There's a whiff of booze in the war room, but the fumes aren't wafting from the members of BACORR, the Bay Area Coalition for Our Reproductive Rights, eight warriors sprawled in black plastic chairs throughout a dim meeting room at the New College on Valencia Street.
The battle is too serious for coming in lubed. The group's self-denied mission is to protect women, defend abortion rights, and vanquish fat-assed hypocritical white male Christian fundamentalist facists: men who murder and firebomb and blockade abortion clinics in the name of Jesus Christ. So partying isn't on the menu, particularly on a May night as critcial as this one.
Laura Weide, 30, group member and tonight's coordinator, wears combat boots and a sling, thanks to dislocating her shoulder while hauling stuff into her new apartment. She scans the room – half men, half women – and takes note of four newcomers: me, two young guys, and an older man who says he's from New York. Origami dangles from the ceiling; art posters scab from the walls.
“How about if we all introduce ourselves?” Weide starts things off.
“I'm here 'cause I've been recruited to do anything that makes life easier to live,” slurs one of the strangers. “'Cause this country is all screwed up, and , like, I don't even have my head shaved!” Mystery solved. He and his buds are political party-hoppers, and well toasted too. “We've gotta leave early and, like, get to the Revolutionary Brigade meeting down the street,” the stranger says, and the trio totters out the door.
It's too bad, in a way. The seven-year-old abortion rights collective needs recruits. But even more, it needs strategy. Operation Rescue – the nation's premier group of anti-abortion activists – has planned two days of clinic protests in L.A. in May, and BACOOR must scrape together the cash so it can land in Los Angeles and mount the sort of counterdemo they have in Buffalo and Pensacola and Boston and Baton Rouge, wherever a clinic has been threatened or an anti has gone m>>urderous with a gun. Small and scraggly as the cadre may be – with zero cash flow and maybe 20 regulars – BACORR descended upon Florida last July after clinic doctor John Britton and his 74-year-old volunteer escort were shot and killed by a fanatic with a 12-gauge. BACORR was in Brooline, Mass., this winter after hairdresser John Salvi murdered two clinic receptionists with a .22-caliber rifle. And BACORR wasn't about to miss L.A.
“The OR group that's coming, they've got a bunch of antis from Milwaukee, from Missionaries to the Pre-Born,” says Weide. “They do lots of lock 'n' blocks where they lock themselves inside junker cars or appliances. One guy locked himself to a washing machine and closed down a clinic in North Dakota.?”
“It was a clothes dryer,” nods Tom Burghardt, a group intelligence expert who cruises the Internet and snags literature from the antis. “The guy told the cops it made him feel like he was in the womb,” Burghardt says.
“Missionaries to the Pre-Born was formed by Reverand Matt Trewhella,” continues Weide. “He's the one who brags about how he taught his 16-month-old son to find his trigger finger.”
“It could be hard-core,” says Burghardt.
The rest of the room sits quietly, soaking in details. They look at me, and I stop scribbling. What I'm hearing is lingo that takes me back to anti-war protests and other retro causes that mark me for what I am: a worthless liberal, in BACORR's eyes. A women who hasn't flirted with with arrest since 1978, whose closest brush with anarchy was a boyfriend who kicked a Los Angeles cop and was subsequently beaten till he peed blood.
“How many of you can go to L.A.?” Weide asks. Five hands go up, mine included.
The door opens; heads turn. Jean McEwen, 27, another coordinator – everyone in the group takes on myriad roles – arrives decked out in black from boots to shoulders. Below her beret sprouts a blond shave job that until a few weeks ago included two tufflike horns, spiked above a brain that speeds fa>>ster than sound and a mouth that almost manages to keep up. “Where we're at now, we need people to do props and signs for the demo and someone to find places for us to stay down there,” McEwen brings everyone up to date.
The room fills with the happy buzz of impending drama, an energy buoyed, as is bravery, by a certain blindness. What McEwen and Weide, and the others don't know is that, by week's end, one of us will eat pavement. That another will be handcuffed and screaming in pain. That a handful will get on Mexican TV. That some will get dissed, and two will go to jail. That the trip for me will get way too personal. And that BACORR will accuse their fellow feminists of betrayal.
“I hope you don't think this is what BACORR is all about, because this wasn't real,” McEwen will tell me after the Los Angeles demo.
