Web Exclusive: Operation DNC
It wasn't until after the 1988 Democratic National Convention that presidential nominee Michael Dukakis faced growing numbers of protesters heckling him about his stance on social issues.
Several days after he left Atlanta, a group of about 100 anti-abortion protesters interrupted Dukakis on his way to Sunday mass. They gathered outside the church, chanting: "Hey Mike, what do you say? How many babies killed today?"
At a January 2008 rally in New Hampshire, a small contingent of anti-abortion protesters interrupted current presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama during a speech. Again, they chanted. This time: "Abortion is an Obama-nation."
For the DNC in Denver, protestors have announced plans to encircle the convention grounds in prayer and engage in other traditional forms of civil disobedience. For months, local pro-choice organizations and their counterparts at the national levels have been developing strategies for how best to mitigate the expected convention chaos.
Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, in particular, has had practice. Colorado Right to Life and other religious groups regularly pray, chant, and picket as close to Planned Parenthood clinics as the law will allow (100 feet, according to Colorado statute). But during the recent construction of its brand-new health center and administrative headquarters in the Stapleton neighborhood of Denver, Planned Parenthood became the target of some of the most vehement and visible protests in Colorado to date.
A group called the Collaborators Project, led by 25-year-old Will Duffy of Lakewood, set up camp almost daily outside the chain-link-fenced construction site. But even that activity wasn't considered out of the ordinary. It was the group's extension of its consternation to those actually building the facility that seemed to write a new chapter in the pro-life playbook.
Duffy declared it his personal mission to make a "national example" of the Weitz Corporation, which was the lead contractor for the $6.3 million Stapleton center. His Collaborators Project spent weekends and holidays, including Thanksgiving, Super Bowl Sunday, and the Fourth of July, on the sidewalks and streets outside the homes of Weitz's corporate executives. Collaborators Project volunteers toted bullhorns, video cameras, and graphic signs. A "truth truck" (borrowed from a national anti-abortion group) plastered with pictures of aborted fetuses and the words "Weitz Co. takes blood money to build abortion mills" patrolled the executives' suburban neighborhoods. Duffy publicized the names, phone numbers and addresses of company officials via Web postings and YouTube videos.
Like Burton's personhood amendment, the Collaborators Project has proven extremely controversial, even among pro-lifers. In fact, it was Colorado Senate Republicans who introduced legislation to restrict protests at private residences, in direct response to Collaborators Project actions.
"Home protests are looked at very negatively, and of course they would be. Who wants to be protested at their home?" Duffy allows. "But you really need to go for the jugular when you're trying to stop something as great as abortion in this country."
Throughout the process, Planned Parenthood has maintained its long-standing policy of nonengagement with detractors, says Leslie Durgin, senior vice president for community development for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains (PPRM). "Having said that, we were still surprised by some of the tactics, because every week it felt like it was something new and different," she says. While residential protests are routine on the abortion-protest circuit, "it was much more intense here."
Even before Will Duffy came onto the scene, the Stapleton building was designed with security cameras, an extra-long driveway, tall gates, and lush landscaping, amounting to "enormously increased privacy for clients, for doctors, for volunteers, and for staff," Durgin says.
Both PPRM and Weitz hired extra security to keep workers safe during the construction process. And Weitz steadfastly refused to back out of the project, despite threats of satellite protests of its offices and even its other clients around the country.
"I have nothing but praise for Weitz," Durgin says. "The targeted attempts at contractors and their neighbors' homes to force them off the job failed totally."
Although the PPRM headquarters opened in early July, ahead of schedule and below budget, Duffy still claims victory. He says new chapters of the Collaborators Project are springing up in other states, including Oregon, where anti-abortion pressure caused one contractor to pull out of a construction bid for Planned Parenthood in Portland.
"The motto I live by is do right and risk the consequences," Duffy says. "And I think it's very effective."
Flip Benham has widely praised Will Duffy and the Collaborators Project. As early as January, Benham's group, Operation Save America/Operation Rescue (OSA/OR), was making plans to include Weitz and its Denver-area clients in its protest plans for the 2008 DNC. Benham succeeded Randall Terry as OSA/OR's national leader. It was Terry who christened and led the pro-life "siege of Atlanta" in 1988 under the banner of Operation Rescue. Terry left the organization in the late 1990s.
Benham was in Atlanta with other Christians in 1988, but he didn't take part in the anti-choice protests. But it was a pivotal moment for him.
"I promised the Lord that if I could do anything I would," he says.
Unlike the scattered low-key picketing Atlanta clinics had experienced in the past, that summer Operation Rescue showcased an entirely new level of zeal. And a willingness to break the law. By the hundreds, Operation Rescue crusaders, singing "Amazing Grace" and "We Shall Overcome," physically blocked doors to clinics, forcing police to drag them away. They used heavy-duty padlocks to link themselves together and to the handrails outside the clinics. Some group members were spotted carrying an aborted fetus they claimed they had found, according to newspaper reports. Many who were arrested wore two sets of clothing, despite the intense heat, in an attempt to foil identification efforts by law enforcement.
Benham says OSA/OR is committed to peaceful demonstration during the 2008 DNC, but he does not rule out civil disobedience as an effective tool for the advancement of pro-life principles. He has been arrested dozens of times. He arrives in the Centennial State this summer a few short weeks after traveling to Atlanta with other anti-abortion protestors to commemorate the protests of 1988.
"Listen, God has given the platform to the state of Colorado.... God himself is orchestrating this, and he is raising up people that are far different, and they will not be controlled by anyone but the Lord himself."