Blockades, Firebombs, Murder – A frontline report

by Mary Lou Greenberg

In Pensacola, Florida March 10, for the “crime” of providing abortions for women, antiabortion protestor Michael Griffith shot Dr. David Gunn in the back as he was about to enter the Pensacola Medical Services Clinic. Gunn’s murder, while a leap in the level of reactionary violence directed at women and those who assist them in their reproductive choices, was on the same continuum as firebombing clinics, stalking providers, blockading medical facilities and assaulting women who try to enter them.

In the wake of the murder, I traveled to Florida to participate in clinic defense efforts and learned firsthand about the state of siege which besets these clinics and their staffs every day. I also met some truly heroic women and men who are on the front lines of the abortion battle and who are determined not to give an inch.

While somewhat concentrated in Florida, the situation is similar in a number of places, particularly smaller and medium-sized cities where there are fewer abortion providers to begin with, a less developed and active prochoice movement, and where there exists what Operation Rescue (O.R.) or any of their affiliate organizations deem to be a more receptive (i.e., more socially conservative) climate. In fact, 83 percent of counties in the U.S. have no abortion provider. The right to abortion may still exist on paper, but if abortion is not accessible, that right means nothing. Today, for millions of young women faced with parental notification or consent laws, poor women who cannot get Medicaid funding, and women who live in those vast stretches of the country with no abortion provider, the right to abortion is a cruel joke. And O.R., et al., has declared its intention to increasingly target providers.

In January 1993, O.R. set up a training school in Melbourne, on Florida’s mid Atlantic coast. (Other O.R. boot camps have been scheduled for other parts of the country.) The 12 women and 10 men ranged in age from 16 to 67 and tried out their newly-learned harassment tactics on clinics in a 150-mile radius. These tactics included picketing the homes, churches and hangouts of doctors and other clinic workers; stalking and harassing clinic workers and “counseling” their children about the “morality” of abortion; and getting information on staff and patients by sifting through public records. Melbourne’s Aware Woman clinic was the target for many of their field exercises.

On Easter weekend, typically a time for major actions by the antiabortionists, these trainees were due to “graduate,” their final exams being clinic blockades. Prochoice forces in Melbourne, assisted by the Fund for a Feminist Majority, called on people for clinic defense. So, at 6 a.m. April 10, I found myself linking arms in a human defense line with several hundred other women and men outside the Aware Woman clinic. I talked to a blond 13-year-old youth whose mother is a family-planning educator at the clinic. He told me how he had been accosted at a Burger King restaurant by several O.R. women who told him his mother would “bum in hell” for working at the clinic. His family has also received numerous threatening phone calls. “But I support my mother,” he said, “and she supports me coming out here to defend the clinic.”

Medical personnel in white uniforms came out to bolster the defense lines, and I asked one nurse what her reaction had been to the news that Gunn had been killed. She paused, then said, “I still can’t talk about it, it’s too upsetting.” She said she was particularly concerned for her children. One day her nine-year-old daughter opened the door to two well dressed people. “Your mother’s a killer,” they told her. “She murders babies. You must make her stop.” But this nurse, like other clinic personnel on the lines that day, was determined not to back down. She pointed at the “antis” who were beginning to gather on the other side of the street and said, “All this just makes me stronger.

When clinic owner Patricia Baird-Windel came out to speak to the defenders and to the press, she was accompanied by a bodyguard. She said that since February 7, the clinic’s 800 number had been jammed with some 10,000 crank and threatening calls. On the day of Gunn’s murder she got several phone threats, including one from a male who said, “God is going to get you. You’re going to get waxed tonight.” “I don’t know what ‘waxed’ means,” she said, but “I presume he meant I was going to be killed.” One man called pretending to be a reporter for USA Today to try to get information from her.

While Baird-Windel remains firmly committed and has vowed to do everything possible to keep her clinic open, several doctors who worked there quit after Gunn’s murder, and some of her patients have begged to have their medical records destroyed out of fear that O.R. will break in and steal them. “There’s no way they can get them,’ Baird-Windel said, but the women are still petrified.

Sometimes O.R. has tried another tactic to intimidate patients. In Florida, anyone evidently can get a car owner’s name by calling an office and giving the license plate number. When a man drives a woman to the clinic, the antis quickly get this information, print the man’s name on a placard, and hold it up while the woman is still inside! Also, Baird-Windel’s clinic is one of the 60 nationwide which have been sprayed with foul-smelling butyric acid, requiring the clinic to close and everything to be thoroughly cleaned to get rid of the smell.

