The recent occupation of Columbus City Hall grounds by Operation Save America was an unprecedented event, both for the city and OSA. Never in the history of this group, as far as we can determine, have they taken over such a public space for six days, twenty-four hours a day. In doing so they demonstrated exactly what we had written about them months before: that more than simply an anti-abortion and anti-gay group, they are, in the words of director Flip Benham, out to "kick the table over in the name of Jesus Christ and take over."
Fortunately for the rest of us, it isn't quite that simple. OSA, or as it was originally named, Operation Rescue, has long used abortion as a tactical vehicle, to give legitimacy to its underlying, dominionist purpose. By focusing on a matter of intimate, personal decision making, where personal preferences vary greatly across society, and then using their position as a method of gaining moral and political legitimacy, they, and similar organizations, have long used abortion as something of a proxy so as to receive a hearing in American secular society.
It has always been true that Operation Rescue, from its founding by Randall Terry, sought to use its particular interpretation of Biblical law as a basis for all governance at every level, far beyond the matter of abortion. Under director Flip Benham, they have at times broadened the focus of the activities of their yearly gathering to other targets, such as in Orlando, Florida in 1997 and 1998 when they targeted Disney World and Barnes and Noble bookstores. They have also demonstrated in front of government buildings, primarily the federal courts and Supreme Court, as recently as this past October.
We've heard some people ask, why did OSA pick City Hall to occupy? They had long planned to hold ceremonies at the physical presence in Columbus of three levels of government: local, state and federal. Their arrival, and reading of their "Emancipation Proclamation for the Unborn," was to be held at City Hall. A "memorial service" involving alleged fetal remains was to be held at the State House. Finally, the burning of six Supreme Court decisions that they consider to be "abominations before God" would have been held at the Federal Courthouse. Their original plan, then, would have placed them before government facilities at every level.
OSA ended up parked at City Hall twenty-four hours a day primarily because they were unable to obtain a host church in which to hold their rallies each evening. Two weeks before they were scheduled to arrive in Columbus, they announced that Smyrna Baptist Church, pastored by Fred Marshall, would be hosting these rallies and other meetings. They "lost" the use of this church days later, in part because we disclosed on our website, theanswerisno.org, that Marshall had been a participant in a Columbus appearance of Unification Church leader Sun Myung Moon a few years ago. Left without a host church, OSA scheduled its rallies at City Hall. As was reported elsewhere, days before their arrival, OSA's attorney determined that there were no regulations or laws that would prohibit OSA from occupying City Hall grounds for this entire period, nor would a permit be necessary. Thus, OSA was able to invade and occupy the seat of Columbus city government, symbolically gaining for themselves a beachhead in what they perceive as a hostile, "sick city" - and that government could do nothing about it.
Biblical American activist groups such as OSA often search for exactly such loopholes, here unique to City Hall grounds. OSA would discover, ironically, that there were certain disadvantages to having taken their place in a "public square," the same "square" from which they've often falsely alleged their Christianity is actively being ejected. Having no exclusive claim to City Hall grounds, anyone could stand up on those same grounds and object to their presence and their messages. Unlike the usual church service, an ongoing challenge to OSA's propaganda could be successfully mounted every night of the week, and at four midday events, since they could not enforce the usual churchly standards of conduct. That challenge would take the form of what we call a "defusionary" strategy, to blunt and hopefully neutralize the lasting effect that OSA hoped to have on the city of Columbus.
The challenge that a group like Operation Save America poses to the city of Columbus is not primarily from the OSA participants themselves, who come from all over the country and who come together at least once a year for something of a dysfunctional reunion of a "family" born out of mass arrests in the late 1980's and early 1990's. What OSA provides is a method of organizing, of gathering together churches and individuals in a particular city over the long term against the targets that they name. OSA leaders hope to leave behind churches and activists who obsessively fixate on everything that happens at women's clinics in their city, and from that organizing branch out into political and other forms of local activism against other targets, including the gay community, and recently, the Muslim community.
One example of how OSA's organizing has played out over the long term can be seen in Wichita, Kansas. There, in 1991, Operation Rescue mounted a six-week siege of clinics, and through that period of street activity and over one thousand arrests a whole cohort of people were brought on board to continue this activity, eventually in some cases founding churches. In July 2001, a smaller week-long event organized by OSA as a "renewal" of the events of a decade before attracted a much smaller group, a handful of arrests, and about a dozen local churches who were willing to be identified as supporters of OSA's activities by signing the so-called "Emancipation Proclamation."
The fallout from the 1991 siege, along with other trends, could be seen through the intervening decade. Kansas politics has taken a sharp term to the right, and beyond, spawning the careers of politicians openly promoting a "Biblical American" agenda such as U.S. Senator Sam Brownback. One of Wichita's abortion providers was shot in his arms in 1993, and the city's clinics have been under a constant onslaught of militant activity, from arrested trespassers to the actions of the state Attorney General. In 1996, a pastor of one of Wichita's largest churches took to the floor of the Kansas House of Representatives and offered a prayer deriding pluralism, multiculturalism and "alternative lifestyles." That same pastor was seen on the street, hobnobbing with OSA's leaders, during the 2001 event.
We believe an effective strategy that can be used to deal with an OSA visit to any city should focus on undercutting the development of any possible local support for OSA, particularly when little support already exists. Should local supporters gain a foothold through the kinds of mass activity that OSA organizes, that support might develop into a long-term problem for communities in that city, and beyond.
