The park was silent as operation Save America (OSA) conducted its “Memorial Service for the Unborn.” Twenty-eight children (to mark the 28 years since Roe v. Wade) placed red carnations on a tiny white coffin; in it, a jar containing an aborted fetus. The flower presentation was followed by an open-casket viewing of “Mark,” during which some picked up the jar and kissed it. A little girl, wearing a T-shirt that read, FORMER FETUS CLUB OF AMERICA: I SURVIVED ROE V. WADE, sobbed hysterically as she walked away from the coffin.
The memorial service was one of the many staged melodramas during OSA’s weeklong “Summer of Mercy Renewal” in Wichita, Kansas, this past July, which drew around seven hundred anti-choice protesters. The gathering marked the ten-year anniversary of OSA’s (then called Operation Rescue) 1991 “Summer of Mercy,” a showdown that kept abortion clinics closed for seven weeks and resulted in more than 2,700 arrests. OSA, the born-again Christian group known for its aggressive street tactics, has targeted Wichita mainly because it is home to George Tiller, a physician whose clinic is one of the few in the world that perform third-trimester abortions. Women often travel hundreds of miles to get there. In 1986, the clinic was firebombed, and in 1993, Tiller was shot in both arms. OSA National Director Flip Benham likes to call Wichita “the abortion capital of our nation.”
The mayhem of 1991 was an emotional setback for Wichita’s pro-choice community, but it brought a small outspoken group together, which later formed the Wichita Choice Alliance. In preparation for OSA’s antics, the alliance pressured the city to impose a $3,000 cash bail minimum on arrests, hoping to discourage a clinic blockade and other illegal direct actions. They also reached out to pro-choice communities across the country for help.
The motley band of activists who showed up included anarchists from Anti-Racist Action, interns from the Feminist Majority Foundation, and volunteers from Refuse & Resist! and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. All were welcomed by the alliance, which found floors for everyone to sleep on, prepared regular meals, and bought the beer for end-of-the-day debriefing sessions.
In all, about one hundred counterprotesters stood strong throughout the week, swearing to “Abort Operation Save America.” And the clinic stayed open. There were no significant illegal actions or mass arrests, thanks to the bail minimum, and no serious injuries or incidents, but an undercurrent of violence reverberated nonetheless.
Hours before daylight, OSA would line up 300 to 400 protesters outside Tiller’s clinic, which quickly became a volatile “red zone,” where the two sides yelled, jostled, and shoved with wooden signs and elbows. In the afternoons, in 100-plus degree heat, OSA paraded behind “truth trucks” plastered with graphic pictures of fetuses. Although they didn’t have a clear plan to force the clinic to close, their overall strategy was to foment tensions among defenders and to intimidate patients to keep them from entering. Henry Howard, a Los Angeles activist who has been defending clinics for 12 years, said, “I have never seen OSA appear so hateful. They are always intentionally provocative, but this time they knew they were in control, and they wanted to hurt us.” The Wichita alliance points out that in other cities where OSA has targeted abortion providers, police have separated demonstrators to lessen hostilities.
Not so in Wichita. “Don’t go in there, mommy! I want to live, I want to swing on the swings! Don’t send my baby ashes flying across this city!” OSA’s “sidewalk counselors” wailed at women entering the clinic. To create a buffer between demonstrators and patients, pro-choice activists locked arms and chanted slogans. They often varied their tactics to protect each other: when OSA demonstrators aggressively encircled the silent religious coalition members, f