As I was growing up, my grandmother frequently reminded me that I’d catch more flies with honey than I would with vinegar. Trite as it sounds, her words reverberated when I read about the February antics of Operation Save America’s [OSA] Flip Benham, antics that led to his arrest not once, but twice.
As head of the Concord, North Carolina-based OSA, Benham is a well-practiced provocateur, known for bringing billboard-sized displays of allegedly aborted fetuses to public schools, shopping malls, and parks. He’s also a believer in justifiable homicide, the outright murder of abortion providers, and regularly brings loud, flamboyant protests to the communities where clinic owners and their physicians live.
Benham’s first arrest occurred at the Central Church of God, a Charlotte congregation that regularly draws more than 6000 people to Sunday worship. According to OSA’s website, the group wanted to alert parishioners “to the fact that there are two abortion mills within a four mile radius of the church.” Their goal? “To remind God’s people of their duty to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
While church personnel are staunchly anti-abortion, they are also vehemently opposed to OSA’s tactics. Janice Landreth, assistant to Senior Pastor Loren Livingston, said that someone from OSA called the church in mid-January to ask if they could distribute literature outside sanctuary doors. “We said, ‘No.‘ We don’t ever allow that because it ends up being chaotic,” she says. “We asked them not to come here for that purpose, but they deliberately trespassed on our property on February 7 despite this.”
Reverend Greg Baker, who has worked at Central Church since 1990, still sounds incredulous as he describes the scene that Sunday. First, he lays out his anti-choice bonafides: “We believe that we are the crown of God’s creation which is why life is so sacred,” he begins. “But ours is a broad appreciation of the gift of life. Our point is that people brought their children to services and these children saw the pictures OSA displayed. Some of them were in tears. As I see it, these kids’ lives are precious and Flip and OSA dishonored many precious children by forcing these images on them. They dishonored parents who have the right to decide when it’s appropriate to introduce themes like abortion to their children. And they dishonored women and men in our congregation who were involved with abortion before they came to Christ. They felt slapped in the face by OSA’s presence.”
Baker calls OSA’s appearance “degrading,” but says that it was Charlotte police, and not Central Church, that promulgated the arrests. “City officers are here on Sundays to direct traffic,” Baker continues. “They don’t work for us but are here to insure safety.”
Still, Baker admits that the apprehension of anti-abortion activists rankled the church, at least initially. In fact, church leaders called a meeting to try and iron out differences between the parish and OSA. The effort failed, Baker says, because “OSA thinks we need to see things as they see them. We agree on the issue, but we disagree on methodology. We had to tell them that we’re not interested in partnering with them.“
Following this meeting, things for OSA went from bad to worse.
On February 21, Benham was again arrested, this time for stalking and “assembly to disrupt tranquility.” The charges stem from OSA’s picketing of Dr. Curtis Flood’s suburban neighborhood. Flood, a respected ob-gyn, is one of four physicians who perform abortions at Family Reproductive Health [FRH] in Charlotte. “We let folks know that Dr. Flood not only delivers babies, he also kills them,” OSA’s website blasts. “We asked his neighbors to ask Dr. Flood to turn to Jesus and use his wonderful skills to bring healing rather than destruction.”
After Benham’s detention, OSA leader Rusty Lee added a touch of menace to the organization’s website: “Dr. Flood’s soul hangs in the balance…He will either break, repent, end the slaughter and turn to Christ for the forgiveness of sin, or he will harden his heart and be turned over to a reprobate mind.”
Whatever that means.
Deb Walsh, owner of Family Reproductive Health—one of three clinics in Charlotte—is heartened by the recent arrests. At the same time, she doesn’t expect OSA to fold its tent and leave town anytime soon. She notes that OSA moved to North Carolina following the death of conservative realtor and anti-abortion activist David Drye. “Drye left a trust for Flip to move to Concord,” she said in an email. “Flip had a press conference at my clinic in spring 2003, announcing that a national siege would begin in Charlotte that June. He said at the press conference that he would stay in the area until I was gone.”
Needless to say, Walsh hasn’t budged. But it hasn’t been easy. FRH staffer Kenya says that things at the health center, while always bad, are getting worse. “Before, OSA would stand outside the clinic screaming and harassing us and our patients. Now they’re going to doctors’ homes and private offices, disturbing people and putting up Wanted posters.”
Indeed, anti-abortion activism—like other rightwing agitation—is increasing throughout the South and OSA hopes to up the momentum by bringing protesters to Charlotte from July 17-24. They pledge to “storm the gates of hell and take the city back for King Jesus.” Might this be a clarion call for renewed prochoice defiance?