Pro-Choice Activists Take on
Christian Fascists in Orlando

Revolutionary Worker #963, June 28, 1998

The following is from a report the RW received from an activist in the Refuse & Resist! Reproductive Task Force:

Operation Rescue brought its "Operation Push Back" to Orlando, Florida May 31 to June 6 and met resistance at virtually every point. Operation Rescue had vowed to bring down the "gates of hell" by stopping women from entering abortion clinics. They wanted to keep people from shopping at Barnes & Noble bookstores, charging that art books with pictures of nude children sold by the stores are "child pornography." They planned to end the week by disrupting "Gay Days" at Disney World, to protest what they say is Disney's "promotion of the homosexual lifestyle." They had the backing and funding of the American Family Association, an extremely conservative lobby group which pushes "traditional American values," in their anti-woman, anti-gay, pro-censorship event.

"Operation Push Back" followed by less than two weeks a coordinated series of destructive attacks on 10 Florida women's clinics (two in Orlando and one in Dayton on May 16; five in Miami on May 22 and two in Tampa/St. Petersburg on May 24). Butyric acid, a poisonous, noxious and dangerous chemical that can be deadly in high concentration, was injected into mail slots or through holes drilled in doors. At one Miami clinic, a man opened the clinic door and threw a package of acid inside during clinic hours, causing three women to suffer respiratory problems. Such attacks have been carried out for over 20 years against abortion clinics, but this was the most intense series ever. The connections between Operation Rescue, with its rhetoric of "doctors are baby-killers," and those who assault and kill clinic doctors and staff and who bomb and burn clinics, have been seen before. Just two days after Operation Rescue's last national event in July 1997, a clinic in Tuscaloosa, Alabama was seriously fire-bombed.

Refuse & Resist! called for activists to gather in Orlando to "Push Back the Christian Fascists." National Organization for Women chapters organized local activists. R&R! activists worked with them and college students, Food Not Bombs, the Feminist Majority Foundation and abortion providers, to challenge Operation Rescue's statement to the press, monitor their movements, and stop them from closing four local abortion clinics. A pro-choice march was held in downtown Orlando Saturday, May 30 and a counter-demonstration was held at Operation Rescue's first church rally on May 31.

Operation Rescue began the week by joining with some other reactionary organizations to try and stop the City of Orlando from allowing 500 rainbow flags (a symbol of gay pride) to be installed on downtown streets. A gay newspaper had raised the money for the flags to be put around town to welcome the 100,000 expected for "Gay Days" at Disney. At a heated city hearing, Operation Rescue was faced off by civil rights groups and individuals who came to support the rainbow flags installation. Holocaust survivors, youth, and senior citizens testified against the creation of a climate of intolerance of anyone who is "different." R&R! was there with its message that "it's all one attack"--that fighters against one outrage must become fighters against the whole reactionary agenda. In the end, the flags went up.

Operation Rescue did not have the numbers of people expected, only about 150 in all, with almost half of them children or youth. An apparently new team of eight youth, in uniform dress and wearing bracelets saying "WWJD" (What Would Jesus Do?") performed paramilitary guerrilla theater. They were told their mission was to "cast out demons," and they performed mock sword fights against the devil. These youth were very serious, standing in the hot sun for hours on end. Operation Rescue attempted to keep people from shopping at Barnes & Noble by using a very large color banner with the blown-up graphic images of children which they claimed are offensive. It was clear they didn't stop anyone, but they did draw a group of young women from the Gainesville, Florida NOW chapter who came to protest against them.

Orlando NOW held a clinic defense training session in preparation for a possible Operation Rescue blockade, in cooperation with the abortion clinics who wanted a pro-choice presence. Several dozen people were prepared to be on the clinic property. But just as the week started, the City of Orlando issued an injunction against Operation Rescue, also naming Refuse & Resist!, Act Up, and the Oral Majority (a small gay rights group from Miami) as "co-respondents." These groups were prohibited from being near clinic property. Police took over clinic grounds, standing across front doors, blocking whole streets, and being belligerent toward everyone, including elderly patients at nearby medical buildings. Police allowed some pro-choice people to escort women into clinics, but R&R! and other activists were called "counter-demonstrators," and were increasingly distanced from the clinic.

At the beginning of the week, the injunction appeared to be enforced mainly against pro-choice people. Later Flip Benham, leader of Operation Rescue was arrested for violating the injunction and was held in jail for two days on $2,500 bail. Operation Rescue's numbers dwindled to about 50 and no clinics were closed.

The injunction set the very dangerous precedent of equating the pro-choice side with the antis. It is Operation Rescue which has a history of blockading clinics, threatening and stalking staff, harassing women, and physically preventing women from entering clinics. The injunction had the practical effect of demobilizing pro-choice activists, especially youth, who wanted to challenge Operation Rescue politically.

One of the most positive factors in Orlando, and in the whole state of Florida, is the determination of abortion providers there to resist all political and physical attacks by Operation Rescue. One Orlando doctor is even planning to open a new clinic in Ocala, in central Florida, where anti-abortionists torched the last clinic in 1985. Such a spirit of taking on the other side, and of seeking to serve women's needs for reproductive self-determination, is really encouraging and inspiring. It is up to the whole pro-choice community, resisters old and new, to build more support for abortion providers, and counter the anti-women forces wherever they attempt to go on the offensive.

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