When Buffalo sent Operation Rescue packing

April 27, 2017

Brian Erway tells how abortion rights activists organized against Operation Rescue 25 years ago in upstate New York--and what we can learn from this struggle today.

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, in April 1992, pro-choice activists in Buffalo, Rochester, throughout Western New York and, indeed, across the nation, were on a state of high alert.

The anti-abortion group Operation Rescue (OR) planned to descend on Buffalo, promising to deploy thousands of their zealous Christian followers for two weeks of physical blockades against the city's abortion clinics.

Their "Spring of Life" would begin after Easter Sunday, and they aimed to repeat their success from the previous summer in Wichita, Kansas, where their tactics of mass occupation temporarily closed that city's abortion clinics.

Several weeks before this, bright pink posters began to go up, as pro-choice forces organized for a clinic defense. The posters declared, "Operation Rescue, You're Not in Kansas Anymore!"--and summed up our collective goal: "Boot 'em out of Buffalo!"

IT'S IMPORTANT to describe what the political climate was like 25 years ago. President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 on a program that may sound familiar to people today: scapegoating immigrants and the poor, riding roughshod over workers and unions, and kicking off an arms race and confrontations with Russia (then the USSR).

Abortion rights activists clash with anti-choice Operation Rescue members outside the Buffalo clinic
Abortion rights activists clash with anti-choice Operation Rescue members outside the Buffalo clinic

The Republican Party explicitly courted a newly identified voting bloc: conservative-leaning, fundamentalist Christians. This cohort included followers of many televangelist preachers, mega-church pastors with cable TV and radio shows, and leaders of fundamentalist religious colleges.

These people spoke for a growing demographic, and they mobilized their base to pressure politicians to write "traditional"--and bigoted--religious stances into public policy, in what became dubbed the "culture wars." The Republican Party has counted on the organized political power of Christian fundamentalists ever since.

The Christian side of the culture wars stoked a fierce backlash against feminism and women's rights. Some branched out as well. A wing organized around singer and Christian Right figurehead Anita Bryant focused on mobilizing homophobic sentiment to obstruct any moves directed toward acceptance and equality for gays and lesbians, along with any relaxing of anti-sodomy laws and measures that criminalized the existence of LGBTQ people.

The prominence of this brand of right-wing Christian fundamentalism among our opponents was, of course, the basis of one of the most lasting pro-choice chants on the picket line, "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, born-again bigots, go away!"

A woman's right to abortion had only been won nationally in 1973, with the Roe v, Wade Supreme Court ruling, following a long series of struggles and mobilizations. As early as 1977, abortion rights opponents had pushed through a significant restriction, the Hyde Amendment, which barred federal funding of abortions as medical services in programs like Medicaid.

The anti-abortion cause drew strength not just from mobilized Protestant fundamentalists, but also from the substantial activist base of the Catholic Church of the time. For a while, they swelled the ranks of local anti-abortion protests, and we had chants tailored to address them, too, like: "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!"

In city after city, there were battles--protests and counterprotests--between pro-choice defenders of abortion rights and anti-abortionists on the attack.

In Rochester in the late 1980s--where I lived and still do today--pro-choice activists faced off against the anti-abortionists on opposite sides of Alexander Street in front of the Genesee Hospital. Although over time, we gathered and trained a core of dedicated pro-choice activists and clinic defenders, we were never able to greatly out-mobilize the other side.

Month by month and eventually year after year, we held our own, but in truth, the battle had become a siege.

Anti-abortion protesters were a chronic feature outside clinics, harassing patients, staff and anyone else who happened to be nearby. Pro-choice activists responded by working with clinics to establish escort services for clients to get through anti-abortion picketers. In some cases, injunctions kept anti-abortionists a minimum distance from clinic entrances.

OPERATION RESCUE (OR) emerged as an up-and-coming contender in the heated cloud of politicized evangelical Christians fighting in the trenches of the "culture wars" and seeing themselves as the cutting edge of rolling back the gains that women, LGBT people and others had made in demanding equality.

Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry was a charismatic 30-year-old leader, with roots in the Rochester area, but who made Binghamton, New York, his home base. Terry started off on a small scale, individually harassing patients at clinics--so-called "sidewalk counseling"--and he built a following.

In January 1986, he led a group of seven inside a clinic, where they locked themselves up and destroyed telephones, furniture and anything else they could lay their hands on until police pulled them out and arrested them. Terry's new tactic of blockading clinics in order to "rescue" fetuses was born.

As Terry described it in his book Operation Rescue, this had a polarizing effect on the existing movement:

Our first rescue mission jolted the Christian community. Until then, we had been held in high regard and honor because of our efforts and sacrifice on behalf of the unborn. They felt we had "broken the law." Our actions left a lot of pastors and congregations in a state of shock and confusion. Others were downright angry.

