On the day before Easter, residents of one Palos Verdes Estates street were startled to find anti-abortion protesters marching through their placid neighborhood, toting a banner reading "Palos Bloody Verdes."
The protesters had come to picket the home of a doctor whom they claim performs abortions. Weeks later, that protest continues to fuel an emotional discourse over anti-abortion tactics, and how government should respond, in the unlikely setting of the peaceful green hills and wending lanes of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Operation Rescue of California, which organized the protest, has acquired names and addresses of 10 other doctors, primarily Torrance obstetricians, who live in the four peninsula cities. The group promises to return soon to picket some or all of those doctors' homes.
It also plans to test the anti-picketing ordinance of one city, Palos Verdes Estates, by sending in groups of pickets to see how police respond. Ordinances such as these restrict free speech, the anti-abortion activists say.
"Let's face it. They're trying for nothing less than our total silence," said Jeff White, state director of Operation Rescue.
Those who support abortion rights are gearing up, too. The National Organization for Women's Palos Verdes/South Bay chapter is asking its members to lobby for laws restricting picketing of homes in other cities. And NOW leaders have written Palos Verdes Estates Police Chief Gary Johansen, chiding him for not enforcing the city ordinance when the 150 anti-abortion protesters picketed three weeks ago.
"We are essentially having a woman's right to choose rendered meaningless because they're refusing to enforce the law," said Deborah Blair-Porter, an official of the NOW chapter.
Meanwhile, a new group called Women and Children First-South Bay has decided to launch a petition drive in support of the doctors targeted by Operation Rescue, said a group spokeswoman, Anneka Davidson of Rancho Palos Verdes.
Both sides claim their rights are being abridged--either by the arrival of picket signs in residential neighborhoods, or by laws seeking to block those pickets.
This tug-of-war mirrors the division now apparent in Sacramento, where a bill to limit picketing is being championed by abortion-rights activists and sharply criticized by unions and civil libertarians.
In the South Bay, the debate is centered in Palos Verdes Estates, a small city with a hefty median household income of $101,320 that ranks it fourth in Los Angeles County.
Home to a number of physicians, the city has been swept into the ongoing "No Place to Hide" campaign, which features anti-abortion picketing outside the homes and offices of doctors said to perform abortions. Aimed at discouraging doctors from performing the procedure, the tactic sparked criticism last month when a Florida doctor was shot and killed during a protest sponsored by another group.
Operation Rescue staged the April 10 protest outside the Palos Verdes Estates home of Dr. Myung Rha, who describes himself as a family practitioner who performs abortions infrequently. Rha said his family was frightened by the pickets, and he wanted police to step in.
"The police, they didn't do anything," Rha said.
"If it was the police officers' families that were being terrorized by these people, it wouldn't be allowed," Blair-Porter said.
Chief Johansen has said police did not enforce the ordinance because the demonstrators, whom he said carried video cameras and were accompanied by a lawyer, appeared to be trying to provoke arrests. An Operation Rescue spokeswoman said no lawyer was present.
Michael C. Moody, the Palos Verdes Estates mayor, said he thinks the police acted appropriately, since protesters seemed to be "pushing" the city.
"The homeowner was not directly disturbed. His driveway was gated. It's a rather long driveway. Oftentimes, discretion is the better part of valor," Moody said. Nonetheless, the city plans to review its ordinance and fine-tune it if needed, Moody said.
"When we have outsiders deliberately coming in to cause trouble, whatever we can do to stop this is warranted," he said.
Palos Verdes Estates City Manager Jim Hendrickson also defended the police, saying they did "a wonderful job of defusing a very volatile situation."
Hendrickson said that although the city is comfortable with its current ordinance, the city attorney is studying if mandating a distance between pickets and a private home would make it easier to enforce the ordinance.
The ordinance, which now prohibits picketing "before or about the residence or dwelling of any individual," was adopted in 1990 when animal-rights protesters were expected to picket the home of County Supervisor Deane Dana, who lives in the city, officials said. Defying the ordinance is considered a minor infraction, carrying a fine of not more than $100 for the first offense.
White says he believes police did not crack down on Operation Rescue pickets for one reason: "It was too big a group for them to harass."