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COUNTDOWN TO THE GOP CONVENTION

Officials Brace for Protests Over Abortion

Rallies: San Diego mayor warns that police will not tolerate illegal demonstrations. But Operation Rescue says it won't be intimidated.

August 06, 1996|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Mayor Susan Golding said Monday that if anti-abortion protesters attempt blockades at abortion clinics during next week's Republican National Convention here, police will act "swiftly and decisively" and may use the controversial tactic called "pain compliance."

But leaders of Operation Rescue, one of the nation's most aggressive anti-abortion groups, said they would not be deterred by the threat of arrest or the possibility that police will use a martial arts weapon called a nunchaku to inflict pain on protesters who refuse to move away from clinics or doctors' homes.

"If the San Diego police want the world to see them torturing Christians who are trying to save babies, then shame on them," said Troy Newman, head of Operation Rescue's San Diego County branch.

At a news conference called to discuss security issues for the convention, which starts Monday, Golding said, "We welcome everyone having the chance to exercise their right to free speech." But she added that if anti-abortion activists "move beyond that to inhibit others from being able to exercise their rights, we will take action, very swiftly and decisively."

Golding's declaration came amid rising tension between the two sides in the abortion controversy, which have been girding for possible conflict during the convention.

The mayor also announced that California Highway Patrol officers will assist San Diego police in keeping order during the convention. Although declining to provide details, Golding said that, in response to the bombing at the Olympics in Atlanta, San Diego officials have decided to increase security at "all public sites in [the city] for the convention."

Operation Rescue members staged protests at abortion clinics during the 1992 GOP convention in Houston. A slow and equivocal response by local authorities was later blamed by the abortion rights movement for encouraging the protests to intensify in the city during the convention and afterward.

For this year's GOP gathering, Operation Rescue leaders opted not to use the official "protest zone" set aside across the street from the convention hall and have mocked the whole idea of such a site.

Operation Rescue has announced it will hold nightly rallies during the four-day convention at a church in nearby Lemon Grove, as well as daily "street activities."

"I can't rule out the possibility of sit-ins or rescues," said Jeff White, California director of Operation Rescue. "Sit-ins are an honorable form of American protest."

Representatives of Planned Parenthood and other health clinics that provide abortions met recently with San Diego police, local prosecutors and the U.S. attorney's office to request "100% enforcement" of federal and local laws protecting abortion clinics.

A federal law makes it a crime to block access to a clinic offering reproductive health services. A local ordinance requires protesters to stay eight feet away from employees or clients entering or leaving a clinic.

Another local ordinance makes it illegal to picket in front of a doctor's home. And court injunctions remaining from previous clashes require protesters to stay 100 feet or more from certain San Diego clinics.

"We're definitely prepared for whatever might happen," said Ashley Phillips, chief executive officer of WomanCare, a clinic that has been targeted for protests in the past.

Like many big cities, San Diego has seen its share of abortion protesters. In the late 1980s, dozens were arrested while attempting to block the entrances to WomanCare and other clinics. Faced with demonstrators who went limp and refused to move, police used nunchakus.

A nunchaku, which is illegal for anyone other than police to possess, consists of two 12-inch plastic rods connected by 4 inches of braided nylon cord. When applied to the wrist or arm and given a twist, a nunchaku can cause intense pain that is intended to force protesters to move under their own power.

The rationale for using nunchakus is that carrying or dragging protesters could lead to injuries, particularly back injuries, among police officers. Anti-abortion protesters called the weapons cruel, but San Diego courts upheld their use as appropriate.

San Diego police, with the blessing of the City Council, carry nunchakus as part of their everyday gear. San Diego is one of the few departments to use them; the Los Angeles Police Department does not.

San Diego Police Chief Jerry Sanders said Monday that if protesters block access, trespass or otherwise break the law, police officers will first ask them to leave voluntarily.

"We will do everything we can to avoid arrests," Sanders said. "But if we need to, we will arrest people. We give officers the tools they need."

Asked about using pain compliance on anti-abortion protesters, Golding, who supports keeping abortion legal, said: "If they violate the law, the Police Department will take whatever action they deem necessary."

Abortion clinics have been training hundreds of volunteers to help keep clinics open if they are the targets of sit-ins or blockades.

Operation Rescue is arranging motel rooms for followers coming from out of town.

"We're going to pull out all stops to expose the evil of abortion," Newman said. "We're going to show the gruesome truth about abortion in the streets of San Diego."

One reason the health clinics are determined to stay open despite protests is a belief that to shut down, even for a brief time, would lead to additional protests.

"The experience nationally," said abortion rights attorney Cynthia Thornton, "is that when you shut down, you cause the protesters to declare victory and escalate things."

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