that she wasn't doing anything important with her life. But when she joined the pro-choice demonstrations in Dayton, she said, "I felt passion--about my body, my sister's bodies, our lives." Some people asked her why she was getting so involved since abortion is still legal. And to this she said: "Well, it might be legal. But women have to crawl over people to get into the clinic. And I want to do something now. I don't want to wait until abortion is illegal. We've got to do something now."

Women's Lives on the Line

Mary Lou told the RW about one event during the week that really concentrated the stakes of the battle against those who want to take away women's right to choose: "Operation Rescue had planned to march to Dr. Haskell's clinic from their meeting place, which was only about five blocks away. And they were going to do a candlelight procession after one of their rallies that whip people up. What the Antioch students did was decide that they would have a counter candlelight vigil at Dr. Haskell's clinic and several of us in R&R! and a couple of other local activists joined them in this. They mobilized about 50 students and the first question was, what side of the street should people stand on, the same side as the clinic or the side opposite the clinic. This was before the antis got there and there was some discussion and so people moved to the sidewalk on the same side of the clinic--at first for a press photo but then people decided to stay there. People had candles and also sparklers.

"So then, Operation Rescue began marching down the street and turned the corner and of course they had planned on getting right in front of the clinic. But the students and others of us had gotten there first. The students began singing `Amazing Grace' because they wanted their counter-protest to be `peaceful' and like a vigil and they were very concerned with avoiding any confrontation. But people got more defiant when Operation Rescue began having women get up and testify about the so-called `horrors' they had suffered with abortion, moaning about lost fetuses and all this kind of stuff. And some of the students got really infuriated--infuriated by Operation Rescue's use and exploitation of these women as well as at what they were saying. So, spontaneously, the students decided to have a speakout. Now, we didn't have a sound system--and we're talking here about say 50 of us with about 350 antis, over half of whom were adults, many who were quite hefty males. It was growing increasingly dark and the street there is not very wide. So you don't have to go very far into the street before you're almost half-way across. So as Operation Rescue began these lies about abortion, the students decided that they would have their own speakout to counter that.

"Earlier in the week, R&R! had worked with Antioch students to hold a `pro-choice training' where I talked about how the struggle for reproductive rights is a key part of the battle for women's liberation. Now, in the streets, up against the antis, young women stood up and gave a living picture of the link between choice and women's liberation.

"A couple of people stepped into the street, right next to the antis, and told their stories of how abortion had saved their lives, hopes and dreams. And this encouraged others to come forward. A number of young women, some just out of high school, came forward and began speaking their hearts about what it means to be a young woman, to be violated, to be raped and to be faced with the terrors of an unwanted pregnancy. One young woman broke down in tears because this was the first time she had ever told this story except to one very close friend. And it was the story of how when she had been very young she had been gang raped and then after that rape, had found out she was pregnant. She told of the terror she went through. She was too scared to go to a clinic so she punched herself in the stomach until she miscarried. And she said she didn't want others to have to do this. Other young women had similar stories to tell and a couple of people recounted stories of what it was like when abortion was illegal.

"This was just a tremendously moving thing and many people were in tears. And this strengthened people's sense of solidarity and standing together. And then after this happened, we began this song. And these are the words to the song, which we also did as a chant: "A woman has a right to live, a woman has a right to choose, a woman has a right to have a child, and she has the right to refuse." And this became the anthem that was taken up with great fervor by this group, largely young women, although some men, who then stood and faced off against an increasingly hostile group of antis for at least another 45 minutes. And when the antis would preach and rant and rave, these young women continued to sing, many raised their fists defiantly in the air as their other hand held a candle. People put their arms around each other for strength and sustenance. And it was a tremendously powerful scene: The pro-choice people standing between the clinic and the antis, as if saying, this clinic is ours and we will defend it and we will defend our right to choose. People stayed there until the antis began to disperse and the antis never got on the clinic side."

The Role of the Police

People really saw how the police worked with and assisted the antis wherever they went. And this helped to break down illusions that the people can rely on the police to protect the clinics.

The antis targeted Dr. Martin Haskell, who has clinics in Dayton, Cincinnati and Akron. Haskell helped develop a procedure for late term abortions (intact D&E or D&X) and has testified in Congress against efforts to ban it. R&R! reported: "When we reached the beginning of the block where Dr. Haskell's clinic is located, we saw police blocking the street. As our car slowed down, we saw police wave through the yellow school bus with the load of antis we'd followed from Dayton. But the cops refused to let us and other private cars down the block. After we parked and walked to the clinic, the antis were having a field day with police support. About 150 were mass picketing outside the clinic fence with huge photos of what they claim to be aborted late-term fetuses along with huge photos of cute months-old babies, trying to equate fetuses with babies."

The mass picketing, at times, totally blocked the driveway onto the clinic property and lasted close to two hours. Later, even after the cops ordered the antis to leave, they were allowed to block the doors for another half hour and there were no arrests. The antis and cops did a similar number in front of the Cincinnati Planned Parenthood. The entire block in front of Planned Parenthood was closed to regular traffic while the antis massed in front and then moved onto the clinic property. And the cops also helped the antis when they went into a residential neighborhood to threaten a doctor and pass out "wanted" flyers--similar to the leaflet was passed out in Pensacola, Florida shortly before Dr. David Gunn was shot and killed in 1993.

At Dr. Haskell's clinic the antis were allowed to set up a big sound system right across the street. They were were allowed to mass around the doors, including in the back. They were allowed onto the property, even though the clinic officially asked them to leave, and they were allowed to eat their lunch at the clinic's picnic table while the police just stood around.

The Antis' Anti-Woman Program

During the week, pro-choice forces also got a clearer picture of who the antis are, what they represent and how important it is to oppose their whole ideological and political program. Mary Lou said: "There was all kinds of religious superstition and oppression coming together with the political program that openly promoted the suppression and submission of women. When Operation Rescue founder leader Randall Terry spoke, he justified the unbridled accumulation of wealth and called for the end to welfare and all government social services. And the submission of women was a big theme in what the antis were doing throughout the week. For instance, Flip Benhan commented at one point on the pro-choice chant, `Four, six, eight, ten, why are all your leaders men?" He said, "The answer is, because men are the leaders." Then this woman stood up and proclaimed the glories of submission and said, "Manhood is protectedness of the weaker one. We're equal, but men know we're delicate vessels to be protected." She actually said, "The weaker the vessel, the stronger the glory." We would ask some of the male antis what they thought about the submission of women and they would say, "Men and women are equal, but the man makes the final decision." And we'd say, "Hey, that isn't equality, that means the woman has to submit to your decision." And they'd say, "Well, that's God's law, that's how God wants it."

It was extremely important that pro-choice forces mobilized to take a stand in Dayton. No clinics were forced to close and this was a important victory. But women had to be bodily lifted over the antis to enter clinics. Some women were deterred from keeping their appointments. And doctors and staff had to endure vicious taunts and threats. Mary Lou told the RW: "We were not really able to mobilize great numbers, and more forces were needed to prevent Operation Rescue from disrupting the clinics. We needed more people to really take them on in an all-sided way that could have really given them a decisive defeat. There was so much more we could have done. There were daily demonstrations, we followed them in the morning to see where they were going. There was clinic support and we got on the media, all these kinds of things. So while a lot was done, if more people had been there to take part in this, to help build the movement that is needed, we really could have accomplished a lot more."

One Antioch student said: "I've always been pro-choice, but I haven't gone out and demonstrated or anything.... My friend said I really need people to come out and when I saw that there weren't too many people that made me want to come out even more, especially today. I think people need to see the other side. People need to know that there are people out there who do feel like we do."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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