The row of black-robed priests stood on the sidewalk behind police barricades as the abortion marchers drew near. Some priests held crosses, one a communion cup, and all fixed determined eyes on the thousands who oozed past them on Pennsylvania Avenue. In return came the yells from the marchers: "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!" "Separation of church and state!"
April 25 was a glorious day for hundreds of thousands of men and women flaunting pro-abortion signs, buttons, and T-shirts. The presence of politicians and movie stars had attracted some, but so had basic organizing work by determined (and sometimes paranoid) volunteers. Here's a view from inside the belly of the beast.
Friday, March 26
NARAL (The National Abortion Rights Action League) is like KFC: It doesn't like to spell out its initials very often, since "abortion" and "fried" both engender opposition. So 30 days before the march the NARAL Pro-Choice America "Pro-Choice Action Center" was ramping up for the march after a year of planning with six other abortion groups.
NARAL officials had picked a visible corner shop to be its center for canvassing, goading, and galvanizing members and other followers into marching. The storefront glass windows at 1119 F St. NW, across from the Metro Center stop, look out on a high-traffic commuter hub. I walked in on a sunny Friday afternoon to get a look from the inside as a "volunteer." Vesta, a 30-ish woman with brown hair, sat at a welcome table inside the doors: She was the center's manager, and also an Iranian whose family had moved to America when she was 9 years old. "Can I help you?" she asked in a chirpy voice.
Inside the center, with its terracotta-orange walls and purple pillars, three people were busy tapping at computers. Rally posters reminded them why they should give their hours: One had a fake snapshot of a newspaper front page picturing a Supreme Court justice and the headline, "Abortion Outlawed!" Another had a red pixel-dot outline of a woman's curved body and one word-"Mine." Vesta explained why the march was important. "We're under attack," she said. "It's not just about abortion, it's about birth control."
I gave my real name and later my affiliation-WORLD magazine reporter-but that did not set off any of Vesta's alarms. What did was my word usage: "Do you have a march every year?" I asked. "I know the pro-life people have theirs in January-"
For a second, Vesta froze.
She hiked her eyebrows and cocked her head. "Anti-choice," she corrected, flexing each syllable slowly.
She said I could help by volunteering for the phone banks on Wednesday evening, calling D.C. NARAL members.
Wednesday, March 31
Five evenings later the center was abuzz with voices. About 12 young women jabbed at telephone buttons, calling dozens of Washington residents and persuading them to come to the march (and volunteer, too, if they sounded friendly). An action center intern, Lisa, handed out marching orders as volunteers arrived. Each received a phone-number list and a telephone script for explaining the rally's purpose: "We're marching on Washington to let anti-choice policymakers know that we will not allow them to rollback [sic] our reproductive rights."
Volunteers sat at three telephone tables. One regular crowed to almost every new arrival about the ACLU protest she'd attended that afternoon, where demonstrators had improvised on the Baha Men's rhythmic hit. "Who let the jobs out?" she chanted. "Bush, Bush, Bush, Bush!" A
fast-talking volunteer named Aimee swept in wearing a wool coat festooned with pro-choice, anti-Bush buttons. She plowed through her phone list, bellowing, "You're never too old to care about freedom of choice! Never!" after reaching several elderly citizens who claimed age as a reason for skipping the march.
NARAL's mission statement hung above Aimee's head, as did this battle cry in green marker: "The erosion of reproductive rights ends now. This is the day that the anti-choice leadership begins to crumble." But phone banking was a low-yield business. Most contacts were not home, or were more angry about disrupted dinners than attacks on "reproductive rights."
Sunday, April 4
Twenty-one days until the march, declared the countdown clipboard, and the center was having a four-hour grassroots training session to equip would-be activists. Intern Lisa, with soft green eyes and an even softer voice, had estimated 20 would come. Only about 15 showed up, a third of them NARAL employees leading the training. This time the crowd was split between aging feminists and young women, with one man present, and all present to learn crowd and phone-canvassing skills.
One particular emphasis: Avoid wasting time talking with pro-lifers. I asked a volunteer leader, Shannon, if she had ever gotten into a discussion about abortion with one of those people. "I don't like having them," she said. "They make me mad. For the most part I find arguing with people who are vehemently pro-life [difficult] because they think it's a life, no matter how small, and there's really no way to change someone's fundamental belief in that. It's not my fundamental belief ... if I thought it was a life too, I probably wouldn't want to do it."
Thursday, April 15
Only 10 days to the march: The action center finally lived up to its name as staffers flung the glass doors open that night for passers-by to see the bustling assembly lines. Almost 30 volunteers stood elbow-to-elbow, pasting together NARAL signs-"It's Your Choice ... Not Theirs" in snazzy yellow and purple-for marchers to carry. The drill: Peel the three adhesive strips off one sign. Stick the cardboard tube handle in the middle. Shunt to the next table, where another volunteer would align and paste on the back, "Who Decides?"
The record going into the previous night was four volunteers in 1 5 hours assembling 500 placards. Media interest on Wednesday energized the sign-makers: A Newsweek photographer snapped shots from 4 p.m. onwards, followed by local television crews and other reporters. Already stuffed with boxes now, the center was running out of space as assembled signs stacked up. Trucks arrived to take them away, and volunteers with throbbing fingertips and paper cuts made more.
Friday, April 23
With 20,000 signs completed two days earlier, the center was welcoming marchers arriving from all over the country. Only staff members and two volunteers remained, selling piles of T-shirts and buttons and pointing tourists to related weekend activities. They joked around, glad for the reprieve from days of activity-but another kind of tension was building. Two strangers hung inside the doors, beefy men in suits. They were ex-marines and security guards, hired by NARAL for the last two days to oust any potential pro-life troublemakers.
Vesta was the most antsy about an attack. "I wonder if we're going to get bombed today," she said one morning close to the march. That night she castigated volunteers for leaving scissors and knives in plain view. "Anyone can pick them up and stab you." She then complained about the Pentagon to one of the security guards, much to the chagrin of fellow staffer Lisa. "I don't see why we should be antagonizing him. He's a gun-toting Republican."
Not finished, Vesta moved on to President Bush's faith. "He says he has a line to the Almighty. Osama bin Laden says that. I'm from Iran-you don't mix politics with religion."
She tried to reassure herself and others that physical assaults from anti-choicers on the day of the march were unlikely: "They won't, because they'll get arrested. They're just crazy."
Sunday, April 25
Marchers who had volunteered to help hours before the step-off traded horror stories about what to expect. "A pro-lifer bit a NARAL volunteer a couple of days ago," said one NARAL devotee from Oregon. Another local had heard that a man was arrested for "displaying a fetus in a jar. They'll stop at nothing."
After the march began, the appearance of some pro-life counter-protesters riled the marchers, but one marcher offered a service to those coming up next: He displayed a diamond-shaped yellow road sign, warning, "Dangerous Fanatics Ahead." Other marchers filtered through the Pennsylvania Avenue barricades and surrounded pro-lifers with NARAL and Planned Parenthood placards.
One enterprising pro-life protester jogged down the sidewalk in pursuit of the marchers, holding a sign saying that she still regretted her abortion from 13 years ago. Spotting two young women sporting Planned Parenthood's fuchsia-pink feather boas and signs, the pro-lifer saw her opportunity to persuade. "Margaret Sanger was a racist!" she shouted. They listened. "Who's that?" asked one, turning to her friend. "I don't know."