by Mary Lou Greenberg
Anti-abortion leader and former Ku Klux Klan member John Burt and two of his associates called a press conference on the steps of the Pensacola courthouse two days after the July 29 murders of Dr. John Bayard Britton and [ames Barrett.The press conference didn’t go down as planned.
Members of Refuse & Resist! from Atlanta, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and New York City and the San Francisco area’s Bay Area Coalition for Our Reproductive Rights (BACORR) flew to Pensacola the day after the murders.
Both organizations have been on the front lines of clinic defense for many years and are founding members of the new national Fightback Network of militant abortion-rights activists.
Burt has a long history of vicious attacks against Pensacola’s clinics and ongoing harassment of clinic staff and women seeking abortions. He purchased a small strip of land around The Ladies Center on which he erected scaffolding. He and his crew stand on the scaffolding and yell over the clinic’s fence at the arriving staff and clients. He also was leading a demonstration outside the Pensacola Medical Services Clinic when Dr. David Gunn was shot outside the back entrance on March 10, 1993.
Gunn’s killer. Michael Griffin, was a member of Burt’s rescue America organization, and Burt set up a defense fund for him.
The day of Burt’s press conference we appeared at the courthouse first, holding a large banner that read “No Fear! No Silence! Defend Abortion Providers by Any Means Necessary!” No sooner had Burt begun to read a statement than chants of “John Burt and the KKK/Use the same tactics to get their way!” drowned him out.
I was standing near a Pensacola woman who had come to see what Burt was up to. She had had an abortion herself and was furious at what he had done through the years and how he was trying to present himself now. “I’d like to shut him up,” she told me. “Do it,” I encouraged her, and she began shouting, “murderer, murderer!”
Burt and his cronies, visibly shaken at all this opposition, began to leave, but the activist crew followed him down the street, chanting “murderer” right in his face and shaking their fists at him. The action was prominently covered in the local media, with one station reporting that Burt had been “run out of town.”
Later, I learned that this was the first time anyone had directly confronted Burt. Pensacola is not the only city where extreme reactionary violence has been directed at abortion providers. But a combination of circumstances, including a concentration of backward bible-belt fundamentalists and a history of KKK activity, has made it a particularly sharp battleground. The city’s abortion facilities have been hit hard by anti-abortionists, beginning on Christmas day 1984 when several were bombed and severely damaged.
A press conference later that day by the Fightback Network exposed Burt’s connections with Britton’s and Barrett’s killer. A September 1993 article in the anti-abortion magazine Life Advocate entitled “Florida Pro-Lifers I.D. Gunn’s Replacement,” reported that on Friday, August 6, 1993 John Burt, Floyd Murray, Don Gratton, and Paul Hill stalked and photographed Dr. Britton. (Murray and Gratton also appeared with Burt at his attempted press conference.) The article also documents that Burt produced a threatening “wanted” poster of Dr. Britton “making vital information about him available to the public,” including his home and office addresses.
Pro-choice forces went on the offensive again at another press conference. This one was held in Tallahassee, the state capitol, on August 12 by Judy Madsen and Michele Herzog, cofounders of The True Majority. The group advertises itself as “a movement of Christian women with a pro-life vision… the true majority, who believe in the sanctity of human life, the sanctity of motherhood, and God’s ordained design for mankind through the family…”Judy Madsen is the Madsen of the June 30,1994 Supreme Court decision, Madsen v. Women’s Health Center Inc. which upheld the establishment of “buffer zones” around clinics.
When the staff at the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Tallahassee heard about plans for the press conference, they were outraged. Dr. Britton was their medical director; he had stepped forward to do abortions in Pensacola after Dr. Gunn’s murder, in addition to carrying on his responsibilities in Tallahassee. The Feminist Women’s Health Center and the local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) had organized a rally at the governor’s mansion August 4 and held a wake for Dr. Britton at the clinic a few days later.
The Health Center relies on people in the community for clinic defense, and it has a reputation as a place where anti-abortionists can’t get away with harassing women or doctors. Clinic director Brenda Joyner feels the antis can’t be allowed to go unchallenged.
At the press conference, Madsen tried to distance herself from Paul Hill and claimed she didn’t know Hill or John Burt. But to her surprise, Joyner and others spoke out and exposed her as having been arrested previously with John Burt’s wife at a clinic. The press conference was turned upside down as reporters began asking Madsen to comment on what Joyner had said, and it received wide coverage in the Florida press.
On Saturday, August 20, about a dozen KKKers, including some Nazi skinheads, marched on the Aware Woman Center for Choice in Melbourne. This clinic has been the target of many anti-abortion attacks since the first Operation Rescue training camp was held in the city in January 1993. Clinic owner Patricia Baird-Windle has been outspoken in her determination to fight the antis.
The KKKers were granted a permit for the demonstration and were heavily protected by local police. Operation Rescue members, who last year purchased a house across from Aware Woman as a staging ground, were out earlier with their usual signs attacking women but ducked inside when protesters used chants and agitation to link them to the KKK. One unusually candid “Kluker” stated: “I believe everyone has a right to be born; we’ll weed through them later.” A message on the Klan hot line in September stated that Paul Hill is a “hero.”
Many thousands of women and men must be mobilized to take action in support of the right of all women to safe and accessible abortions, to confront and stop the reactionaries, and to stand with those who are on the front lines. James Barrett and his wife June volunteered at the clinic after Dr. Gunn’s murder in March 1993. It was their job to escort Dr. Britton, Dr. Gunn’s replacement, from the airport to the clinic when he flew in each week to do abortions. June Barrett has continued to speak out courageously since the murder of her husband and Dr. Britton. She told a local Pensacola newspaper: “My husband died for the cause of a woman’s right to choose,” and said that she would continue to be a clinic escort. “I’m not going to sit back in a corner and not do anything. Somebody’s got to stand.”
Many people in Pensacola and elsewhere have echoed that sentiment. But to stand and do what is a big question. For many doctors who do abortions in Florida and elsewhere, bullet-proof vests and body armor are as necessary to their work today as surgical instruments. Many also have armed themselves for self defense. They are on the front lines of this war every day, and the pro-choice movement cannot allow them to stand there alone.
Calls to rely on President Clinton, new laws, and the police, have only succeeded in disarming and demobilizing much of the pro-choice and women’s movement. A few weeks before the murders, the clinic director at The Ladies Center had begged the FBI to pick up Hill, but the government refused to act. The police did nothing to stop Hill the day Britton and Barrett were killed. The clinic defense movement is full of examples of laws and police deployments being used, instead, against those who militantly defend women’s right to choose. Federal agencies will certainly seize on this opening to investigate and spy on pro-choice activists.
Immediately after the murders, some pro-choice forces called for “peace” and “reconciliation.” Others said there can be no reconciliation as long as women and abortion providers are being harassed and assaulted outside clinics and at their homes. Having defended clinics for many years, I share that view. Calling for “peace” in the face of these continuing attacks is like asking women and providers to lay their heads quietly on the chopping block.
Mary Lou Greenberg is a long-time revolutionary activist. She helped organize the first mass defense of abortion clinics against Operation Rescue in New York City in 1988 and has also defended clinics in Washington, D.C., Buffalo, and Minneapolis.