Niagara Gazette

January 21, 2013

PFEIFFER: 20 years later, a calmer tone to Roe vs. Wade decision -- at least in Buffalo

By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — I remember my photographer and I being pushed backward over a police barricade and nearly trampled by protestors.

I remember an Amherst Police officer reaching to put a pair of flex cuffs on me and place me under arrest. (Luckily, his lieutenant dragged me to a curb and kept me out of jail.)

Yeah, I remember the spring of 1992.

I remember the journalism hell that was the Spring of Life.

Several months after the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v Wade, Western New York became grond zero in America's war over abortion. 

Then Buffalo Mayor Jimmy Griffin, a conservative and devout Catholic, had been asked at a news conference around the Roe v Wade anniversary how he felt about the so-called "rescue movement," an agressive form of anti-abortion protest that focused on the human blockade of abortion clinics. Griffin, always a loose cannon on a rolling deck, replied that he would "welcome" members of the movement if they wanted to come here to protest.

It was just the opportunity that Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, and the chief proponent of clinic blockades, would need to stage the "mother of all anti-abortion protests." Joined by local anti-abortion crusaders the Reverends Robert and Paul Schenck, Terry called for pro-life protestors to rally here for 10 days in April and May.

Abortion rights activists responded by saying they would rally here as well, to defend the clinics. 

The battle lines were drawn and local police agencies and journalists would end up in the middle of the nation's ideological war.

I was working as an anchor and investigative reporter at News 4 Buffalo at the time. While the protests were an all hands on deck kind of event for our newsroom, a number of us were told to expect to bear the brunt of the coverage demands.

Local police agencies, lead by the Buffalo Police, attempted to met with both sides to establish some protest ground rules. No one believed either side would, ultimately, play by those rules.

The hours we worked to cover the protests were long. The rescue protestors would rally at a local church at 5 a.m. before heading out to te clinics.

Our reporter, photographer, producer teams at News 4 would arrive at the station at 4:30 a.m. and then head out to our assignments. There would be live reports on our morning, noon, 5, 5:30, and 6 p.m. newscasts.

The protests would generally wind down by late afternoon. On a good day, we would get out of the newsroom around 11:30 p.m., in time to get an average of three or four hours sleep.

The clinic defenders would surround those properties and shout at the protestors. The protestors would would come in waves, walking, or in some cases crawling, toward the clinics. 

In between were the police and us. 

Thankfully, with the exception of the Amherst Police, who arrested 20 journalists and photographers as they covered one of the days of protest, the law enforcement agencies were our allies. They tried to keep us safe at the same time they tried to keep the clinics open.

It wasn't easy. 

As for the protestors and clinic defenders, well, neither side was easy to deal with. The idea of a journalist attempting to give both sides of the protest story didn't play well with them.

They didn't much care about our "ethics", they preferred to administer idealogical cross examinations to us before deciding whether they'd talk to a reporter. If you told them you did not have a "view" on abortion, they became angry.

Toward the end of the protests, both side began to send "truth squads" around while reporters conducted interviews with their opponents. They woudl stand-by while you tried to interview a subject and then shout over them if they didn't like what they were saying.

I will admit, on the last day of the protests I melted down on two abortion rights activists who continually attempted to interrupt an interview I was conducting with an Operation Rescue spokesperson. I told them, in very colorful terms, what I thought of their cause and their actions.

I then wheeled around and told the person I was interviewing that the same applied to his people as well.

It was a low point in my professional career. Despite the stress brought on by a lack of sleep, being banged and bruised by protestors for 10 days and dealing with the demands of covering the story, I should have been better than that.

Twenty years removed from the protests now, nothing has changed. We remain a nation deeply and, probably forever, divided over the issue of abortion.

The Spring of Life was nothing more than a miserable footnote in this story.

Contact reporter Rick Pfeiffer at 282-2311, ext. 2252.