But what L.A. shows is this: Nothing seems real when it comes to the war womb, the crucible for one of the fiercest battles in the nation today. An estimated 1.5 million women in the U.S. have abortions each year, and tens of millions more support that right. The “pro-life” movement, meanwhile, has successfully thrust its agenda into mainstream politics; the Republican party platform and, more recently, the “Contract With the American Family” call for a ban on abortion. Both sides, pro and anti, see lives at stake: personal, political, religious, sexual. And so ritualized and surreal is the core of the struggle that one group wears fetus replicas for necklaces, dumpster dives for stillborns, and claims that American fetuses are sold to China for “snack food” while the other sings the Flintstones theme song with pro-choice words subbed in. All in a day's abortion rally. [page]
At the fringes, emotions run even wilder.
“Shaved-headed dykes with more metal on their face than on a Harley” is how Jeff White, head of Operation Rescue in California, describes BACORR.
“Ignoranta-ass white men afraid of women in control of their own lives,” McEwen returns the favor.
“It's like a choreographed dance, in a way,” says a San Francisco health clinic manager who's watched the two face off for years.
And it is a dance that ultimately divided the nation – a fight with passions and language as virulent, and oddly related, as the war over “the right to bear arms,” as if men would like to give birth to something that kills. We have the right, say OR leaders – all of whom are men – to do whatever we can to end the slaughter of innocent babies.
We have the right, answer BACORR soldiers – most of whom are women – to defend our freedom in unladylike ways: to swear and shout and mosh with the “pigs” if it means saving one woman from harassment.
It is clear, even as McEwen sends me home from the meeting with The Army of God, an underground manual used by the enemy – it's filled with advice for “termites” on how to bomb, burn, glue, stink up, and otherwise sabotage clinics – that somewhere in this struggle there is a moral high ground, and even truth. But the low ground these days is so strange it makes one wonder:
Is this anyway to fight a war?
“Yep, that's the walls of Jerusalem,” a smiling man announces. He is standing next to me in the Community Chapel World Outreach church in Norwalk, some 15 miles southeast of downtown L.A., the staging ground for two upcoming days of Operation Rescue demonstrations.
In front of us lies the damnedest thing I have seen in a while: a floor-to-ceiling, vaguely medieval-looking scence behind a raised wooden stage lined with poppy-red chairs that match the hundreds in the sprawling auditorium.
“They painted Jerusalem up there on the wall for a Christmas pageant and just never took it down,” the man explains and leaves my side to join the clapping.
On the stage, a balding, singing pastor exhorts the crowd of 150 to join in a hymn. Beside him stand a guitarist and three young women wearing red hoop skirts. The skirted women smile sweetly, very much like the man next to me, and they sway and beat thR>eR>ir tambourines in choreographed bliss, a white evangelical equivalent of the Supremes.
It is 7 p.m. on Day 1 of the BACORR effort to disrupt Operation Rescue, Day 1 of OR's rally to gather troops for an abortion clinic “challenge,” as OR descibes it, and what unfolds is a promise of what lies ahead: Fellini meets Godspell. I've flown to L.A.; McEwen and Weide and a third BACORR woman, who asks to be identified as “Sam,” have driven I-5, while a fourth woman, Erin, took a plane in from Minneapolis; a half-dozen more will arrive tomorrow. And it's clear to all of us why OR picked this locale.
The street is religious row, in a neighborhood with one church per block, amid an otherwise unremarkable smattering of industrial parks and convalescent homes. A good hideaway for a rally, with a neon church sign as bright as a casino's and a front parking lot that's easy to rope off to repel pro-aborts like BACORR.
Having devoted itself since 1988 to blockading clinics, harassing doctors, picketing, pleading with women not to abort their babies, and (by its own, proud admission) wreaking havoc on abortion providers, Operation Rescue knows that if the site of their main blockade is revealed, BACORR and other groups will appear to defend the place and foil their plans. So no announcement has been made about which of the scores of Southern California clinics has been targeted, or which day – Friday? Saturday? – the demo will happen.
The primary goal for this OR blockade isn't just to shut down an abortion clinic, but to provoke arrests under the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994 (FACE), and then challenge its constitutionality in the courts. Under FACE, it is a felony punishable by fines of $10,000 and up to three years in prison to obstruct, harass, or otherwise harm people or property at abortion clinics.
