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SJCDC History

by Bob Rowell

The South Jersey Clinic Defense Coalition (SJCDC) has been in existence in various forms since 1989. The threat of the Webster Supreme Court case, as well as an escalation of racial segregationist-modeled blockades, prompted a large, growing pro-choice movement to mobilize and resist the politics of intimidation. The nationwide swelling of the ranks was reflective of the local build-up of abortion rights activists.

Before 1989, small numbers of people defended clinics. Some prominent folks in the movement went so far as to denounce defending clinics as a way of "stooping to their (anti's) level" and "making ourselves look just as bad." Fortunately, enough activists disregarded such nonsense and dedicated themselves to protecting the front lines. Locally, in 1987, Erica Straus and myself spent most Saturdays (and a few weekdays) with a camcorder, cameras, and a growing collection of data about the antis. Although it was very challenging to face significant numbers of the more fanatical breed of antis, other volunteers occasionally joined in. Several characters, who were later to become heavies in "Rescue", "Lambs" and other extremist groups were regulars and constantly trying to outdo the other fanatics.

Seeing was believing! After years of participating in pro-choice rallies, reading articles, and seeing an occasional snip of clinic harassment (or a terrorist bombing) on TV, I thought I had a clear picture of what the front lines were like. How wrong I was! I had sacrificed my favorite Saturday morning show Pee Wee's Playhouse and was accumulating experiences with characters infinitely more bizarre.

I was almost amused to see a grown man carry a full-sized trash can filled with doll parts that had the word 'SIN' painted on its side. Planted in the red painted doll parts was an American flag. I was amazed that this man was not institutionalized. The front lines presented a gold mine for any student interested in Psychopathology.

An anti-choice woman repeatedly asked, then inferred, that I was a gay man. In the next breath, she would accuse me of being responsible for 50% of the business at the clinic. I had difficulty imagining a supposed gay man impregnating over 60 women per month. Among the accusations and epithets directed at me: Agent of Satan, faggot, Satan's Lieutenant, disposer of medical waste, blood drinker, slave of feminists (this was before the rise of Rush Limbaugh), sodomite, whoremaster, recruiter for abortion (my perpetually graphic imagination had a field day with that one!), and my all time favorite....slayer of God!

There were so many legal infractions (mostly trespassing) that it seemed as though we lived in the courtroom. Eventually, it seemed routine for me to hear that their God loved me and hated me, in the same conversation. The same anti-choice people who issued threats against us would later attempt to convert us and proclaim feelings of love. Saturday mornings would never be the same again.

In November of 1987, our area was the site of the first blockade done in the name of "Operation Rescue." A stranger named Randall Terry (pre-suit/Gilligan look- alike time period) issued directives to the flock and granted interviews to the media. In response, dozens of volunteers arrived to show a visible opposition to anti-choice harassment and intimidation.

In July 1988, the second blockade in southern NJ occurred. The "rescue" spokespeople presented an unchallenged image of their movement as peaceful and "prayerful" ( whatever that means). But we knew that the blockades were hardly peaceful. Numerous assaults, threats, and other hostile acts were routinely part of "rescues" on a nation-wide level.

By April 1989, with our numbers growing, we were developing an attitude that was ready to issue a collective ENOUGH! We had advanced warning of the "National Day of Rescue" and decided to act. Due to the frustration of the prolonged hours of slow arrest procedures, a decision was made to create a human corridor at a local facility and physically keep the clinic open. The success of that day of resistance marked the birth of the local movement.

After the success of the SJCDC resistance effort in April 1989, we had become a movement better prepared for blockades, harassment, and media debate. Local efforts to prompt effective police procedures began to bear fruit. The police were not only accumulating experience, but found themselves victimized by assaults, verbal abuse, and false accusations. They developed swift and effective ways to end blockades.

The local clinic defense movement consisted of a diverse group of people. There were "soft" volunteers, who were usually quiet and passive. The "hardcores" tended to resist and counter all acts of harassment, including anti-choice verbal intrusions on patients. In late 1990 and early 1991, clinic defense efforts as well as police effectiveness ensured the opening of clinic doors within one hour of a blockade. During this time period, some of us increased our assistance to other clinic defenders outside the immediate area.

In addition to the local abortion rights groups, frontline support came from the South Jersey Campaign for Peace and Justice, student organizations, ACT UP/ Philadelphia, and the Unitarian Church. We revamped our leadership in 1991 in an attempt to create a more inclusive structure.

By 1993, both sides were significantly smaller than the days of frequent blockades. The March, 1993 murder of Dr. David Gunn resulted in an increase in vigilance and intelligence gathering. Antis announced that in July of 1993 the largest-ever blockades would shut down clinics in seven cities and surrounding areas for ten days. The "Cities of Refuge" prompted a nationwide call to resistance. In this region, we formed independent coalitions to counter the forthcoming invasion. Fortunately, "Cities of Refuge" was a total flop nationwide, and I'm proud to say that our local movement was a part of the successful resistance.

We have continued to network with other groups. We have long been siblings with the clinic defenders of Northeast Philadelphia, Central Jersey, Bill Baird (founder of the Pro Choice Defense League), and others. As the anti-choice movement (Defensive Action, Army of God, US Taxpayers Party, Missionaries To The Preborn) escalated it's murderous rhetoric , we have increased our efforts to collect information on the more extremist groups. It has been amazing to see how many so-called "pro-life moderates" eventually smiled and verbalized their support of violent anti-choice acts.

We have always been a movement of action. We got a law passed which makes it illegal to block clinic doors in Cherry Hill, and almost got one through at the state level. We've done fake clinic exposes, a Rededication Rally after the murders of Dr. John Britton and Col. James Barrett (1994), media campaigns, and reorganized as a fresh, independent organization, under the name of the South Jersey Clinic Defense Coalition. We organized a rally on October 14, 1995 in support of abortion providers, and in honor of Dr. George Dainoff for twenty years of outstanding and courageous service.

We are based at the South Jersey Women's Center, 1014 Haddonfield Rd., Cherry Hill, close to Chili's and Grady's (former location of the Greenbrier Inn), across from the Garden State Race Track. Clinic defense training is available Saturday mornings.

We administrate a WIN (Women In Need) Fund, which assists low-income and abused women to obtain an abortion. Every penny donated to SJCDC's WIN Fund goes to women who need the emergency funds. None of us draw a salary in SJCDC. We sustain our organization with the dedication, passion, and principles that built the local clinic defense movement.

[from a 1995 SJCDC newsletter article]

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