The Circus Comes to Buffalo

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

If you didn't know better, you might think that the MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo was some sort of vaulted sports bar and Jesus a quarterback nearing the end zone. As the chants mount ("Je-sus! Je-sus! Je-sus!"), revelers spring from their seats, arms raised in excitement. Yet the large-screen TV by the altar shows not a ball game, but video images of fetuses. Meanwhile, photographers stumble over one another in the aisles to get the best shots of the ecstatic worshipers.

Such was the slightly surreal spirit as Operation Rescue's latest antiabortion extravaganza—and the press covering it—descended on this beleaguered western New York town last week. While Operation Save America—as the eight-day protest fest was called—churned ridiculously on, you could see a reporter interviewing a man dressed as the grim reaper. A prochoicer engaging in loud, circular debate with a prolifer—who was 10 years old. Or, inexplicably, a man dressed as Santa Claus, who occasionally flitted by protests, wearing a string of beer cans around his neck.

Six months ago, a sniper fired into the kitchen of Barnett Slepian, the only doctor in Buffalo's only abortion clinic. The murder once again brought the national spotlight to the antiabortion movement's small band of extremists. But even as news organizations followed Operation Rescue's national director, Flip Benham, as if he were a candidate for national office, the clearest message of this latest series of protests was that the group has spun further than ever from the mainstream.

In 1992, more than 1000 protesters showed for the Spring of Life, the first string of high-publicity demonstrations Operation Rescue staged in Buffalo, which Operation Save America is meant to commemorate. But this year, there were no more than 250 abortion opponents on hand, even though ringmasters Benham and Buffalo-based Bob Behn sent out some 60,000 invitations. And many figures central to earlier incarnations of Operation Rescue—including Buffalo agitators Paul Schenck and Karen Swallow Prior—have sat out this year's street theater festival.

Piddling and strange as the current crop of fringe-dwellers are, though, their connection to antiabortion terrorism—which they themselves have chosen to highlight by coming to Buffalo—cannot be ignored. James Charles Kopp, the fugitive wanted for questioning in the murder of Dr. Slepian, has been associated with Operation Rescue in the past, and it's not difficult to find Operation Save America participants who openly boast of being friends with Kopp. What's more, Behn announced the group's plans to come to Buffalo just eight days after the doctor's murder.

Operation Rescue insists its demonstrations were planned months before Slepian was killed, but the timing and location of this year's festival of zealots seems to offend most Buffalonians. "They came here to dance on his grave," says one churchgoer who described herself as "ambivalent" about the abortion issue.

Benham, who characterizes his movement as peaceful, puts it another way. Without disavowing the murder, he foists responsibility for the killing on the doctor himself. "The blood of Dr. Slepian is on the hands of Dr. Slepian," he told the press, most of whom wouldn't have been speaking to him had the doctor not been shot. "The same spirit of murder that allowed Bart Slepian to kill thousands of children here in Buffalo, New York, also took his life." Operation Rescuers also refuse accountability for the indecorous scheduling of their latest event. "God chose Buffalo," explains the Waco-based reverend, Rusty Thomas.

God presumably also told Operation Rescue to extend its campaign into every last sinful nook and cranny of our society. That means it denounces the public schools as Godless, both for not having prayer and for teaching sex education. It repeatedly condemns homosexuality. And it seems to oppose sex in general. "Jesus has come to free us from the bondage of sex," says Benham (meaning bondage in the figurative sense, one assumes). Contraception is also a no-no. "Birth control is the father of abortion," explains Steve Lefemme, an itinerant minister who says that he himself used to be a "fornicator" before he found God.

The diversification of Operation Rescue's activities may also have another explanation: With protesters now kept far from clinics, the group has been forced to find new venues to vent its rages. While Buffalo mayor Jimmy Griffin welcomed Operation Rescue into the city with open arms seven years ago, the current mayor, Anthony Masiello, has been clear about his commitment to protecting Slepian's former place of work, GYN Womenservices, which is also the city's only remaining abortion clinic. (In 1992, there were two clinics and two private offices providing abortions; now there is just one of each.) The 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act makes it a crime to interfere with access to such buildings. And a judge recently widened the standard 15-foot buffer zone outside Womenservices to 60 feet especially for the occasion.

That means that when "rescuers" go to the abortion clinic on this particular jaunt, they face a phalanx of no less than eight different types of law enforcement officers from the local police up through the feds, all of whom wear the nonexpression of Buckingham Palace guards. SWAT teams survey protesters from nearby rooftops. And FBI videographers record their every move as a helicopter flies overhead.

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 Familyso 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.

"These issues are all related," echoes another audience member as she fiddles with her taped-on moustache. This last point is perhaps the only one on which Operation Save America participants and their opponents agree. The drag fundraiser was put on because "the same agenda that restricts abortion and limits birth control also prevents us...from [having] full rights as citizens," according to the program. And, if Operation Rescue members infiltrated the event, no doubt it would confirm their worst (or best?) fears. Lesbians, gay men, and people of color are supporting abortion rights. They are openly in favor of sex. And they rarely mention Jesus.

But in the parallel universes, such observations mean opposite things. At an Operation Save America youth rally in the uffalo Christian Center (the B seems to have fallen off the aging building), 18-year-old Courtney Anne Powley patiently explains why she's content with women having the "helpmate" role. "Men are supposed to be the leaders, the protectors," she says over the din of Operation Exodus, a rock band. Meanwhile, a prochoice group named Refuse & Resist hands out its version of a fetus picture—a photo of a 1950s housewife emptying a dishwasher, captioned "These are women's rights on Operation Rescue."'

Face to screaming face on the Buffalo streets, there is no way to reconcile these viewpoints. But, in the court of public opinion, Operation Rescue may be losing out. By bringing such issues as gender roles to the forefront, the group seems to have jeopardized whatever sympathy clinic "rescuers" had carved out for themselves. Those who truly believe abortion is murder can justify clinic protests as "lifesaving." But, even in conservative America, few people are willing to accept Operation Save America's insistence that women should not lead, that gays should go back in the closet, that far-out evangelism is the only religion to choose.

Far-out as Operation Rescue now is, some have come to believe the best response to it is no response. "Why egg them on?" asks a woman stuck in the traffic near GYN Womenservices. But for one prochoicer, an elderly Jewish woman with a German accent who has traveled from California to protest Operation Save America, the answer is simple: "They won't go away if you ignore them," she says knowingly. "You have to stand up and be counted."

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