WASHINGTON — Not many organizations highlight their annual gatherings with updates on members subpoenaed by federal grand juries or tearful readings of letters from those who could not attend--because they are behind bars on charges ranging from murder to arson.
But there was little that was ordinary about the "White Rose Banquet" on Sunday in a somewhat down-at-the-heels motel in Arlington, Va.
Staged in the shadow of the annual march on Washington by mainstream anti-abortion activists on the anniversary of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling, the White Rose event was attended by most of the nation's leading anti-abortion extremists, who gathered to pay homage to their movement's "prisoners of conscience."
First among the absent honorees was Paul Hill, who has been sentenced to death for the 1994 shotgun killing of an abortion doctor and his escort in Pensacola, Fla.
The evening's central message was blunt: Honor those who kill abortion doctors. "The just sanction for the capital crime of abortion, as with any other murder, is death," stated the banquet's program.
The dinner--attended by a sold-out crowd of more than 100 activists--suggested that support for anti-abortion violence has been undiminished by an ongoing federal investigation of whether there is a nationwide conspiracy behind it.
Five people have been killed and at least seven wounded in anti-abortion shootings since 1993, prompting the Clinton administration to create a Justice Department task force on anti-abortion violence, with the FBI leading the criminal investigations. A federal grand jury in nearby Alexandria has been working with the Justice Department to determine whether the government can establish links between the scattered shootings and firebombings of abortion clinics.
So far, most U.S. officials are skeptical that there is a nationwide conspiracy. But they say they could uncover smaller, regional networks of extremists responsible for violence on a local level.
The Alexandria grand jury continues its work and has become a major hindrance to cooperation among anti-abortion activists. Many leaders do not want to be seen with militants who might be targets of a grand jury, and philosophical debates over the use of violence to end abortion dominate nearly every anti-abortion meeting.
The violence issue has, in fact, left the militant wing of the anti-abortion movement badly divided; Operation Rescue leaders, including founder Randall Terry and current director Flip Benham, refused to attend Sunday's banquet.
But there were no signs of disagreement among those who made the trip. Instead, there was an attitude of open defiance, marked by jokes about the clumsy mistakes made by clinic arsonists leading to their arrests.
One prominent guest was New Hampshire anti-abortion militant Andrew Cabot, whose former fiancee, Cheryl Richardson, is in jail in Virginia for contempt of court for refusing to testify about his activities. Last year, Cabot called John C. Salvi III, also from New Hampshire, a "hero" after Salvi was charged with killing two people and wounding five others in shootings at two suburban Boston clinics that performed abortions.
Sponsored by the unaffiliated Reformation Lutheran Church of Bowie, Md.--whose lay minister, Michael Bray, spent nearly four years in prison for the bombings of 10 abortion clinics--the banquet was attended by several activists who had signed a petition circulated by Paul Hill endorsing the killing of doctors as "justifiable homicide." Included among them were some of the leaders of the American Coalition for Life Activists, which has emerged as the main political rival to Operation Rescue among anti-abortion activists.
Advocates of abortion rights said Sunday's dinner should serve as a warning that anti-abortion violence is not about to disappear.
"People think that because there hasn't been a murder this year, violence is gone," said Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation in Washington. "But there is still a group of people who believe that burning down clinics and shooting doctors is the way they should be proceeding, and it's somewhat frightening."