Can we finally say this out loud? Operation Rescue was pathetic. They declared a “Summer of Mercy 2.0” outside the Germantown, Md., clinic of Dr. LeRoy Carhart, and now, as of late this Monday morning, they have (thankfully) gone home, and now we can tell it like it is.
For those who don’t know, the term “Summer of Mercy” is laden with awful history, referring to a time in 1991 when Operation Rescue shut down the late Dr. George Tiller’s clinic in Wichita, Kan., for weeks on end. Watching video footage from those days you can see anti-abortion rights extremists screaming and crawling on all fours through the streets (culminating in a few thousand arrests). As a friend from Kansas recently told me, “It was hell.”
Scott Roeder, the man convicted of murdering Dr. George Tiller, explained during his trial that while he did not attend that original Summer of Mercy, it did make him “more aware” of Dr. Tiller.
For these reasons and many more, abortion rights and reproductive justice activists around the country took Operation Rescue’s threatened actions in Germantown very seriously. Grassroots activists and organizations poured our time, resources and hearts into supporting a “Summer Celebration of Choice” taking place Sunday, July 31, through Monday, August 8, declared by none other than Dr. LeRoy Carhart himself.
The result was, in a word, awesome. From about 7:00 every morning to 10:00 (or later) every night, activists from 18 states stood out in 100-degree heat, intense pouring rain and everything in between to stand with Dr. Carhart, his excellent staff and the women they serve with dignity, compassion and respect. At many points during those nine days we outnumbered the antis. Members of the community kept stopping by with doughnuts, drinks and thank yous for our service. There was no violence, the clinic stayed open, and we did a great job representing the pro-choice majority in this country in the face of an extreme onslaught of misinformation, lies and hatred.
Here are a few lessons made obvious during the Summer Celebration of Choice:
1. The so-called “pro-life” movement is explicitly or at least implicitly encouraging the killing of abortion providers. From the gentleman spotted wandering around the clinic several days mumbling about a gun, to the “truth truck” with Dr. Carhart’s and Dr. Tiller’s pictures driving around the immediate area, to the offer of $35,000 for anyone with “information” about Dr. Carhart, to the exploding gun chalked on the sidewalk outside the office complex beneath the words “Would it bother us if they use guns?,” not once did we see leaders of Operation Rescue disavow the violent images, words and actions right beside them. It is especially chilling to consider what we saw all week in light of the fact that right after Scott Roeder murdered Dr. Tiller, he climbed into a car with the phone number of Operation Rescue’s policy advisor stuck to the dashboard.
2. Keeping up a peaceful pro-choice presence is not always easy, but it works. Our goal during the week was to not engage at all with the anti-abortion rights extremists surrounding the clinic, and we did a pretty good job. It is not always easy when you are being screamed at, or having a baby thrust in your face with an admonition that you would kill her, or getting frustrated with the police for allowing antis to stand on a portion of the grass inside the sidewalk when the non-violent pro-choice advocates are being shooed away from the same ground. However, by not engaging, we showed the community that the best antidote to fundamentalist prayer and terror truly is peace.
3. Young women are already leading the bulk of today’s boots-on-the-ground movement for abortion rights, in truly intergenerational partnerships with older women. There is a lot of noise made in the news media about younger feminists not existing, not caring about abortion rights, or spending all their time being dismissed by older feminists. It would be nice if the reporters perpetuating that tired old storyline would have come to Germantown, because what they would have seen was obvious: Young women were the vast majority of those standing out in the streets — in leading and not merely supporting roles — in support of Dr. Carhart. It was young women working with feminist women and men of all ages who sent Operation Rescue home.
Activism is what happens when ordinary people stand together to do semi-unconventional things, like standing outside in support of abortion rights for up to sixteen hours straight while bullies yell and scream. As Dr. Carhart noted Monday after they all went home, Operation Rescue prompted pro-choice advocates from around the country to get together and realize how strong we actually are. Indeed, an invaluable realization at a time of unprecedented legislative attacks on a woman’s fundamental right to control whether, when and how she might have children. What we need is to stand together more often, and in the streets.