Despite the loss of support from some moderates, the "rescue" tactics grabbed headlines, and a harder-core minority responded enthusiastically.

As Terry and Operation Rescue took their campaign to various cities across the country, their prominence in the anti-abortion movement grew. OR's tactical breakthrough was to stage large-scale mobilizations with civil disobedience to shut down the clinics and tie up law enforcement in a particular locale.

These included actions in Atlanta during the 1988 Democratic Party convention (134 arrests and national attention); Los Angeles in spring 1989 "Holy Week of Rescue" (700 arrests); and, notoriously, Wichita, Kansas, in the summer of 1991, where 2,600 anti-choice bigots were arrested over the course of six weeks, but succeeded closing down clinics.

Pro-choice forces tried various tactics in response, often seeking court injunctions against OR. In practice, however, the injunctions didn't impede the anti-abortionists because OR activists were already planning on getting arrested. OR instructed its members to refuse to provide the cops with names, thus complicating processing after arrest.

The moderate wing of the pro-choice movement didn't want a confrontation with the anti-abortionists and counseled relying on the police to do their job. This was what the pro-choice leadership in Wichita decided to do in summer of 1991, and the result was OR scoring a significant publicity victory.

IN OCTOBER 1991, Randall Terry announced that he was scouting locations for OR's next campaign and was considering Buffalo. The next week, Buffalo's "pro-life" Mayor James Griffin welcomed Terry and OR "with open arms," saying, "I want to see them in this city. If they can shut down one abortion mill, they've done their job."

Pro-choice activists throughout the region immediately mobilized, protesting Mayor Griffin at City Hall and at a clinic where it was rumored Terry would appear. There was strong feeling in the wake of Wichita that we had to mount a physical defense of the clinics and prevent OR from getting close enough to blockade them.

In truth, however, the movement could not decide what to do that easily.

In particular, there was a division between those who said we should physically prevent Operation Rescue from blockading the clinics, and those who thought that stance was too militant. In fact, some pro-choice activists objected to any kind of demonstration at all in front of the clinics.

A lively debate within the movement followed, addressing themes we still hear today: Are we not hurting patients and clients if we mass in front of the clinics, and don't we need permission from the clinics?

Soon after Terry made it official in January 1992 that Buffalo was the target, the activists who wanted to organize the physical defense of the clinics went ahead and formed Buffalo United for Choice (BUC). The groups who didn't agree withdrew from the movement, although as individuals, many found their way back to the clinic defense.

Pro-choice forces were already on the ground in both Buffalo and Rochester, but now everyone knew we had to kick it up a notch.

Throughout the region, activists held interest meetings and then training sessions for direct action in defending the clinics from OR. On campuses and in community centers, we gathered in scores and practiced linking arms to defend clinic entrances, while our pretend anti-abortion fanatics flung themselves at our lines.

BUC drew up practical plans for organizing the mass defense of the clinics. There were three in downtown Buffalo within walking distance of each other, an advantage to defenders who could shift forces quickly as needed. A fourth clinic was in suburban Amherst, and not as easily defended.

By now, the struggle was attracting national attention, and BUC had secured funding for walkie-talkies and headsets, and setting up a command post, as well as buttons, placards, flyers and more. They got support from local grassroots efforts and benefit concerts, as well as national NGOs like the Feminist Majority Foundation.

In Washington, D.C., a national March for Women's Lives took place on April 5, and this helped focus attention on the looming struggle in Buffalo, convincing some to travel there and participate.

In Rochester, those of us in the International Socialist Organization organized at the University of Rochester, where we had helped initiate a Pro-Choice Action Committee (PCAC) previous year. PCAC sent buses to the Washington march and organized clinic defense training sessions on campus.

There were pro-choice activists scattered throughout dozens of campuses across Western New York, and among them, there was considerable interest in confronting OR.

The PCAC proposed a "Student Coalition Against Operation Rescue" to help coordinate at colleges and sent out invitation letters (this was that dark period of world history before the Internet). But this inter-campus group never came together, and student activists found their own way the clinic defense lines. The response throughout the region nonetheless was massive and totally successful.

AN EARLY sign of this came in Rochester, where Randall Terry scheduled a rally the Thursday before Easter. The event would take place at a downtown church, and our local movement couldn't decide what to do. About half of us wanted to picket the church right from the beginning and confront the OR supporters as they arrived. They would have to get through our lines to reach their meeting.