“Join the rally at the Norwalk chapel – further instructions to follow” has been OR's cryptic message to adherents via newsletters and an 800-number hot line.
> BACORR, meanwhile, savvy from its own experience with OR – when the group first formed in 1988, it was called the Bay Area Coalition Against Operation Rescue – has planted a spy in the Norwalk chapel. And so has the far-more-mainstream Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), a nonprofit devoted to clinic defense nationwide, headed by former National Organization for Women (NOW) President Eleanor Smeal. The FMF, in fact, has been organizing for weeks – it is the nation's largest clinic defense group, with an Arlington, Va., and an L.A. office, impressive phone trees, hot lines, fund-raisers, and hunderds of volunteers, and like many feminist groups its subscribes to OR literature, keeps up with the antis on the Internet, and otherwise reaps intelligence on all fronts possible. Feminist Majority command posts have been set up; masses of pro-choice supporters are ready to counterdemonstrate at any one of the 10 clinics believed to be the likeliest OR targets.
“The most important thing is to know your enemy,” McEwen had warned me. Even when the Operation Rescue caravan of anti-abortion protesters departs from this Norwalk church for the blockade site, half the vehicles will be decoys. The ones carrying blockaders will shake their enemy “tails” – among others, BACORR, the Feminist Majority, NOW, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Women's Action Coalition, the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action Leahue (CARAL), ACT UP, and various reporters. [page]
Jacaranda blossoms bruise the parking lot; “Abortion: The Ultimate Child Abuse,” “Careful: Former Fetus Driving,” the bumper stickers say. I jot down the slogans and a man shouts, “Copying down license plate numbers, are you?” I assure him I'm not and move away. Private security guards with slouching German shepherd patrol the driveway.
Somwhere nearby, trouble awaits in the form of BACORR and will draw no nearer: Weide and McEwen and the others are too well-known and, let's face it, they can't check their buzz cuts at the door.
Menawhile, I, the unfamiliar, walk through security and stare at the anti-abortion honchos assembled from across the country.
There's Jeff White, California OR leader, currently on probation on resisting-arrest charges stemming from a 1994 Modesto incident in which he wedged himself beneath a pro-choice woman's car. Near him in equally tidy attire is the the Rev. Joseph Foreman, co-founder of Missionaries to the Pre-Born, whose followers have been arrested by the hundreds for doing such things as chaining themselves to a clinic doctor's car when he took a break at a highway rest stop. (The other founder, Matt Trewhella, is active in the armed militia movement and once told Wisconsin ultraconservatives that the most loving thing they could do for Christmas would be to “buy each of your children an SKS rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition.”)
Trewhella and Foreman are two of 32 anti-abortion leaders who, shortly after Michael Griffin shot and killed clinic doctor David Gunn in Pensacola, signed a petition calling Griffin's action “justifiable” and declared it proper to take “all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life, including the use of force.” Fellow petition signer Andrew Burnett is here in Norwalk, too: He is wearing a straw hat and chatting with men carrying cellular phones and video cameras. Burnett leads the Advocates for Life Ministries in Portland -a group connected to Shelley Shannon, a rural Oregon housewife currently serving time for shooting and injuring abortion doctor George Tiller in Wichita, Kan, And ambling in and out the chapel in a black beret is Paul deParrie, editor of Portland's pro-violence Life Advocate magazine, which Burnett publishes: DeParrie's name appears on the petition just below the signature of Paul J. Hill. Hill is currently on death row in Florida for fatally shooting Dr. John Britton and clinic escort James Barrett, and wounding Barrett's wife.
“We're committed to nonviolence,” Jeff White tells a TV reporter who interviews him in a parking lot backlit by the sunset. The plan for the weekend is to block a clinic entrance and get arrested under FACE, nothing else, White tells the cameras. “We are going to simply sit in the door, and we'll accept whatever punishment comes our way, by the government and by the counterprotesters.”
Inside the chapel, rallygoers wear “Jesus Is God” sweat shirts and the glazed intensity of the determined-to-convert. “I wear red gloves to represent the bloody hands of the abortionist,” says a sun-worn man in a cowboy hat who extends a hand that is indeed red and gloved. “My name's Pro-Life Anderson. I had it legally changed that way,” the man says, and pulls from his suit coat the court papers to prove it.
