The Circus Comes to Buffalo

Operation Rescue puts on a show in a slain abortion provider's hometown

Despite the less than welcoming atmosphere, the America-savers do sometimes stop by this occupied stretch of Main Street to strum their guitars, sing, and read from dog-eared copies of the Bible. On the only strip of pavement not occupied by law enforcement outside the clinic, antiabortion protesters engage in sometimes bizarre exchanges with prochoice demonstrators. The press gather around for the tensest of these encounters, which usually involve Benham. With the charged charisma of a coked-up game show host, the reverend revels in the attention. Surrounded by a clump of reporters, he moves down a line of prochoicers, preaching just inches from the face of each one. He spars with anyone who's willing. And when prochoice demonstrators chant, "Four, six, eight, ten, why are all your leaders men?" he gleefully responds, "Because we're supposed to be."

But such verbal skirmishes never last for long. Even as reporters are jotting down the "discourse," Benham and Behn decide to move their flock to other sinful sites, rarely disclosing the exact locations in advance, even to their adherents. "We never know what the plans are," says Kathleen Tyree, a wide-eyed music instructor from New Orleans, who plays prayer songs on her violin.

The whole affair begins to feel like a game of cops and robbers—and not just because of the ubiquitous police presence. The minute Operation Rescuers are spirited off in poster-covered vans (one shows pictures of aborted fetuses alongside pictures of corpses in Nazi death camps), members of Buffalo United for Choice scramble for their walkie-talkies, announcing the enemy's departure to monitors in other locations. Reporters who can figure out where to go race to catch the next act in their cars.

The group often fans out to several locations, leaving one faction at the clinic while another goes off to Eliot Spitzer's Buffalo office, for instance, or, on Saturday, to Buffalo General Hospital. On weekdays the sites also include the area's public schools. Protesters hold up fetus posters (Stop the Murder; Mary Was a Woman; Abortion Is Domestic Violence in the Womb; etc.), while kids, for the most part, ignore them. Then, after some leafleting and shouting or waving at passing cars—depending on the bent of the driver—it's on to the next location, Barnes & Noble perhaps.

Operation Rescue leaders have declared their intention to picket local bookstores on the grounds that they sell child pornography. But because no one knows exactly when they'll show up, counterprotesters, reporters, and FBI agents end up milling around a Barnes & Noble decorated with Curious George cutouts for about an hour before any demonstrators arrive. Eventually, a prochoicer who has driven from New York City to oppose Operation Save America announces the protesters are on their way, having gained this intelligence via cell phone from a friend who is following them in a car.

Once outside the bookstore, a few dozen Operation Rescuers unfurl a "Boycott Barnes & Noble" banner and—unaccountably, given that the action is against child pornography—haul out the standard fetus pictures. Meanwhile, David Lackey, who's been jailed 17 times for demonstrating, preaches from the highway divider outside the strip mall, waving photocopied examples of child pornography. Though the store stocks little of the material that Lackey finds objectionable (books of photography by Jock Sturges, David Hamilton, and Sally Mann), he holds his own copy of Mann's Immediate Family so he can easily demonstrate its pornographic nature to passersby. Save the throng of reporters, however, there are none.

If such spectacles seem silly, they are essential viewing for some western New Yorkers. "I feel an obligation to witness the insanity," says Frank Pellicone, 34. A scholar of Italian literature who wears a "Doctor Faggot to you" T-shirt, Pellicone likens Benham to a cross between the 15th-century Italian book-burner Savonarola and Morton Downey Jr. But even though he laughs at "how stupid this all is," Pellicone has taken the situation seriously enough to attend prochoice counterdemonstrations. He has also joined the Rainbow Peacekeepers, a team of roughly 75 volunteers who keep sober vigil at nine local gay bars to protect against gay bashing and any other violence that might break out.

Indeed, thanks in large part to Operation Save America's seemingly boundless agenda, the organized response to it has been at least as broad. Buffalo United for Choice, a coalition that formed in 1992 to oppose the Spring of Life, has been revived and expanded. This time, groups such as the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Coalition to Free Mumia, the YWCA of Buffalo, and the Workers World Party are standing alongside veteran NOW and Planned Parenthood members who sport prochoice fanny packs and buttons from protests past. The expansive prochoice calendar even includes a tribute to John Coltrane.

A coalition of Buffalo's religious leaders has also formed to oppose Operation Save America, with priests and rabbis sermonizing on the meaning of choice and publicly challenging the notion that Operation Rescuers are "God's personal press secretaries," as Unitarian Universalist minister Daniel Budd describes them.

The biggest fundraiser for BUC, a drag show attended by more than 350, leaves little question that Operation Save America has brought together people with little in common besides a distaste for Buffalo's uninvited visitors. The audience is mostly drag fans. But staid, suited prochoicers also attend "the Wrecking Ball," which features a parade of dildo-packing, crotch-grabbing drag kings. "At first I thought they were men," clinic defender Nancy Johnson says, chuckling. "But then I realized." Johnson says she wondered why "gay people are riding on the prochoice thing," but has come to see some similarity in the situations of women and gay people.

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