The other half of our group balked at the idea of confrontation. They wanted to assemble at a separate, non-hostile site and then march to the church where Terry was speaking. We were split down the middle and unable to reach a decision, and in the end, each side's adherents did what they wanted. We were going into action, but we weren't united.

The night was cold and rainy, and those of us who started off picketing at the church were getting pushed around by a big contingent of police, even though there were 200 or more of us. The cops pressured our crowd to stand across the street and not to chant "in front of a church." Those of us who argued that we should defy the cops and make lots of noise found that we couldn't win our crowd.

It was a miserable moment. But then, from down the street through the rain, we could hear an approaching commotion. The other half of our demonstration was arriving, chanting, waiving signs and now doubling our size.

With up to 500 protesters and a newfound surge of purpose, we stood directly in front of the church and spilled into the street, shouting loud enough to raise the rafters and be clearly heard inside.

"Not the church, not the state, Women must decide their fate!" filled the air. And there was nothing the cops could do about it now, except direct traffic around our crowd in the street.

It was an incredible feeling, and for me an object lesson in how a shift in the balance of forces can transform everything in a situation. Not until seven or eight years later, during the global justice movement, would we have a chant that summed it up: "Whose streets? Our streets!"

OR SAID its blockades in Buffalo would begin after Easter, but we started clinic defense two days early, because we couldn't discount the possibility of an early sneak attack. But despite high levels of adrenalin in expectation, no anti-abortionists showed up, and we finished the day early.

Each morning before dawn, several hundred pro-choice activists gathered outside the clinics, introduced themselves to each other, organized defense lines and anxiously waited to see if OR would show up. When escorts brought a patient to the entrance, we opened up the lines of locked arms to allow them in and then sealed the lines up after them.

BUC maintained communication between clinic sites and sent out scout teams to tail the OR buses and report on their movements.

On Tuesday, the blockade efforts began in earnest as busloads and carloads of OR activists disgorged people near the High Street clinic--but found the only place they could take up positions was on the sidewalk across the street from the entrance and its 100 defenders. The chant rang out: "Right to life, your name's a lie! You don't care if women die!"

They could pray on that side but do little else, as the cops would warn and then arrest anyone who went out into the street.

At one point, a few OR volunteers managed to rush across the street and tried to push up to the clinic entrance. The defenders' lines bent but held solid, and the attack was repelled. Later ,local OR leader Rev. Robert Schenck was arrested when police objected to him parading around for the press with what he claimed was an aborted fetus in a jar.

As word of the arrest spread, clinic defenders at a nearby Main Street site taunted OR by chanting, "Schenck's gone to jail! Schenck's gone to jail!"

Sometime after noon, the word came down that all scheduled patients had been seen, with no interruption or delay in services, and a cheer went up along the defenders' lines.

FINDING THE clinic defenses downtown too difficult to penetrate, OR turned up the next day at the suburban Amherst clinic. Here, 150 of them were arrested, but they never got close to the clinic defenders at the entrance. Instead, they crawled part of the way to the building, then sat down in a parking lot, and were processed by police from there.

Plenty of arrests but no "rescues." We let them know our response: "Pray, you'll need it. Your cause has been defeated!"

The next morning, OR returned to the clinics downtown, and 71 of them were arrested as they blockaded an unused back doorway at GYN Womenservices. Meanwhile, patients continued to come and go through the front entrance, defended by 150 pro-choice activists, who chanted "Face it, you're losers! It's time to go home!" Another 75 arrests the next day again had no effect on interrupting services.

By the end of the first week, it was clear to all that Operation Rescue was being routed, outnumbered every day at the clinics and unable to shut down any operations at all. A local newspaper declared, "OR strategy backfires," pointing out that OR's ballyhooed descent on Buffalo had set in motion an even more potent response. Now the superior tactics and mobilization of BUC were winning the day.

That weekend, OR and its friends in the Religious Right put out a call appealing for more volunteers to come flooding into Buffalo. On Monday, 75 anti-abortionists were arrested, but the wave of new activists had not materialized, and OR called an indefinite break in the protest for its followers to pray and fast. They were back two days later, and continued staging arrests, but with less enthusiasm each day, until they fizzled out, two weeks after they began.

Terry declared to the press that the "Spring of Life" was still a victory and shuffled out of Buffalo. There had been 615 arrests, 597 of them anti-abortionists and 18 on the pro-choice side.

BUC's success in defending the clinics proved that OR's tactics were beatable, and broke the momentum for large-scale "rescues" that OR had pioneered. The lesson we learned then is just as important for us today: If we fight back, we can win, but we must choose to fight back, rather than allow the police and the courts to "do their work."

This must be our starting point now, 25 years later, as we set ourselves the task of defending a woman's right to abortion for yet another generation.

Further Reading

From the archives