Anderson, 68, drove to Norwalk all the way from his home in Nevada. “I wear black pants to mourn the unborn, and red socks for the bloodshed on the floor, and the white hat is to represent the fight for good,” he says. He shows me a little rubber fetus replica hanging from his neck and tells me a fetus is exactly this big at 10 weeks old.
“When women have abortions, they have to turn their lives over to God or they just wind up committing suicide,” Anderson tells me. “If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything.”
The crowd is warming to the rally – laughing freely, cracking jokes, and calling out, “Amen” – when Pat Mahoney, OR leader out of Washington, D.C., takes the stage to warn about the perils of Dr. Henry Foster, nominated for the U.S. surgeon general's post.
“This man sterilized women who had IQs of 70!” Mahoney cries. “Forrest Gump had an IQ of 70!”
Next comes Joseph Foreman, who wins a standing ovation. It is 9 p.m. Won't he finally reveal where the demonstration will be?
From the podium, Foreman assails FACE.
“It's un-American. It's wrong. It's unconstitutional,” he says. Appeal to Congress, Foreman says, to overturn the law. Appeal to fellow Christians, he says, to fight a law that can only increase violence because it leaves people without peaceful recourse. “The avalanche is coming,” Formeman says. “You are just the first pebbles bouncing down the slope, so be there!”
“Amen,” cries the crowd.
In the meantime, says Foreman, “Maybe you need to get your tubes repaired to have more children to be fruitful for the kingdom of God!”
I take a break in the church lobby. It's filled with smiling people and tables, one of which overflows with bloody photos of mutilated dead babies. The photo captions call them fetuses, but some of the bodies are as well-formed as toddlers. One child is headless – clearly stillborn, not an aborted fetus. Another is a boy with what could be a green twine of intestines spilling from his body. Nearby are those rubber fetuses, 50 cents apiece. There are CDs, too, with the songs “Crying for You, Baby” and “If My Momma Could See Me Now.” And there are the $15 T-shirts the crowd has been told to buy for the coming protest. “If you make peaceful revolution impossible, you make violent revolution inevitable,” the shirts say, quoting John F. Kennedy.
“Do you think there will be violence at the blockade?” I ask Nicole Burns, 22, who is selling the goods. Burns is proudly breastfeeding. [page]
“Only if the pro-aborts are going to be there,” Burns says. I've been to 30 rescues since 1989,” she says, “and at one of them these pro-aborts started hollering at people, and this one man he took a cross and was doing disgusting things to people with it. It was horrible, just horrible to see how violent and ugly they were.”
“Are you pro-life or pro-murder?” a voice says. Busted, I think to myself.
“Those aren't the words I use,” I turn to say.
“That means you're pro-murder, right?” A man's blue eyes burn into mine; he's my height and brings his face dangerously near. “Do you know what babies look like after saline abortions? Do you know how it burns them?” he says.
“I don't want to talk,” I tell him.
“Let me show you something beautiful,” the blue-eyed man smiles.
“I'm not interested,” I say.
“It's a picture of a hand,” he says. And immediately I know what it will be: a mutaled baby.
“No,” I tell him.
“It's not ugly. Really,” the man says. It's beautiful. It's just a hand.”
“Hey,” I tell him. “No means no.”
“But it's just a hand.”
“I don't want to see the picture,” I say. But in my head I've already seen it. A tiny hand, reaching into space, and in my head, I'm in Seattle and I'm in the car – and I can't believe this rally is getting to me -and it's many years ago, and a lover drives me to an abortion clinic, and the man and I have never spoken of it, in fact, have rarely spoken again…
“I'm leaving,” I tell Mr. Blue Eyes.
“You just can't stand to face the truth,” he hisses at me, and his spits sprays my face. I wipe my cheek with my hand, and I walk out, walk fast into the parking lot. But I still haven't found out where the goddamned demonstration is.
I keep wiping my face, although the spit is long gone, and walk back inside, past the German shepherds asleep and twitching on the pavement.
It is nearly 10 p.m. “The press has gone home,” Jeff White announces inside the chapel – there are chuckles from the crowd – “so here's where we're going tomorrow,” White says. He announces the place: Family Planning Associates, Magnolia Avenue, Riverside. His words are barely airborne and I'm gone.