Here in Columbus, the "local" organizing for OSA's visit was handled by Minutemen United, the group founded by former high school football coach turned radio talk-show host, Dave Daubenmire. While the Minutemen claim 40 to 50 members, only a few of those who participated live within a twenty minute drive of Columbus; apparently, most are members of a "Coshocton chapter" of the Minutemen based at New Beginnings Church of God in Warsaw, well over an hour's drive away from Columbus. A rally in protest of gay marriage held in Coshocton by the Minutemen at noontime on the Friday before OSA's arrival attracted about a hundred local participants.
With such weak visible and local support in Columbus, despite Minutemen United's claim of having contacted 400 local churches, OSA was in essence a group of outsiders, invading and occupying City Hall grounds in defiance of local communities. One of the most popular signs we created for use in "Saying No To OSA" was a simple picture of the Columbus skyline, captioned, "No... OSA Can't Have It." The response of OSA to this line of opposition was anemic, and stayed that way through the week.
When local pastors, named as "gatekeepers of the city," were invited to sign the so-called "Emancipation Proclamation," only three individuals came forward. One was unidentified. Another was a pastor who when later questioned would only give his first name, Jerry, and who insisted that his church would not support his involvement with OSA. The third pastor was Bill Dunfee, from the Warsaw church hosting the Coshocton chapter of the Minutemen, who could not by any reasonable standard be considered "local" to Columbus. Later in the week, two of the very few Columbus residents involved with OSA were reduced to carrying signs proudly insisting that they were in fact locals.
Another aspect of our strategy for deterring OSA focused on not only exposing them as outsiders and invaders, but as people intent on, and a group with a history of, disrupting small businesses, particularly on High Street in the vicinity of Stonewall. This understanding of their intent is not based on speculation, but on direct experience and their own statements. In December 1997, we witnessed a group of OSA participants invading a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Melbourne, Florida, confronting customers inside the store, placing tracts in books and reshelving them, and loudly protesting their eventual removal from the store by local police. This kind of activity was repeated at other Barnes and Noble locations in 1998 and 1999, and more recently, OSA staged an action against a "psychic reader" in Dallas in October 2003.
We designed a "Business Preparation Kit" that consisted of a list of a few common-sense suggestions for dealing with OSA should they target a business, and a sign. Key suggestions on the list included "Set a boundary around your business beforehand, and enforce it" and "no further discussion or debate with OSA participants is ever necessary... A firm "no" is a complete sentence and will not be misunderstood by them as an invitation for further debate." With the help of Stonewall Columbus and other volunteers, this kit was distributed to many businesses, particularly along High Street in the Short North through the Garden District. By Monday morning, dozens of shops, bars and restaurants along High Street had posted the enclosed sign: "This Business Says NO To Operation Save America."
One of the things that OSA is working to its advantage is that most people have never seen what they do on the street, when they are out in front of a clinic or other business that they've targeted. This element of surprise works in OSA’s favor, because most people, it appears, have seldom if ever seen such a thing and don't know how to react. Responses range from over-the-top hostility to acquiescence. By informing potential targets in advance, and even entire neighborhoods, what kinds of things they can expect, and how to best deal with them, and providing a sign that reflects this preparation, the element of surprise is eliminated. As a result, there were no reports of OSA participants ever setting foot on High Street, despite the fact that OSA leaders named Stonewall and other businesses nearby as targets in the weeks leading up to their arrival.
We often hear from people who ask, "Why don't you just ignore them?" Ignoring OSA participants allows them to continue to believe that no one has heard their message. At the same time, engaging them on their own terms is what they want, and encourages them to return for more interaction. We suggested something of a hybrid approach: know what they are and what they're promoting, indicate that to them, and finish the interaction with a firm "NO." This is a clear response, that takes their position from a stance of claimed moral indignation to a stance of not taking no for an answer.
After awhile, it becomes clear that those who hold an agenda like that of OSA really don't know what to do when someone, or worse for them, whole communities stand up and clearly reject them. We heard this response from Flip Benham one morning, following an hour-long protest in front of United Way headquarters:
"When you get an opportunity, I want you to go down High Street... And you're gonna see in the homosexual section of this town, you're gonna see a whole bunch of signs on windows everywhere. It's amazing to me... You wanna see some intolerance, drive down High Street and you'll see it. They don't want you here, they don't want to hear what you have to say, and as a matter of fact if they could they'd shut you up, and as a matter of fact if the truth be known they'll lock you up, and if they can lock you up they'll kill you, and that's comin' one day."
A few days later, we had a brief conversation with Benham, when I pointed out to him that the actual point at which we differ is on the matter of pluralism. He insisted that pluralism is not a stable state of affairs, that somebody is always going to be out to take over everything, and that in America those that must take over and guard against anyone else taking over must be Christians like himself.
Two weeks after OSA's departure, Dave Daubenmire presented, on his radio program, his take on this matter. After reading a few verses of Numbers 22, he commented: "Can anybody say, America, 2004? [We're] getting poked in the eye, vexed in the side, because we have not driven out the inhabitants, the evil inhabitants of the land."
There's no question, they're still coming to take over. The only uncertainty is, how far will they go, and what will they do, when those who understand the value of peaceably getting along with others despite differences of conscience, belief and personal preference stand up and insist that their answer to the Flip Benhams and Dave Daubenmires of the world, is "No."
Mike Doughney and Lauren Sabina Kneisly are oppositional researchers who have studied Operation Save America and the evangelical Christian subculture for seven years. They operate the "Biblical America Resistance Front" website at www.barf.org and a website that has focused on this summer's Columbus events, at www.theanswerisno.org.
Originally published on the website of the Columbus Free Press