Despite a strict injunction which supposedly prohibits O.R. from blockading, leafleting or getting within 36 feet of the clinic or personnel, O.R. has not been deterred. In fact, they purchased a house across from Aware Woman for $48,000 cash and have announced plans for a “counseling” center there. The only thing that prevented them from blockading Aware Woman over Easter was the massed strength of several hundred clinic defenders. Across the country, experience has proven that only by massively mobilizing against the antis, by stepping up to the front lines to defend clinics and the women who go there, will O.R. attacks be stopped.

From Melbourne to Pensacola North and west from Melbourne into the Florida panhandle, Pensacola has been under another siege. While Gunn’s murder sent shock waves everywhere, in Pensacola it had an immediate chilling effect. When the president of Escambia County NOW (which includes Pensacola) announced plans for a demonstration, she received threats on her lite and resigned. John Baumgardner, a grand dragon of Florida’s Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan, told the Pensacola News Journal that he “understands” why an abortion opponent would kill to “defend his beliefs.” “If Christians really believe abortions are murder,” Baumgardner said, in not-so-subtle encouragement to his followers, “they need to do something about it – not just chain themselves to a door.”

John Burt is head of a group called Rescue America which was demonstrating outside Pensacola Medical Services when Gunn was killed there. Gunn’s killer had gone to a Rescue America prayer meeting the night before and prayed that Gunn would “see Jesus.” Rescue America had also distributed a “wanted” poster with Gunn’s photo, personal data, and information about what clinics he worked at. Burt admittedly is a former KKK member and has a long history of violence aimed at abortion clinics. In March 1986, Burt, his daughter and two others had stormed into another Pensacola clinic, The Ladies Center, and extensively damaged medical equipment. In May 1988, a Kentucky man drove to Pensacola with a carload of bomb parts with the intention of blowing up The Ladies Center. Burt was later put under two years of house arrest for driving this man by the clinic. When The Ladies Center, now in a new location, constructed a wooden eight-foot “privacy” fence around two sides of the center, Burt bought a strip of land on the other side of the fence and set up a scaffold. He leads his troops in standing on the scaffold and shouting imprecations and insults down to the women entering the clinic. He has also at times set up a wide-screen TV hooked up to a generator on which he shows antiabortion videos. Just behind the clinic, across a parking lot from Burt’s strip of harassment land, is a fake abortion clinic to which Burt tries to direct women coming to The Ladies Center. An assistant administrator at the clinic told me Burt hadn’t come around since shortly after Gunn’s murder, but the scaffold was still in place, and The Ladies Center anticipates more harassment.

A small bouquet of flowers marks the spot behind Pensacola’s other clinic, where Gunn was shot. The clinic’s assistant administrator told me that the killer, Michael Griffin, was probably hiding behind a clump of pampas grass when Gunn got out of his car in back of the clinic while Burt and others picketed in front (the first time they’d demonstrated at this clinic). Pensacola Medical Services is in a fairly new shopping and business mall area with well-kept grass, sparkling clean sidewalks and strips of two-story attached offices. It is indicative of the deep rift in society over abortion that Gunn could be shot in such a placid setting.

I learned that the Friday before the murder, other businesses in the mall had received calls “exposing” the clinic. Then a vehicle, which, I was told, has since been traced to Burt, backed up to their front door with a bumper sticker which read “Execute Abortionists.” A few days later, Gunn was killed.

Clinic staff at both The Ladies Center and Pensacola Medical Services were introduced at the NOW-sponsored May 9 rally held in honor of Gunn and to defend abortion rights. They received thunderous applause from the 3,00present. This event helped lift some of the repressive weight off prochoice forces there, and while some did not attend out of fear (one musician, for instance, said that some members of his group were afraid to come), for the many present (over half from Pensacola) it signaled a new day of prochoice activism and determination. Slogans such as “Protect and Defend Abortion Providers! Whatever it takes, the Christian Fascists Must be Stopped!” (earned by the antirepression group Refuse & Resist!) to “I’m Prochoice and I Shoot Back” (worn on a T-shirt by an unidentified woman), indicated a new militancy and determination to take on all who would attack women and the clinics and doctors who serve them.

Mary Lou Greenberg, a freelance writer living in New York City, has been active in the women’s liberation and reproductive rights movements for over 25 years.